The official millennium starts this year, 2001. (There was no year “0.”) This year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of Timber Lake Playhouse in 1961. This year also celebrates TLP’s 40th season, with the first season clocked in 1962. Go figure.
None of the folks who pondered the project in 1961 had a 40-year model in mind. Just getting underway was the entire notion. Indeed, back then, TLP, like most theaters most of the time, operated on a play-to-play, season-to-season premise. Can-we-open-next-year was the outlook that governed the fortunes of most seasonal, non-profit performing arts ventures. Not much room in such a hold-your-breath process for long-range strategic planning. Imagine a Nadine McCall saying to a Rosella Burrstrom (two of the founders), “Where do you see us in forty years, Rosella?”
TLP veterans like to claim theirs is the oldest, continuous resident summer stock operation in Illinois. Perhaps it is. TLP is older than the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, which today is only faintly a seasonal theater. TLP is older than any of the Elizabethan/Jacobean theaters of London that first produced Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, the proudest of the English stage. TLP is older than 95% of the actors who will appear on its stage this summer. In 1973, TLP staged a play called 40 Carats, about a 40-year-old lass whose Grecian fling with a 24-year-old lad wound up a serious deal. That deal is probably TLP’s persistent metaphor: a 40-year-old theater trying to sustain the hearts of 24-year-olds in its audience.
Real historians would note that while TLP was founded in 1961, true beginnings date to January, 1960. Only a few months prior, I arrived on the Shimer College campus in Mt. Carroll, a crew-cut Episcopal presbyter assigned to be chaplain and member of the humanities and social sciences staffs. On the first day of faculty orientation, President Joe Mullin pulled me aside. “I need to tell you, Father Bro, that the woman who does the plays is pregnant.” That was his actual phrase, does the plays. “I note your transcript shows more theater experience than anyone else here. Therefore, you get to do the plays.”
My sum of theater experience was a season of summer stock at my undergraduate college, Denison University in Ohio. A handful of academic credits therein eventually yielded a minor concentration alongside my degree in philosophy. Great, I thought, I get to do the plays. Existentially.
Shimer in those days had no theater department or related disciplines. Shimer did have very bright students and the Green Curtain Club, a carryover from the young women’s college of old that did their plays at one end of the gymnasium. A small proscenium stage boasted a green curtain. But by 1959, the school was co-ed, and the gym was for athletes, not actors. Enrollment was small, about 200 that year. Right off I had two theater-doin’ problems: where to find a stage, and where to find an audience.
Finding the stage entailed a shameless amount of golf with Gary, the phys ed guy, a fella with a monster stroke who clearly intended the Big Ten to be his next step. As a golfing buddy he let me have the old gym stage on a fragile schedule, an hour here, an hour there. The audience for the first play came from Parents’ Weekend, which gave us two nights of performance, one more than any in recent memory. But what could we do for the next show, slated for January, 1960?
I turned to a childhood chum, Jane Weissmiller–or Mary Jane Berkstresser, the raven-haired, pig-tailed girl from grammar school that we always teased, though respectfully, for she was the smartest. Jane sweetly volunteered to be co-chair of something that never existed: the Steak ‘n Show Society. Dinner theater, if you will. The college’s food service always broiled sirloin on Saturday nights. Two bucks for the meal, two more for the play, we had an audience.
Jane co-signed invitations with David Hayhow (another TLP founder), the young publisher of the Savanna Times-Journal. I doubt that Jane and Dave ever met, and the “society” faded soon after college enrollment grew, and after TLP came along. But it was the fateful first Steak ‘n Show evening that found Don Mackay and Andy Bro seated at the same table.
“Tell me, Don, you ever thought about summer theater out at your resort?” Remember, the speaker was desperate for a stage, and could speak grandly of the dammed-up pond that irrigated a small nursery as a “resort.”
“Well, yes–yes, I have.” Turned out Don and Mamie had a place on Lake Okoboji in northern Iowa, a true resort, and home to a summer theater (Iowa’s oldest, continuous?) operated by Stephens College in Missouri.
“You think there would be an audience, Don?”
“Yes. Just look at the folks here tonight, from all over the county.” About 150 by my count, and they were clearly not all from Mt. Carroll. We had used a college mailing list and Dave’s newspaper list, and then received Don’s statistical sampling.
