A LIFETIME OF ACHIEVEMENT
Bree Burgess Rosen honored at this year’s Art Star Awards
By MARRIE STONE
This story is a part of our Arts section. Visit www.stunewslaguna.com/arts for more arts stories as well as our arts calendars.
Many Laguna locals know Bree Burgess Rosen’s work well. She’s the witty mastermind behind the annual satirical production Lagunatics. Our town’s favorite musical spoof celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, not missing a beat even during the pandemic when it went online. She’s also the co-founder of No Square Theatre, Laguna’s only community theater, which has given amateur actors and talented youth the opportunity to act, sing and dance on stage since 1997. These two credits alone are enough to earn anyone a place in the pantheon of Laguna lore.
Bree Burgess Rosen
Ella Wyatt and Bree Burgess Rosen star in “The Elephant in the Room,” a 2020 Lagunatics show held entirely online
But there are several other things about Burgess Rosen, and her contributions not only to our town but the community at large, that are equally impressive. A talented patriot whose rousing rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner opened many game nights, boxing matches and sporting events. A steadfast supporter of many in the entertainment industry who suffered from the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ‘90s. A champion of the arts and music education for our youth. A philanthropist whose time and talent have helped raise more than $1 million for local causes. And a dedicated producer, director and thespian who manages just the right joke at just the right time.
While the past several years have continued to test our communal bonds, Burgess Rosen consistently finds the fitting humorous note to break the tension. The value of that role in a town our size cannot be overestimated.
No surprise the Laguna Beach Arts Alliance selected Burgess Rosen to receive the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her many accomplishments and contributions to the Laguna Beach arts community. She will be honored at the annual Art Star Awards ceremony held on Sunday, April 24, at [seven-degrees] (following a two-year postponement due to the pandemic).
In case you’re not familiar with this “Art Star” and her important role in our town, we took this occasion to hear her backstory, including favorite roles over the years, standout memories, proud moments and the many ways she’s applied her talents and skills to make Laguna a more bonded – and humorous – place to live.
Born to perform: a childhood brush with Bob Hope
As Burgess family lore tells it, the doctor slapped a newborn Bree on the butt and she instantly hit a high C. Burgess Rosen was singing and dancing on the tops of tables from the beginning. Significantly younger than her three siblings, she benefited by being the baby. Her parents doted on their sunset child and indulged her whims. In other words, she said, her repertoire of songs for a child her age was “ridiculous.” By the age of two, she was performing in public “comfortably and confidently.”
But unlike her siblings, Burgess Rosen was raised primarily in Okinawa during the 1960s and ‘70s. She was the daughter of an Army man, so it was natural that she would learn to sing The Star-Spangled Banner from the start. “Fort Buckner, where we lived, had a large theater. When professional tours came through, they needed a girl in the cast,” she said. “Instead of bringing young cast members, they’d pick up local kids. So, I started doing professional shows to entertain the expats.”
Bree Burgess Rosen stars in a 2001 production of Lagunatics
Bob Hope arrived in town when Burgess Rosen (age 11) was in the hospital, recovering from knee surgery. “This sounds so much more dramatic than it really was, me in the hospital, pulling myself up from my deathbed. It wasn’t like that,” she said. Still, it makes a good story. “Bob Hope invited me to sing the National Anthem at an outdoor USO show on the Army base. There were probably 100,000 people. Of course, it was thrilling.”
Events like these paved the way for Burgess Rosen to become the designated singer of the National Anthem for ESPN, and to travel around the country singing at numerous baseball games, boxing matches and other professional sporting events.
Today, Burgess Rosen passes the torch to her voice students, giving them opportunities to sing at Angel Stadium, the Orange County Fair and Lakers games. “It’s a wonderful give-back for any performer,” she said. “It’s great to have that opportunity and it’s been a wild ride for me – the places I’ve gotten to sing.”
Her most memorable National Anthem moments? Maybe it was singing at the George Foreman comeback fight. Or perhaps the time she and her dear friend, Sammy Davis Jr., attended a Lakers game and watched as another singer began in the wrong key. (Davis would later call Burgess Rosen on her way to an event, telling her to not – ahem – screw it up.)
