Thirty something years later the net result of an uncooperative automobile and a driver imbued with a 1970s sense of freedom is a traveling children's theater involving some 55,000 children each year in the U.S. and countries as diverse as Iceland, South Korea and Turkey.
Overseas, Missoula works with the U.S. Department of Defense to present the program to children in DOD schools on Army and Air Force bases.
In the U.S., the theater company is typically hired by school districts or local arts councils to bring a two person actor-director team into town for a week.
During that time local children audition, learn lines, songs and dance routines — and somewhere in all of that, become a team in the process.
"It takes a lot of energy. It's very high-paced," is the way Rainbow Weldon describes her work as an actor-director with the company.
Weldon, who signed on for a nine-month tour in September, rolled into town with fellow actor-director Dewey Kemp on Sunday night "in a little red pickup with all of our props in the back" for the week-long stint at the Old Post Office Pavilion in El Centro.
Taking a break Wednesday morning and sitting on the edge of the stage, both actors reel off a list of places they've been in California and Nevada on this tour.
"We started out in Montana, then came down to Southern California and Nevada," Weldon says before catching her breath and adding "and next we're heading on up to Washington, Oregon and Idaho."
Getting back to work arranging the stage set before the first group of children arrives for the Wednesday afternoon rehearsal, Weldon and Dewey talk about their reasons for joining Missoula.
Weldon, a warm and ebullient 21-year-old from Georgia, said, "I just love children's theater. My senior thesis project in college was that I started a children's theater company."
"I did my first Missoula children's play when I was 5 years old," says a grinning Kemp. "I got to be the apple seed in Johnny Appleseed."
Weldon describes a rigorous routine that starts almost as soon as they arrive in town.
"We started rehearsing here right after auditions on Monday night. Tuesday and Wednesday are rehearsal nights. Thursday night is our dress rehearsal," she said.
Weldon illustrates just how tough — and rewarding — the experience of working with Missoula can be by describing a residency at the beginning of the tour.
"My partner at that time was out sick real bad with the flu. Here I was kinda pulling the weight of two people and it was very stressful and frustrating," she said.
Weldon went on to describe how at the end of the week "I was just like exhausted and hoping the kids were still having some fun when this really sweet kid came up to me and said, ‘I want to do what you do when I grow up — I want to work in children's theater!"
Smiling at the memory, she continued by saying, "Then he came up to me later and said, ‘This is gonna be a great show!' — I needed to hear that."
By 6 p.m. Wednesday the two were hard at work in El Centro putting the cast for "Red Riding Hood" through its paces.
Nine-year-old Rheanna Bejarano of El Centro was waiting patiently to strut the boards and said she liked being in a Missoula play because " … in this play you get to dance and talk at the same time. I've been in other plays where you don't do that."
At the back of the auditorium, 16-year-old Joshua Knights of Imperial was sorting through costumes and grinned as he explained his reasons for taking on the job of assistant director instead of acting in the play as he's done in previous years.
"I've seen the costumes," he says, laughing as he holds up a tree costume.And just in case anybody is wondering, founder Jim Caron did make it to his friend's wedding in Oregon — and that friend is still happily married 30 years later and a Missoula theater sponsor in his home town.
And Caron, no longer a young man driving the back roads of the U.S. in a Volkswagen KombiVan with a large peace symbol on the side, is the proud father of 7-year-old daughter, Annie, who appeared in her first Missoula play when she was 4 months old.
This year's Imperial MCTC performances for the public will be Saturday at the OPOP in El Centro. Call 337-1777 for further details.
>> On the Web: www.mctinc.org
>> Staff Writer Jennifer Ralton-Smith can be reached at 337-3442 or email@example.com