The play that night was Agatha Christie’s courtroom whodunnit, Witness for the Prosecution, featured later in TLP’s 1979 season. Not much melodrama, however, in how swiftly Don and Andy followed up. Seventeen months later I saw Don, in June of 1961. I was sitting in class among a few summer school students, out-of-doors, in the shade on a very hot day. I noticed a man in work clothes standing under a tree, perhaps a 100 feet away. I thought either he’s ill, or he’s the laziest groundskeeper we have. The class eventually broke, and I wandered toward the man. It was Don! And his first words were, “Have you thought about that theater?”
I needed a stage more than ever, so I suggested to Don I would try to enlist some folks, maybe he could too, and we would meet at his place in a couple of weeks. Agreed.
I’m not sure now about the precise enlistment sequence. I knew I wanted a community group, not just a college one. Actually, all I wanted were friendly minds to gather for brainstorming. The most memorable early recruitment came by way of a faculty wife, Audra Weiser, later on the TLP board herself. Audra told me that a young wife on a farm near Lanark had shown theater interest while attending AAUW meetings. Remember the American Association of University Women? It had pedigree credentials in the home county of what had been a women’s college.
I called for directions, headed off in my Peugeot for a rural lane I would come to know like the back of my hand. Dorothea Rahn listened to my pitch with a grin, then said, “Well, sure, why not?” That she had been a theater major at Beloit College didn’t hurt. She was the mother of three youngsters, and an occasional “drama coach,” as the local schools prefer to title the role. She was also a consummate brainstormer, in the great Hegelian tradition of challenging every thesis with an antithesis until a surprising synthesis could emerge. I came to know that whenever she agreed with me, it was too easy, and that whenever she disagreed, we were off to the races.
Because Don and I were both hem-and-hawers, and Dorothea a brainstormer, we needed a closer. That guy was Don Reuter, a Shimer vice-president and former executive with Kable News in Oregon. Don could brainstorm when he had time, but he could always be counted on to say, “I so move.” The rest of any meeting would then be spent trying to discover what his motion was.
Others may have attended the very first meeting, held one evening on the lower porch of Don Mackay’s lake establishment. Even Joe Mullin, the college president, attended that first meeting, no doubt checking on his restless chaplain. Several venues were discussed, including a theater on a river barge, towed between Dubuque, Savanna, and Clinton, harkening to showboat traditions. A tent in the woods seemed a possibility, and one I endorsed. One or another of the local gymnasiums lurked (I groaned), or perhaps an outdoor amphitheater space somewhere, maybe at Shimer. Vaguely we knew we had to incorporate as an organization of some sort, especially after Mullin told us the college would support, but not sponsor. We set a following meeting, probably another two weeks off.
How Timber Lake Playhouse Got its Name
What I relate now is essentially true. In the limbo state of our affairs I went to Bob Weissmiller, Jane’s husband and local attorney. I tried to explain a half-baked vision. I mentioned some of the community participants. I asked for advice. Bob did a remarkable thing. From one of the drawers of his big desk he extracted a long checkbook, then wrote me a personal check for $100. I was dumbfounded. He said, “Take this to the bank, open an account.” And I did.
Now, in my memory the account I asked for was something like “Playhouse Project, Timber Lake Resort.” What came back on the deposit slip was “Timber Lake Playhouse.” Needless to say, when I attended the next meeting with cash in the bank, Don Reuter immediately enjoined, “I so move,” and suddenly we were talking about a structure–tent or otherwise–in Don Mackay’s woods. I marvel to this day how focused a group can get when it has a building project, but Bob Weissmiller understood.
With a checking account we needed a treasurer, of course, and I enlisted the father of a Shimer student. Si Chapman was a businessman from Sterling and a regular Steak ‘n Show-er. Our committee began to grow. After a couple of meetings Don Mackay brought in another businessman, Sheldon Frank, from Chadwick. What a stroke! In the early days I recall Shel had a bemused, wait-and-see look on his face. But he always showed up, he always carried his volunteer weight. What I didn’t know at first was that he was an artist, a well-trained and sensitive musician. This was a guy that should have built pipe organs and conducted close harmony vocal groups. What he added mostly at first was his business instinct, an invaluable asset. Both he and Dorothea understood from the git-go in 1961 that the genius of live theater is its magic, not its bottom line. Sheldon could somehow turn manageable deficits into credit assets, as long as a meaningful product was delivered.
