IMAGINE A PLACE where you and your family and friends could picnic under the stars while enjoying a live stage production or a movie - a place where you could enjoy your favorite Cabernet or hot chocolate and be warmed by a crackling fire.

Such a place is the Outdoor Forest Theater in Carmel, the oldest outdoor theater west of the Rockies.

The historic theater was founded in 1910 by actor/director Herbert Heron, at the suggestion of author/playwright Mary Austin, one of the pioneer bohemians of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Austin moved to Carmel in 1904, followed in 1905 by writer/poet George Sterling. When an earthquake and fire shattered San Francisco in 1906, Austin and Sterling urged fellow artists to move south to Carmel. And they came in flocks.

Considered quirky by the other residents -and rightly so - the writers and artists were fun-loving free thinkers. Parties at the beach were boisterous and frequent. Austin often walked around town dressed in American Indian garb and was said to do all her writing in a tree house. Sterling was considered Carmel's poet-in-residence.

Watching a production at the 500-seat Forest Theater is always a treat. Attendees are encouraged to come early and bring food and drink to enjoy before the show begins at the natural amphitheater. Some people arrange a potluck feast; some bring gourmet specialties; some keep it simple with hot dogs and chili from the concession stand.

Patrons are allowed to bring wine and beer. A few people bring stronger spirits to ward off the evening chill. Last year one theater patron heard a champagne bottle pop somewhere behind him. Moments later, the cork harmlessly bounced off his head. The man picked up the cork, turned around and said, "I don't know who, but somebody owes me a glass of champagne." Within seconds, a filled plastic champagne flute was passed down hand-to-hand. And everybody in the audience smiled.

Locals know that they can transfer ice chests or coolers back to their cars before the production starts so they don't have to schlep them in the dark. And, it's a good idea to bring along a small flashlight for walking back to your car at night.

The theater has long wooden benches with backs for seating. The benches tend to get hard after a while, so bringing a stadium blanket or pad is a good idea. Also, summer nights in Carmel can be cool, and fog often adds to the aura, so patrons should dress in layers, with sweaters, jackets, a blanket and perhaps gloves. Two fire pits are ablaze on either end of the stage, and people who need warmth are well advised to claim seats near them.

Remember, there are no reserved seats, so it's first-come, first-served. And the concession stand offers hot coffee, hot chocolate, soft drinks and desserts along with the aforementioned hot dogs and chili.

At present, the Forest Theater Guild is showing outdoor films on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, sort of a drive-in movie without the cars. Evan Tyler, who is coordinating the movies, says theme weeks include Peter Sellers week (including "Dr. Strangelove"), July 7, 8 and 9, and a James Bond week, July 21, 22, 23. "We are leaving the weekends open for possible live productions," he says.

The Pacific Repertory Theatre (PacRep) will present "Oliver!" a rollicking musical with the largest cast ever on the outdoor stage - 75 children and 50 adults - August 13 to September 27.

"When the audience hears 75 kids belting out 'Food Glorious Food,' it's going to be a knockout," said Stephen Moorer, the ebullient executive director of PacRep. Moorer says PacRep will produce Shakespeare's "As You Like It" at the Forest Theater October 2 to 18.

The Films in the Forest begin at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $6 and are sold at the door. Email eatxl@yahoo.com or phone (831) 626-1681 for more information and a list of titles, or visit foresttheaterguild.org.

PacRep in the past has produced such popular musicals as "The Wizard of Oz" and "Beauty and the Beast." Moorer says that "Beauty" was the theater's "highestattended production, with a combined audience of over 10,000 ticket holders."

The theater is located at Santa Rita Avenue and Mountain View in Carmel. It's a little tricky to find this treasure. Follow Santa Rita south to Mountain View, or take Mountain View where it crosses diagonally at the intersection of Junipero Avenue and Ocean Avenue.


Learn more about the Monterey Bay area at MontereyBayAdventures.com.