“We’ve always had a tradition of someone singing the National Anthem at every No Square performance,” she said. “Which is now fitting since we’re in the American Legion.”
Building the Golden Rainbow
As a young adult, Las Vegas proved the perfect fit for Burgess Rosen. She worked for MGM Grand for eight years and traveled around the country for other shows.
But this was the 1980s, and her fellow entertainers were hit hard by the AIDS epidemic. “I had so many friends and coworkers who died of AIDS,” she said. “My house was like a hospice. So many friends could no longer perform because of their health. They didn’t have a place to live. I was doing 12 shows a week in the Ziegfeld Showroom, but afterwards I'd perform in local bars and we'd literally pass the hat.
Burgess Rosen performing in 2007
“It soon was very clear that wouldn’t solve the problem. This thing was growing exponentially. The government, of course, was doing nothing. So I got together with my friend Peter Todd and we started this charity called Golden Rainbow, which is still in Las Vegas. Initially we had a food bank, and we would network to get clothes, cars fixed, things like that for our friends. Of course, this is pre-Internet, so it was about the network of shows on the Strip. I created little flyers advertising what we needed and dropped them off at all the shows. They’d hang them backstage and, within a matter of hours, we would have exactly what we asked for. After a year, we raised enough money to buy an apartment building that provided housing. Golden Rainbow did that for a very long time.”
Burgess Rosen would dedicate that first Lagunatics show held at the Playhouse in 1992 to raise funds for World AIDS Day.
Ella Wyatt, Kristen Matson and Bree Burgess Rosen play the Booster Girls in 2021’s “Lagunatics Remaskered”
Life before Lagunatics
Throughout the 1980s, when Burgess Rosen wasn’t throwing herself into this critical cause, she was working triple time doing shows, studio work and corporate events (known as “industrials”). When she met Wayne Wright, founder of Incentive Creations, he asked her to not only perform in these high budget corporate shows, but to produce them. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve certainly earned the skills,’” she said. “That was a great ride. For probably 15 years I wrote and produced a lot of big shows.”
For all her many roles over the years, could she possibly call out any favorites? “Oliver! Twisted,” she said. The authorized parody of the popular musical had lots of gay overtones. Burgess Rosen played the female lead. “My lover in that show remains a great friend. We still refer to each other as our first lesbian lovers. But the material was hilarious, and the cast had a lot of Broadway credits, so I got to work with some amazing people. The ‘Who’s Who of Hollywood’ all came to see it. It was enchanting how fun that was.”
An emphasis on education
Burgess Rosen also wrote and directed for the Pacific Symphony for more than a dozen years. In addition, she directed the educational outreach program for youth.
“We worked with 38 elementary schools around Orange County, doing a couple shows for each grade with a musician from the Symphony,” she said. “At the end of the year, we’d bus tens of thousands of Orange County elementary kids to Segerstrom Hall and put on these big shows with the full Symphony.”
Burgess Rosen is acutely aware of the critical role music plays in learning. “Unfortunately, Laguna Beach doesn’t prioritize music education in the elementary schools,” she said. “It’s so good for kids’ brain development. At No Square, even with our kids’ camp in the summer and LagunaTots (which is the children’s version of Lagunatics), the kids don’t just see the lyrics – they get sheet music. Believe me, it’s way more expensive than just printing out lyrics. But they need to see the language of music because that’s where the brain development comes from. Looking at the music, hearing the melody, seeing how the words move is math and language combined. It’s just so good for them.”
A born Lagunatic
For all these philanthropic causes and important contributions to our larger community, it’s Burgess Rosen’s gift of wit and humor that our town most associates with her talents. Lagunatics was born in 1992 and has been going strong and funny, since.
The satirical musical (affectionately termed “The Roast of the Coast”) tackles community squabbles, local politics, national legislation and everything in between. From parking headaches to toilet paper shortages, Design Review Board disputes to controversial sycamore trees, every musical number is set to a familiar tune and comically honed to maximize the laughs.