Bob Weissmiller told us we needed only five names and twenty-five dollars to be an Illinois not-for-profit corporation. (Eventually I will add a footnote to recognize the surprising five.) Then we needed a bona fide board, with by-laws, officers, committees, the works. I vividly recall cribbing the first by-laws on my old Royal portable, sitting in the hot sun of my sister’s back yard. I don’t recall at all how I became the first president, except that Don Reuter must have said, “So moved.” We filed by-laws (IRS charitable status came much later, thanks to the father of one our best early actresses, Nan Withers, a theater professor now at Loyola University; Judge Withers steered us through the IRS), and we moved with great speed toward a chilly, late November groundbreaking, and our first news story. Mark Benney, a Shimer sociologist and founding board member, insisted we would not be real until the media told us we were.
Mark, I fear, also nearly lost us the theater. I recruited Mark because he was canny, and because he had been a professional actor in England. One night Lu, my wife, and I hosted Don and Mamie Mackay, and Mark and Sophia Benney for a theater-planning dinner. I opened by asking Don and Mamie what, from my list of exotic cocktails, they would like to drink. They settled on tomato juice. Mark, however, said, “I’ll have some of that good gin you always serve.” Always? I did not know then that Don was a teetotaler, and Mark, a frequent closer of Poffy’s tavern. The impact of that evening was doubtless seen in our first property deed from Don that stipulated a sobriety rare in theater circles.
Several months passed between groundbreaking and initial construction. We had little money, of course, despite the great amount of boiled beef and canned peas we all consumed while giving talks to area service clubs. The Great Day of Borrowing inevitably loomed. Don Mackay saw our plight and agreed to co-sign a $20,000 loan, and I’m sure Don Reuter said, “So moved.” In one remarkable mail I received from First National Bank of Savanna two checks, each made out to me, each for $20,000! Don was carried away, I thought, but I didn’t have the wit to run to Las Vegas. Turned out the college was having cash flow problems equal to TLP’s loan, and a Savanna clerk confused matters. But briefly in 1961 I held in my hands nearly ten times my annual salary.
Meanwhile, Dorothea was leading the winter-long course in play selection in a process not dissimilar to what’s done today. Catalogues, piles of scripts, tear sheets with draft seasons, lots of guessing. What would our audience like? Our audience? This was, after all, the first season. The play selecting evenings at the Rahns generally included more than those on the board, and everyone brought an opinion. Where do we put this comedy, where that thriller, what about the season-ending musical? I recall more of my time spent on these issues than on building design.
The First TLP Theater
Building design resulted from the donation or bargain sale of three used, wide, wooden, free-span arched trusses. The middle span divided the structure between audience and stage. Don Mackay volunteered his hardwood sawmill for board and batten siding. We accepted until the carpenters surrendered their bruised elbows that could no longer drive nails through the green oak. We were forced to buy standard pine to finish. But when the original oak eventually dried, it checked and cracked, resulting in peep-holes for actors to follow on-stage action while waiting to make through-the-house entrances.
The stage consisted of a very wide proscenium with no thrust such as we have today. A big issue was whether to mount a main curtain. Issue was solved when the old Mt. Carroll High School donated its original (1940) purple velour and track. Not every director incorporated this curtain into his or her staging, but more than a few used it on opening nights when arriving audiences could clearly hear last-minute carpentry going on back stage. That curtain was so heavy that opening and closing took a long, noisy time. Good stage managers developed a rapid stroke, but high speed openings would often result in a billow that pulled half a stage set into the wings.
Our early audiences were merciful in tolerating a virtual parade of wagons during scene changes. Equally well they tolerated what became the distinctive Timber Lake cross. For actors to move from one side of the wide stage to the other required a resourceful mix of ballet and track. Most of our early reviews used the word, “energetic.” Indeed, a season at Timber Lake produced a recognizably frenetic actor.
In one corner backstage were two narrow dressing rooms. If the actors had running water, there wasn’t much. Toilets for the cast? I can’t recall. The company washrooms out back were still years away. In another corner backstage was a small partitioned room, what we thought might become a design office. The light control booth and the box office were positioned as they are today.
