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  • Jack Parsons (foreground right) is seen here with Caltech's Frank Malina (directly behind him) and other members of Malina's "suicide squad" in a photo taken just before one of the group's earliest rocket launches, on Halloween 1936, in Pasadena's Arroyo Seco.
    Credit: NASA-JPL
02/16/2010 08:00:00

Caltech Theater Arts Premiers "Pasadena Babalon" This Month

There's a crater named for Pasadena rocketeer John Whiteside Parsons on the dark side of the moon, which seems appropriate in light of his obsession with the occult. "Jack" Parsons's fabulously eccentric life­—from his breakthrough contributions to rocket science and his role in founding the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to his involvement with a cult-like religion that had him advertising in the local newspaper for "women of low moral character"—is explored in Pasadena Babalon, a new stage play to be premiered on February 19 by TACIT—Theater Arts at the California Institute of Technology.

Pasadena Babalon is directed by TACIT head Brian Brophy and written by Ventura-based playwright George D. Morgan. The play marks their second collaboration on an original script tracing the lives of Caltech-connected scientists involved in the birth of the space age. Morgan's play Rocket Girl, about his mother, rocket engineer (and Caltech alumnus spouse) Mary Sherman Morgan, was a popular success when it premiered on campus last year. Brophy expects that audiences will be just as entertained and intrigued by Parson's contradictory and colorful life, which saw him test-firing rockets with Caltech scientists by day and performing in arcane rituals involving primal goddesses (and their mortal counterparts) by night, with the likes of L. Ron Hubbard, the future father of Scientology. 

"It's an incredible story," says Brophy.  "Our play is about Jack's journey and how he enters into all these different realms.  On the one hand, he maintained this lifelong preoccupation with the 'dark arts' that got deeper and more compelling as he got older. On the other, he was an exceptionally gifted scientist, and the fuels he invented were critical to the start of the space age."

Born in 1914 in Pasadena to a life of wealth and privilege, Parsons showed a precocious proficiency with explosives, which eventually brought him into contact with Caltech fluid mechanics pioneer Theodore von Kármán and his student Frank Malina, among others.  A college dropout, Parsons was never a Caltech student. But soon he was regularly joining Malina's group of youthful propulsion enthusiasts, nicknamed the "suicide squad," in a series of increasingly risky rocket experiments that led in the 1940s to the founding of both Aerojet Corporation and JPL. By 1952 he was dead, killed in an explosion while mixing chemicals in his garage.

To tell this extraordinary tale, Brophy has assembled an appropriately motley cast of nearly 30 actors that includes Caltech undergraduate and graduate students, campus and JPL staff, and other members of the Caltech community. The play is largely set in the Parsonage, the home Parsons shared on Pasadena's Millionaire's Row with an-ever shifting spectrum of what would today be called New Age residents. "Only bohemians, musicians, artists, atheists and anarchists need apply," said an ad that he ran soliciting tenants.

"It's amazing that Parsons's story isn't better known," says Brophy, who became head of TACIT in fall 2008. He hopes that local and Caltech audiences will turn out in force for a closer look at this exotic slice of Institute history, and he looks forward, as TACIT director, to staging future productions that "will establish the historical relationship between culture and science here.

Jack Parsons (foreground right) is seen here with Caltech's Frank Malina (directly behind him) and other members of Malina's "suicide squad" in a photo taken just before one of the group's earliest rocket launches, on Halloween 1936, in Pasadena's Arroyo Seco.
Credit: NASA-JPL

"The physical dimension of theater offers new ways of experiencing history," says the director, who in addition to Rocket Girl has staged Caltech productions of Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo and Rossum's Universal Robots, the eerie interwar classic by Czech playwright Karel Capek. He'll be handing over the director's reins this spring to undergraduate Christina Kondos, who will be directing I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, Caltech's first musical in fifteen years.

Pasadena Babalon opens at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, February 19, in Ramo Auditorium on the Caltech campus and continues for two consecutive weekends, including one Sunday matinee. For ticket information and the schedule of performances, please visit Caltech Campus and Community Relations.

Written by Heidi Aspaturian