Ever wondered about all those empty police cars stationed around town? “Police, Maybe Not” (set to the tune of “Feliz Navidad”) answered our questions. That dead sycamore tree in front of City Hall? Channeling its inner Gloria Gaynor, it tells us, “I Am Alive.”
“Thirty years of poking fun has become a social studies spectacular on 92651,” Burgess Rosen said.
Comedy for a cause
That very first show dedicated to World AIDS Day was a prescient foreshadowing of causes to come.
“Over the years, it’s been a fundraiser for many groups, including the Laguna Playhouse, Shanti, Ballet Pacifica, the community clinic, the Laguna Beach High School Artists’ Theatre and we have a room at the Laguna Beach Senior Center, the Susi Q, with our name on the wall. In 1995, we raised $20,000 for No Square and gave an additional $25,000 to the Susi Q from ‘Lagunatics’ Senior Prom,’” Burgess Rosen told the OC Register in 2010.
Then along came the Bluebird Canyon landslide the very next year. No Square Theatre was scheduled to perform Mame, a 1960s musical set in New York. When the landslide happened, Burgess Rosen quickly pivoted and the show became Maimed: A Benefit for the Wet and Muddy.
“We did a fundraiser for the artists who lost their workplaces and their homes,” she said. “Everybody came together. People were handing me $100 bills. At the end of the night, my bra was stuffed with money. Clearly, they trusted I wouldn’t just go to Fiji with this money. But everybody was just so generous. That’s what I love about this town. I know right now there’s a lot of bitterness and anger. But I’d rather be bitter and angry at the beach than anywhere else.”
Our town’s most talented essential workers
Since its inception, Lagunatics and No Square Theatre have raised well over $1 million for locals in need and nonprofits around town. “We helped two boys, whose dad died, with their college fund, and for upgrades to the Artists Theatre at Laguna Beach High School and the Woman’s Club,” said Burgess Rosen.
“No Square Theatre also provides free entertainment for other charities, including the Board of REALTORS® fund, the Historical Society, Laguna Art Museum, the Leukemia Foundation, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and countless others. They also host events for touring college vocal performers, as well as providing free rehearsal space to local performers, the Pacific Symphony, and students recording applications for scholarships and universities. We also share costumes, audio equipment, and props with other theaters and schools. I’m very proud of how much our tiny theatre does in and around town.”
Not to mention, the past two years of shows have been entirely free online. “That’s our public service to the community while the world suffered,” Burgess Rosen said. “Laughter is the best medicine and all that.”
A prescription for success
Burgess Rosen aptly describes Laguna as “passionate.” “This town feels its politics very deeply,” she said. “Having fun with things people have strong opinions about gets them to sit next to each other and laugh. That’s a very healing thing.”
A global pandemic, a three-year frightening battle with lung cancer (thank you, Vegas, for all those second-hand smoky bars), an escalation in political tensions in town – nothing has stood in Burgess Rosen’s way. She embodies the motto, “The show must go on.” And the more laughs while you’re doing it, the better.
“If I’d known Lagunatics would last 30 years, I would have picked a better font for our logo,” she joked. “But that’s what I had on my Macintosh at the time.”
What’s ahead for No Square? “We’re doing a tribute concert to Stephen Sondheim, my absolute favorite composer and lyricist,” said Burgess Rosen. “And we’re producing my favorite musical, Into the Woods. Life is good.”
The key to enduring success is being willing to hold life’s door open to new opportunities, Burgess Rosen told me. “Sometimes you’ve got to hold it open with your foot. And sometimes your foot’s bleeding, but whatever.”
Classic Bree. Always finding humor in the difficult, and always happy to share it.
This story is a part of our Arts section. Visit www.stunewslaguna.com/arts for more arts stories as well as our arts calendars.
To learn more about the Laguna Beach Arts Alliance Star Awards, and to purchase tickets to the event on Sunday, April 24, visit their website at https://lagunabeacharts.org/about-us/art-star-awards/.
For more information on No Square Theatre and their upcoming shows, visit www.nosquare.org.