No air conditioning, of course, that came ten years later. Curtain time was 8:30 PM, late enough for darkness to settle, and the large rear doors could then be opened for air circulation, assisted by fans and flapping programs. Some nights with storms brewing bats would sweep in, enriching any on-stage hysteria.
About a month before opening I strode on the dirt interior surfaces, wanting to check acoustics, yet not wanting to disturb workmen, who were lunching outside. I clapped, I vocalized with noises appropriate to stage speech, I may have sung a note or two. I heard one workman ask his comrades, “What is this thing, this here building?” They had been on the job for weeks. Long pause. “It’s a thee-yater.” Another long pause. “I give it a year.”
Not too far before opening night, Bob Traum, our contractor, asked to see our seats. I took him out back to a pile of twisted metal and torn fabric, everything we had salvaged from what Web Wagner had given us out of the old Web movie house in Savanna. We selected a pair of seats to haul inside, where he inspected. “You knew these are made for a floor that slopes?” “Of course,” I said, “it’s a thee-yater.” “Well, no one told me about slope. Not sure my cement guy can do this.” “I bet he can. His customers tell me slope is what he does best.” Bob laughed. Or cursed, I’m not sure.
During the post-WWII era, scores of summer theaters popped up or reemerged in this country, most in New England, some in the Midwest, and this popularity gave our project some credibility. Many such theaters were college-associated. My experience, as I noted, was in the Ohio town where I attended college. A huge tent was erected each year, and a parade was organized. The Lions served hot dogs, school bands marched, actors dressed as clowns, a sweetheart was crowned. That’s what I originally had in mind for Don’s woods. Turned out that leasing a large tent in rural Illinois was very expensive, and had we gone that way, TLP would now be long gone, like the Melody Tops in Chicago and Milwaukee. Thanks for the lumber, Don.
Architecture was not the main thing I brought from the Denison Summer Theater. Five operational practices prevailed in the early years:
Every company member was a star, everyone an apprentice. All work was shared. Every actor was a stage technician, and vice-versa. All were janitors, seamstresses, box office staffers, grounds keepers, concessionaires. We were there to practice total theater. But what a deal it was when, in 1977, a Federal program called CETA sent us workers for building and grounds maintenance!
One week was allowed for each show: open on Wednesday, close on Sunday, five performances. No special virtue in that schedule, but since we didn’t know how big an audience we had, we proceeded. What the tent in Ohio taught me was that this shameless schedule could be achieved with young bodies for about 12 weeks, no more. Rehearse one play all day, perform another at night. Anticipating exhaustion may be the reason we slated our only musical for two weeks in the last slot. Sing at night, sleep all day.
No pre-casting for the season. A dumb idea, but one that carried over from the tent. With only an extra hour or two of sleep on the Thursday morning after each opening, the whole company dragged themselves into the theater–-to audition! They read parts for a new director, who then cast the show during lunch and started rehearsals immediately. Two days for blocking the movement, all lines ready by Saturday. A cruel process, but amazingly, we continued it for ten years. The only advantage may have been that once in a while a 17-year-old walk-on like a Steve Shaffer would appear in 1965 and immediately prove himself a star. (Steve, bless his heart, was also great with Don Mackay’s old tractor, presiding over daily garbage runs.)
A room-and-board operation. No one in the company would ever have time to cook, and vouchers were useless in the woods. Besides, food was a payroll leveler. Not that the pay schedule ever created a caste system–$5 weekly minimum, $10 weekly tops, with a few of the latter also earning season-ending bonuses. A printing typo in our recruiting brochure stipulated that TLP was “non-equity,” lower-case “e.” Indeed, nothing was fair for everyone, even for the few struggling actors who were members of “Equity,” the official trade union. But Gladys Hartman’s pies in our first vendor food service went a long way toward assuring fringe benefits were worth something.
Working for peanuts our company deserved something. Broadway agents, even Chicago reviewers would never see their work. So I determined we would try to hire directors of stature, persons who might help advance careers. We couldn’t afford that option in the first summer. In later years my principle was to hire only those directors whose work I had seen, and only those whose work I thought was superior to my own. A meager criterion to be sure, but rewards did follow. In the first season a number of the actors were recruited by way of opportunities to direct, and one or two were quickly invited back.
