A Class Act

Nov 3, 2014
My great-uncle, Helmuth Winfrid Hormann (1908-2001).

My great-uncle, Helmuth Winfrid Hormann (1908-2001).


Back in June, I wrote an article for the Pasadena Weekly on my great-uncle, Helmuth Hormann, who taught theater history at the famous Pasadena Playhouse drama school from 1949 until 1967.

Helmuth, or “Tutti,” as my family knew him, died in 2001, at the age of 92, leaving behind a life of deep creativity, wit, and warmth. At the Playhouse, he was considered “legendary” among both students and faculty. How do I know this? After my article was published, a former student of his wrote the following letter to the Weekly—60 years after taking my great-uncle’s classes:

“As a graduate of the Pasadena Playhouse in 1954, I was fortunate to have had Helmuth Hormann as an instructor.  It was a thrill to see the article about him in Pasadena Weekly (‘Family History,’ June 19).

Dr. Hormann was an outstanding director and teacher who gave his students so much insight into the theater. One of my favorite memories of him was in a class he taught on kabuki theater. He personally acted out the stylized portrayal of each character and even jumped on the desk to make his point. Everyone laughed and loved it and, best of all, learned so much about that classical theater style from Japan. 

He was definitely one of those teachers who will never be forgotten. I was lucky to have experienced his humor and talent.  


Another former student, Jim Edwards, who took my uncle’s class 50 years ago, recalled him as “one of the best there.” Interviewing former students and faculty members, I was surprised to find how many lives Tutti had touched.

When I think of him, I’m often reminded of a line from the 1995 film Mr. Holland’s Opus, uttered by one of the grown-up students to the music teacher played by Richard Dreyfuss, who is looking back over his 30-year career: “We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.”

Tutti in Hawaii, circa 1950s.

Tutti in Hawaii, circa 1950s.

I’m not sure if my great-uncle initially set out to be an actor and fell into teaching through circumstance like Dreyfuss’s character, but he was clearly the artist of the family. “He was so unlike my dad, who was the good student—very diligent and very academic,” recalls my father, Nicholas Hormann. “As a lifelong bachelor, it was pretty clear that the theater was his life. His friends in the theater were his family.”

By the time my great-uncle entered the University of Hawaii, he had developed what would become a lifelong love of the theater. After graduating at the age of 20, he enrolled in the Max Reinhardt Theater School in Germany, but was forced to discontinue his studies when Reinhardt’s theaters were seized by the Nazi government.

Returning to Hawaii, he earned a master’s degree, witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and supervised a group of Hawaiian lei-sellers to sew camouflage for the U.S. Army during World War II. (“They called him Hormann the Foreman,” recalls my dad.)

He earned a PhD in drama from Cornell University, and, after the war, spent two unsatisfying years teaching acting at a small college in Texas, before joining the Playhouse faculty in 1949.

It was the year 27-year-old aspiring actor Charles Buchinski moved to Pasadena with his wife, Harriet, hoping to break into Hollywood. By 1951, he had changed his name to Charles Bronson and moved on to a lucrative film career—but not before passing through my great-uncle’s rigorous theater history classes.

He was just one of many famous people Tutti taught. Others included Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Mako, Sally Struthers, and Keone Young—known for his roles on True Blood and Sons of Anarchy.

Tutti made sure that in addition to acting skills, students acquired a comprehensive knowledge of theater history. He had them study the heavy playwrights of world theater: Jean Racine, Pierre Corneille, Aristophanes.

“He made us read all these classic books,” recalls Young, who graduated in 1967. “I was from Hawaii and I was not really well educated – and I had to read these plays that were like hundreds of years old. It was archaic – you know, stuff from the French Romantic period, Chekhov, Ibsen. I actually grew to love some of the great playwrights like Ibsen.”

Tutti was also known for being a cut-up in his classes. Jim Edwards, who graduated in 1964 and went on to become a radio DJ in St. Louis, Missouri, remembers, “he could vacillate from being serious to being comic at the same time. We’d be talking about a play – a Greek play or something like that – and sometimes he’d take over the characters and read them as the characters in the text. I loved the guy. He was really great. I always looked forward to that class.”

My great-uncle (at left) directs theater in Altadena's Farnsworth Park, 1960. (Photo from the Pasadena Independent.)

My great-uncle (at left) directs theater in Altadena’s Farnsworth Park, 1960. (Photo from the Pasadena Independent.)

Tutti had an anarchic, but never prurient sense of humor. I’ll never forget when we were watching the Mel Brooks movie Spaceballs on a family trip to Hawaii once, and Tutti, in his precise theater diction, proclaimed: “why, this is pornography!”

He was also frugal to a fault. During his years at the Playhouse, he lived in several small apartments in Pasadena, including a rented room on South Euclid Avenue, where, according to my father, he did his laundry in the bathtub and rode his bicycle to work each morning.

Tutti moved back to Hawaii in 1967, but when my parents decided to settle in Pasadena in the mid-1980s, it proved a happy coincidence. Today, whenever I ride my bike past Farnsworth Park, I think of the outdoor summer theater festivals Tutti directed there; driving down Los Robles Avenue I think of the Pacific Asia Museum he helped found; and each time I walk through the doors of the Pasadena Playhouse, I fondly remember this quirky and wonderful man.

2 Responses for “A Class Act”

  1. Roy Russell says:

    Your great uncle Helmuth directed me in Shakespeare;s “The Merchant of Venice” and the Greek tragedy “Alcestis” I believe he was the only one who saw any talent and gave me leads. I never tried to use what I got from the Playhouse, but went on to some fame as a writer — photo travel articles for national magazines. My current book is listed on my website Other books no longer in print. Roy

  2. Dr. Hormann directed me in The Devil’s Disciple in which I portrayed General Burgoyne, and of course I was a student in his classes. He was a delightful person, full of humor and life, and his intellectual capacity was clearly visible. As a faculty member, I hope he voted for me to win the first Faculty Scholarship in 1958, which I won. I’ll never know. I won’t forget Dr. Hormann.



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