This weekend, the curtain will rise on Santa Clara Showtime as it has for the last 35 year and it will be time for the annual trip to Doomstown — Santa Clara’s parallel universe, perennially assailed by every kind of villainy from arson to white slavery, but where unblemished virtue always triumphs over unadulterated villainy.
For many years Showtime was synonymous with its creator Cleo Stuckrath, a diminutive woman who achieved towering accomplishments anyone could if they just put their minds to it. And she remains so famous that, like Beyonce, she only needs one name.
From 1979 until a few years before her death in 2014 Cleo wrote, produced and directed the annual Showtime production to raise money for health services at the Santa Clara Senior Center. She founded the Santa Clara Women’s League to manage the fundraiser, which, in addition to the melodrama, includes a variety show, silent auction and raffle.
Despite her obvious talent for organization, she was frequently heard to say, “I don’t know if I’m afoot or on horseback,” in the thick of Showtime production.
Tap Dancing, Community Journalism and Ukuleles
Cleo’s willingness to take on any enterprise was nothing less than astonishing.
She directed a ukulele band, taught tap dancing, served on the Santa Clara’s Senior Citizen’s Advisory Commission, created ”The Dancing Grandparents” — a group that performed for free at area retirement and nursing homes — scheduled entertainment for the Art & Wine festival, hosted campaign events and organized imaginative fundraisers for community groups.
Cleo was also a community journalist, writing human interest stories and the popular Cleo’s Corner community news column for successive Santa Clara newspapers, including The Santa Clara Weekly.
As a journalist, she rubbed shoulders with many of the biggest names in California politics including George Dukmejian, Norm Mineta, and Jerry Brown. She toured Hearst Castle, with William Randolph Hearst himself as the tour guide.
Born in Des Moines, IA, Cleo and her family came to California “with all the other farmers,” to work in shipyards during WWII, she told me in 2005 interview when she was 85 and received a California Governor’s award for community service.
Before settling in Santa Clara in 1960, Cleo and her late husband Ed followed Ed’s naval career all over the world. When they moved to Santa Clara, where Ed worked for HP, they purchased the house she lived in for the rest of her life and raised four children.
Her writing career began in high school in Des Moines when she won a department store copywriting contest. When the couple was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Cleo covered navy base news for the Waukegan News Sun.
Cleo started writing for the Santa Clara newspapers after her children grew up.
“They paid five dollars writing neighborhood news. I knew a few people, and then I just started going a few places. They let me write two or three big pages, anything I wanted to write. They liked it and I liked it and so I wrote more. When I got into the world I loved it.”
In addition to her column, Cleo wrote about interesting people who crossed her path: a church organist who was also a rejoneador — female bullfighter; an aging movie star, who, like Norma Desmond in the movie Sunset Boulevard, lived on her memories; and even “Hippie Drug Addicts Take Over Haight Ashbury.”
“That was great stuff to write about,” Cleo said in 2005. “I just loved talking to people. Everybody had something interesting to write about.”
Her advice to aspiring journalists was simple: Go everywhere you’re invited and put everyone’s name in the newspaper.
She told a story about the importance of the second part of that rule. “When Lou Capolari was running for police chief and I had written up the Art and Wine Festival, I couldn’t think of everybody’s name. So I put at the end ‘and many more attended,'” she told me,
“I’m walking on Bowers and a police car comes up and the speaker comes on,” she continued, “and this guy says: ‘Cleo, this is Manny Moore. I saw my name in the paper. You called me Manny Moore.’ All because I forget to put his name down.”
Taking on the Villainy of Prop 13
When Proposition 13 gutted funding for community health services at the senior center, Cleo proposed a fundraiser: a melodrama with a variety show — she had done one recently to raise money for her daughter’s drum and bugle corps.
Other people likely would have looked for a melodrama script. Not Cleo. She wrote one: Penelope of Pruneyard Patch — on her IBM Selectric typewriter, as she did every following melodrama for the next quarter century.
Penelope established the model for every Showtime. Iniquitous villains connive to cheat the populace of Doomstown, threaten the virtue of the heroine, and are ultimately given their just deserts by Doomstown’s astute Sheriff and the handsome hero, who always wins his lady.
Interspersed in the villainy is a full crop of Santa Clara insider and vaudeville-y jokes, as well as references to current news events. Audience participation is a must, and no matter what goes wrong on stage it’s all part of the fun.
For 25 years Cleo was Showtime’s playwright, producer, promoter, production manager, casting director, stage director, set designer, wardrobe mistress, choreographer, prop master and chronicler. In 2008 she turned the reins over to her longtime assistants Robin Burdick and Sheriff of Doomstown, Rick Mauck, who keep the tradition of home-brewed melodrama alive.
Cleo was a relentless promoter, and a key part of her MO was getting public officials to appear in Showtime, including several generations of police chiefs. Public officials who declined to take a turn on stage were likely to find their absences publicly noted in Cleo’s Corner.
I can attest to Cleo’s persuasiveness. By the end of that 2005 interview she had me signed up for Showtime, which I have done every year since.
People can do a lot more than they know they can, she used to say. Her gift, she liked to say, was getting people to do things they didn’t know they could. As for herself, “I was in a play once and I really screwed up.”
The bottom line for Cleo was simple, “I have just loved this town and the people in it.”
The curtain rises on Tic-tac-Toe Tag – or [what] Detective Agency by Rick Mauck on Friday, March 1 and Saturday, March 2, 2019 at 6:30 p.m. for pre-show entertainment and 7 p.m. for the melodrama and variety show; and on Sunday, March 3, 2019 at 1:30 p.m. for the pre-show and 2 p.m. for the show. Just practice saying “Waaaaaaaaaay over there in Alviso” and you’re ready for Showtime.
Performances are at the Community Recreation Center, 969 Kiely Blvd. in Santa Clara. Admission is $7. Tickets are available at the Santa Clara Senior Center, 1303 Fremont St., the Community Recreation Center, online at www.santaclarawomensleague.org and at the door. For more information, visit www.SantaClaraShowtime.net or call (408) 615-3170.
Over the years the event has raised more than $500,000 to support the Santa Clara Senior Center’s Health and Wellness program.