“Company” is synonymous with resident troupe. Today TLP arranges auditions for its company all over the country. In the first year auditions were mostly word-of-mouth. Good health and a compatible personality ready for a 24-hour sweat intimacy were high on the job profile. Building the company with no specific roles in mind was largely a matter of building “stock.”
“Stock” in theater goes way back, certainly to Roman times. The itinerant companies that descended from Rome, such as the commedia dell ‘arte, were stock troupes. These pre-Renaissance players had few scripts, mostly just comic scenarios. But they had significant later influence, especially on guys like Wm. Shakespeare.
Typically, the troupe would have one or more of the following:
Ingenue, the young woman who projected beauty and innocence and could captivate either the
Juvenile lead, or the
Leading man, often a braggart or a “capitano”
Buffoon, usually an older male, and consequently more foolish, a Pantalone
Joker, or mischief maker, who worked havoc with anything expected in the plot
Leading lady, the prima donna
Soubrette, a young female who did not project innocence.
Character actors, older chameleon males or females, one of whom often served as narrator.
That was the stock spread I was after in the first season, only I wanted at least two of each. Eight plays, ten weeks, a lot of roles, all with overnight line memorizations.
I turned first to three Shimer alumni: George Glenn, John and Joy Martin. None of these three had professional training. But they were bright and idealistic, true Shimer types. The Martins were on their honeymoon, married just ahead of company arrival. They became the unofficial house-parents for the male “dorm.” John could do the older, pantaloon characters. He was tall, with a big voice and a craggy face. Joy, only twenty-three, was our resident matron, playing any number of mothers and secretaries.
George Glenn was finishing his first year of teaching in the Mt. Carroll schools. He could play a leading man (and did, in Sabrina Fair), but most of all he had winning solutions to nearly every crisis. “George, I need a box office manager, a book keeper, and a promotion guy, you know the type. You.” He did it all, as if the grunge tasks behind-the-scenes were as important as leads on stage. George had his own apartment in Mt. Carroll, but he volunteered to sleep on a cot in the backstage office so that the building was attended overnight, and the large goat outside was watered. (Two plays in our first season required a goat!) George even wired a back stage telephone to take reservations whenever anyone called. We had regular box office hours, but our first audiences didn’t understand them, and we couldn’t bear to miss a customer.
George Glenn was the first of TLP’s alumni to go on for a PhD in theater, then to be a university professor until his retirement last year.
One of George’s most important contributions to TLP’s first season was contacting a college buddy from his years at Oberlin in Ohio. Gary Vitale phoned me from Erie, PA and told me all the roles he had played. We negotiated, sight unseen, for $25 a week, some of it deferred, the most princely sum on our scale, but Gary was an Equity actor (our first), and a leading man, critical for a stock company.
“How tall are you, Gary?”
“Can you dance.?”
“I can fake it for a few minutes.”
“Can you sing?”
“I can sell it.”
“Can you handle an end-loader?”
“I’m a quick study.”
Over the years we developed more sophisticated audition procedures, gathering references, going to many cities and to eminent graduate schools, listening to actors do their routines. But pound for pound I am not sure any subsequent company was better than the ad-hoc, word-of-mouth one we assembled in 1962. (Why?)
Swarthy, out-going, with a broad Italian smile and infectious laugh, Gary Vitale anchored that first company with the right mix of professionalism and love of the total craft. That he would become TLP’s artistic director for the next two seasons seemed apparent early on.
Subsequent additions to the stock were at least not sight-unseen. We had sent flyers (still stressing non-equity) to a number of universities and colleges. One such flyer landed on a bulletin board at the University of Iowa. A thoughtful graduate student drove to Mt. Carroll, sat with me on Don Mackay’s beach for an hour. I liked him, he could play mature roles and professional types just being himself. He never read a line for an audition. He thought we should leave the dirt floor in the playhouse, thereby returning it to theater’s roots as a gathering place for village story-telling. Graduate school talk, I thought, but I asked immediately whether he had friends.
