To Becky Baeling Lythgoe, moving to Toluca Lake was a dream come true. “It’s like the Brigadoon of L.A.,” says the actress and singer, who was drawn to the “magical little hamlet” as a fresh-from-New-York transplant living near Cahuenga Boulevard. “I would do work at Warner Bros. and find myself in Toluca Lake a lot. I would get my Robeks or my Priscilla’s coffee and park my car, usually on Moorpark around Forman, and just look at the houses and think, ‘If I end up staying in L.A., I need to be in a place like this.’ It felt a bit like my childhood home in Michigan, but also edgy and cool, like the golden era of Hollywood I grew up watching in movie musicals.”
After marrying Kris Lythgoe in 2014, Becky got her wish. “I told Kris something along the lines of ‘We’re either going to move back to New York or to Toluca Lake.’ And within a week or two, he found this home,” she recalls, seated at the kitchen table in the couple’s Arcola Avenue abode. “One of the places where I used to sit in my car was literally on the end of this block, by Bob Hope’s house, and I’d think, ‘I need energy from Bob Hope to tell me what to do next with my career.’ And this genius, brilliant human being came into my life, swept me away and moved us here.”
“That’s how badly I didn’t want to move to New York,” Kris jokes. The writer, producer and London native says he actually loves the big-city energy. But for raising sons George and Leo, he prefers the “space and sunshine” of California. “And it’s definitely lived up to my dreams — it’s an amazing community.”
Becky agrees: “All the shops know my son’s name and they know my preferences in food or clothes, so I feel like it’s small-town America — but in a very glamorous way, because as surely as I know the woman at Pergolina who’s helping me buy a gift for my mother-in-law, I’ll also go next door and have a drink with Kiefer Sutherland. It’s the best of everything! It’s good to feel that pulse of the industry from Universal, Warner Bros., Disney, etc., but then also be able to have quality family time. We ride our bikes almost every day.”
At Home for the Holidays
Entering their second year as residents, the Lythgoes are settling into the community, finding favorite restaurants — they list Kabosu, Prosecco, Ca’ Del Sole, the Smoke House, Bob’s Big Boy, Spin the Bottle and Sweetsalt as top picks — attending the Garry Marshall Theatre and enjoying the Toluca Lake Tennis Club. They’re also embracing Toluca Lake’s traditions, especially when it comes to the holidays.
“The neighborhood Halloween decorations, which lead into the Christmas season decorations, are just unbelievable — some of the most spectacular in the world,” Kris marvels. “I think the Toluca Lake community really knows how to celebrate seasons and holidays.”
“We moved here in September, and we must have had no less than four strangers knock on our door to tell us about how busy it gets at Halloween and remind us to buy enough candy,” Becky says. (“Full-size candy,” Kris adds.)
As creative, theatrical entertainers (they even had a murder-mystery-themed wedding), the Lythgoes were happy to take part in the fun, buying “tons of decorations” at Cinema Secrets and opening their doors for a big annual Halloween party complete with a performer from the Magic Castle (where they’re members, of course).
The couple also loves Christmas. “We’re obsessed, and this neighborhood really lends itself to the spirit,” Becky says. “We take our kids around and show them all the lights. We like to go caroling and to different tree lightings, and we have big roast dinners, very English-style with puddings and Christmas crackers and mulled wine, none of which I’d had before meeting Kris.”
Making Spirits Bright
The pair have shared one particular English holiday custom since they first met, and for the past eight years they’ve dedicated themselves to celebrating it on a grand scale — the 300-year-old theatrical form known as panto. These lively fairy tales featuring music, jokes, exaggerated characters and audience participation are performed at nearly every British theater, large or small, during the Christmas season.
For Kris, the idea began with his own family, when he was “trying to find something for my older son, George, to be introduced to theater,” he says. “I took him to see the Grinch and he was scared; I took him to the Nutcracker and he was bored. In the U.K., panto is the vehicle to get kids into theater. It’s not a kids’ show and it’s not an adult show; it’s a family show where everyone can have a great time. There wasn’t anything like that, not just in Los Angeles, but across America.”
The mission is particularly personal for Kris. Theater is the Lythgoe family business: His father, Nigel, is the famed producer of American Idol and creator of So You Think You Can Dance, while his mother, Bonnie, is a theatrical choreographer, producer and director. “I always felt my childhood was blessed, because I would spend my summer days in the edit suite with my dad or in an orchestra pit in the West End with my mum,” Kris remembers. “I grew up with that behind-the-scenes look into the theater, and I really wanted my sons to have that, too.” He also wanted to carry on his father’s model of entertainment that appeals to all ages. “One of the things he’s always said to me is that American Idol was so successful because at that time, television needed that way of bringing a family together,” he says. “That’s exactly what panto is.”
Kris and his mother had started discussing the idea of producing a panto in America when he met Becky. “We were meeting about a television venture and he talked to me about it,” Becky recalls. “I had gone to school at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in England, so I knew about panto. And I said [in an exaggeratedly dramatic voice], ‘Listen, I don’t know if you know the landscape of American theater, but that’s what I’d studied and I’d love for you to talk to my lawyer and we should start a company together, 50/50.’ And the rest is history.”
