The death of celebrated actress Olivia de Havilland in Paris this week reverberates all the way back to Hillbrook School. De Havilland grew up in Saratoga where she fell in love with acting. Her first acting teacher was Dorothea Johnston, who produced and directed the annual spring and summer theater productions for Hillbrook School, which was at that time called The Children’s Country School (TCCS).
Johnston was a well-known Shakespearean actress who went on to run the “theater in the Glade” at the Saratoga Inn. De Havilland appeared in and assisted Johnston’s productions, which were part of The Pied Piper’s Call summer camp for The Children’s Country School. The productions were rehearsed on campus and performed in Saratoga. Students recalled De Havilland helping out on the camp’s production of “A Midsummer’s Nights Dream,” and in fact, it was said that a Hollywood agent discovered De Havilland during her performance in the play.
TCCS students fondly remember the productions for the quality that Johnston and Nathalie Wollin (one of the four founders and directors of the TCCS) were able to achieve with their young actors and stagehands. Auditioning for the shows was more arduous than typical theater productions because students and campers were required to memorize the entire play including all of the lines from each of the characters. Hillbrook’s first student Richerd Cancilla still remembers walking around the campus reciting Shakespeare as they worked to memorize the plays. He remembers it being a challenging, but ultimately very rewarding achievement to be able to recite an entire play line by line.
De Havilland and her sister, the late actress Joan Fontaine, attended Los Gatos High School. De Havilland received a scholarship to Mills College, which she turned down to pursue a Hollywood career. Within five years of her graduation from Los Gatos High School, she was cast as Melanie in Gone With the Wind. The classic film has recently seen an update,
with an introduction to its historical context by Black scholar Jaqueline Stewart before the movie airs on HBO.
De Havilland moved to Paris in 1953 with her husband, Frenchman Pierre Galante, and stayed saying she found no reason to return to the United States. She did, however, visit regularly, and always made time to have lunch with Warren Reid, who lived in her childhood home in Saratoga. Reid, who passed away in the 1990s, was a former camper at the Pied Piper‘s Call and went on to become an architect who designed and built the third-fourth grade wing and the original science building at Hillbrook. In 1988, De Havilland returned to Los Gatos to help celebrate the centennial of Los Gatos High School, where she gave the commencement address at graduation.
Hillbrook PE teacher and historian Paul DiMarco who wrote a book about the history of Hillbrook School called As the Twig is Bent, says he tried unsuccessfully to reach De Havilland in France for an interview for the book. However, DiMarco says she was remembered fondly by others reminiscing about the Pied Piper’s Call and its elaborate theater productions.