Sure enough, a week later Bill Larson returned from Iowa with a carload, notching us an ingenue, a juvenile lead, a soubrette, and a wardrobe mistress, plus Bill himself, now our first resident doctor/lawyer. Turned out these folks all returned for another season or two, starting something of an Iowa farm team. Jane Powel, the ingenue, had a perky walk and a classy soprano voice; Darrell Ruhl, juvenile lead, had the right aw-shucks presence and plenty of the prankster; Marj Maxwell could teach folks how to sew, and could occasionally double as a tall ingenue; April Bingham was cute, blonde, bubbly, and emanated an aura that she had “been around.” She was our soubrette. A leading lady also turned up the same day as the Iowa gang, and for years I thought she was from Iowa. Turns out Beth Lindhoff hailed from Catholic University in Washington, DC. A “dark” leading lady, mysterious, sophisticated--I think Beth even wore heels when sweeping the house.
Missing still was a “light” leading man (Gary Vitale was our “dark” one), a “light” leading lady, one more character man, and our joker/comedian. That last bet came by way of a flyer that found Carthage College, then in downstate Illinois. Gary Gisselman appeared, flyer in hand, a 23-year-old version of Jack Lemmon, with dead pan takes, wry punch lines, and a sudden wide-grin sense of irony. “Look what we’re doin’, guys, it’s summer stock,” he’d announce as he pushed a construction wheelbarrow. After two TLP seasons and a graduate degree from the University of Virginia, Gary’s subsequent career was luminous. Founding and long-time director of the Chanhassen Dinner Theaters near Minneapolis, then artistic director of the Arizona Rep, then back to Minneapolis to manage the famed Children’s Theater, Gary took total theater to heart.
The light leading lady came from Freeport. Ellen Hanson had a good job, so I had to talk her into the joys of $5-a-week. Our founding board lacked a Freeport presence until I located an insurance man, Dale LeBaron. Dale’s chief civic life consisted of heading the Winneshiek Players, Freeport’s community theater. His price for coming on our board was my direction of the spring play at Winneshiek. Staging that play was in my mind also a means for promoting TLP in Stephenson County. But as TLP’s opening loomed, and I had no one to play the small ritual dancer from Okinawa who falls in love with the American soldier, I turned to Ellen from my Winneshiek cast. Ellen’s genetic stock was entirely Germanic and blonde, but she was comely, shy, small, and possessed of Geisha eyes. Happily, those same eyes were stagestruck.
Ellen’s soldier required a light leading man, and the chief candidate may have been the only company member to audition. A Shimer colleague learned of my casting needs, and volunteered his brother. Ralph Hough, who eventually came on the TLP board, then served its second longest tenure as president, telephoned Jere Hough, who was fresh out of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Ralph seemed nervous that his kid brother might not measure up. “Have him read,” Ralph urged. Due diligence, I assumed. “Well, okay, Ralph, you stand in as the Geisha.” Later I stressed that Ralph should keep his day job with or without the falsetto. Jere, however, was a shoo-in. He went on to a long career in broadcasting.
The final gap in our stock company–an older actor who could do dialects--came by way of a TLP behavior that lasted for years: scrounging-and-begging. We had just enough funds to build a rustic playhouse. We had nothing for stage lights, or for audio, or for power tools–all the good stuff. I had already tapped the area school network for my Shimer needs, and thereby came in touch with Eldon Almquist, the drama coach at Chadwick High School. Eldon loved every aspect of theater. He directed, he built sets, he even wrote plays, when his school budget couldn’t afford royalties. I knew that if we landed Eldon as our stage designer and tech director (which we did), an even wider arc of school contacts would open.
Eldon led me to Carl Hunkins, head of the drama program at Sterling High School. Carl was wiry, nervous, a little wrinkled, but when he said in an Irish brogue, “Now, son, would you be needin’ some ellipses and fresnels?” our troupe was complete. In deference to Carl’s age (what was he, about fifty?) I asked him to be our Company Manager, and sure enough, on the first day he showed up with a clipboard. He also showed up with a girlfriend, a veterinary assistant, who kept our spirited goat supplied with pre-show tranquilizers.
Fortunately, several local actors came forward to do small parts as the season wore on. We even had two fetch-and-carry, bushy-tailed gofers in residence: Penny Britton and John Dittman, sweet kids who pitched in at every turn. And oh, yes, one critical piece was missing at the outset: a music director. I was dimly aware our season would be closing with a musical, but I frankly assumed a rehearsal and show pianist would simply appear, magically, like everyone else. To help me look I didn’t even have a stage director for that musical. As our cash flow became increasingly fragile, I realized I had to go to volunteer-land. Who, I wondered, in the world of expensive musicians owed me a favor? Then I remembered a church organist and choirmaster from suburban Chicago. Bill Bottom’s occasional Saturday night behavior sometimes required covering on Sunday mornings. And Bill was a sweet sucker for show business. So sweet, that for several seasons he was the pit boss for all of TLP’s musical offerings.