In 2010, the newly formed Lythgoe Family Panto organization staged a production of the Cinderella story at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. The show was enthusiastically received and became an annual December event, moving to increasingly larger venues in Pasadena and expanding to additional cities.
The Lythgoes emphasize that although their shows are inspired by the British tradition, they’ve adapted it into an “American panto” style all their own. Instead of the bawdy innuendo customary in the British version, Kris says, “We have humor that appeals to adults but it’s clean; we’re making puns about the Dodgers or jokes about traffic on the 405.” While panto productions in the U.K. usually write their own songs and stick to simple sets and costumes, Becky says, “We strictly use pop songs that people know and love. And aesthetically we try to go bold — in England you can get away with using a stuffed horse head to represent a horse, whereas here we’re like, ‘Let’s get a real horse.’”
Another major change was elevating the caliber of the shows. “In the U.K., they’re very happy to have a singer that can’t quite hit the top note, because they love an underdog — ‘Is he going to make it?’ In America that wouldn’t fly,” Kris says. “The wealth of vocal and acting talent is unbelievably strong in the U.S., so we have a Broadway-quality cast throughout.”
Having a “creative epicenter” in the L.A. entertainment industry gives them access to a wide range of performers, Becky notes. This includes not only professional stage actors, but also So You Think You Can Dance alumni, recording artists like Ariana Grande, and TV and film stars such as Neil Patrick Harris, creating “a really unusual amalgamation of our specific community that we are lucky enough to live in.”
What hasn’t changed is the focus on drawing kids (as well as parents who aren’t habitual playgoers) to theater. The plays not only encourage boisterous young audiences to boo the villains and cheer on the heroes, but they also include roles for nonprofessional local child performers.
“I grew up performing in theater,” Becky says, “and my favorite thing was getting to do the local shows that came through town with professionals, because I learned so much from them. We’re trying to offer that educational experience, to dance alongside these incredible people and work with these awesome choreographers and actors.”
In addition, they offer free matinees for students from local schools. “Last year, 7,000 kids across the country saw the shows for free, and we hope that they see their peers onstage and say, ‘I want to do that!’ and it inspires them to go into the arts,” Kris says.
A Rainbow Connection
The Lythgoes acknowledge that working with a spouse isn’t always easy, but they seem to have developed a give-and-take technique that works for them. Kris has a head for finance and budgeting and writes the scripts; Becky has an eye for aesthetics, finds the creative team and does a lot of the casting — but they frequently overlap or step in to help the other, especially since they’re also juggling the demands of parenthood. “We always joke that I do 90% of getting things done, and then it’s not right so Becky comes in and does the last 10% and it looks fabulous,” says Kris of their complementary styles. “Becky puts the shine on it. And vice versa, Becky will do 90% of something else and then I’ll come in and do 10% … and maybe cut some costs.” Becky adds, “I think what’s good about the way we’re able to work together is that we’re both really passionate about it. We’re both creative, so we think, ‘Wait, I want to be creative with you.’ We’ve found our yin and yang together.”
That doesn’t mean it isn’t exhausting to spend the better part of each year developing shows. “In January, I’m like, ‘I’ll never do another panto!’” Becky exclaims. “And then by March I’m inspired again.”
That inspiration reached new heights this year when the Lythgoes came up with the idea of casting Kermit the Frog to star in a panto based on The Wizard of Oz. Both are huge Muppets fans, but for Kris there’s an extra personal link: “Back in the ’70s, my dad was a choreographer for the Muppets when they filmed in the U.K., so I grew up with them in my house,” he says. That connection led the couple to help sponsor the Jim Henson Exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center earlier this year, which in turn sparked another vision. “It was actually while Kris was at the Skirball that he was like, ‘Green … rainbows … could we get Kermit the Frog to be the wizard?’” Becky remembers. “I literally got chills when he said it.”
Not only do the worlds of the Muppets and Oz make an apt pairing (in the panto’s version, Kermit is the reason why everything is green in the Emerald City), but it’s a natural fit for the format, Kris says. “Puppetry is another aspect of panto that we’ve never really explored and one I’ve always wanted to. So for me to work with the Muppets is just a dream come true.” His mother recently gave him a gift as a symbol of that dream: a watch Jim Henson presented to his father as a thank-you about 40 years ago. “It was broken, and she secretly went off and got it fixed and gave it to me. It was amazing,” he says.
Looking forward, the Lythgoes want to continue sharing their holiday theatrical tradition throughout the country and possibly on TV, and — for parents looking for ways to entertain kids during school breaks — they’re exploring adding a summer production as well. But they’re just as passionate and ambitious when it comes to being full participants in the Toluca Lake community, hoping to partner on projects with the Garry Marshall and become members of Lakeside Golf Club. Becky has started collecting vintage postcards of the homes of Bing Crosby, Amelia Earhart and other past famous residents, and just as she once sat in her car and dreamed of living in the neighborhood, she now envisions growing even deeper roots within it. “Listen, I don’t want to be crazy aspirational; we’re not Bob Hope,” she says. “But I hope in our own right we can dig even more into this city and become that kind of fixture here, so someday people will say, ‘Oh, they created American panto and they’re from Toluca Lake.’ We want people to know we’re not going anywhere. We’re here to stay.”