My preoccupations with lining up the company, then with directing the first play, kept me somewhat at the outer edge of what must have been a thousand critical choices and chores. I wish I could mention and thank scores of folks I probably once knew, but now have forgotten. But a few persons in our wider community of “producers” do stand out in my memory.
Ben Olson, a Shimer colleague and artist, designed and constructed our “Angel Board,” a fine, large, walnut panel that saluted our initial donors of $100-plus. Alas, Ben’s handiwork was lost shortly after our 1974 fire following brief, charred exposure at the Kupcinet Theater in Mt. Carroll. .
Andy Armstrong, another Shimer colleague and artist, and former ad agency exec, designed our first, and to my mind still best, logo and logotype.
Founding board member and Andy’s wife, Jody Armstrong, fought for glamour at every turn. Notable was her effort to design and launch the first food service in what was the upper and retail level of Don Mackay’s beach house. Jody conned a talented Shimer student, Dick Deitch, into being chef of Timber Lake Restaurant. Jody picked out the redwood picnic tables and chairs, the colorful placemats, the dinnerware, the salad bar, the menu, limited, I suspect to charbroiled steak and chicken. Knowing Jody, I’m sure the deserts were rich and succulent. Jody placed the ads, trained the wait staff, and, for all I know, served on busy nights as hostess. The restaurant she started stayed in operation under various managements until the structure burned down in 1976.
Sheldon Frank, who, as 1st VP in charge of buildings and grounds, must have eventually been on site daily checking on carpenters, plumbers, and electricians. Shel’s rural Chadwick pal, Gene Bush, deserves a sidebar.
Without schematics or much more than Eldon Almquist’s best guesses, Gene completely wired a complex theater, and kept us within code. He rigged thousands of feet of lighting cable, using runs cleverly made of galvanized gutter pipe with outlets strategically punched for instrument attachment. His lines led to our only new fixture in the booth, a plugging panel, which he also wired to work with the assortment of dimmers and switches we borrowed from local schools. Happily, Gene was around 14 years later to do the same job for the even more complex new TLP.
Sheldon was the one to approve contracting invoices for Si Chapman to pay, to negotiate float payments (often needed), to monitor change orders (“Whaddyamean, there are no stalls in the ladies’ washroom?”), to arrange builder’s risk and workmen’s comp insurance, to oversee the laying of roadways, sidewalks, parking. No manual existed for all these details, and there were many. Shel had to improvise, and he did.
Max Rahn, Dorothea’s husband, who should have learned his lesson when he first agreed to oversee the installation of 325 largely-broken theater seats. Fourteen years later he came back to oversee more than 400 installations of only slightly better used movie seats that he first had to haul in a cattle truck from Sheboygan, WI. But in the initial year Max marshaled a corps of welders, he stuck rust scrapers and paintbrushes in the hands of any briefly-idled cast members, he layered duct tape discreetly around scores of torn cushions, he smiled graciously at my comments about not doing too much--these seats, after all, were only meant to get us through a season or two. Max even tolerated his wife’s invitation to the board shortly before our opening, “Remember now to come to our screwing party.” Max was at the party with cement drillers, the rest of the board with screw drivers. Inevitably, as the season wore on, some of the seats collapsed. Max kept a reserve supply, and could be counted on to arrive early for a show in his sport coat and tie, but with tools in hand, so we wouldn’t have an unsold or deeply-listing seat.
My wife, Lu, whom I recall as the playmaker for the delivery of 325-plus slip covers for the backs of Max’s seats. Lu believed in multi-colored panels, found the fabric in the Quad Cities, then cut patterns. Fortunately, her base pattern was taken from one of the larger seats. We hadn’t realized at first that the seats were of varying widths. A surprising number of Mt. Carroll women gathered here and there to stitch. In our basement alone I recall Jane Weissmiller, Armella Kneale, even Alma Mullin, the president’s wife and later, I’m told, a TLP Board member. The seat covers lasted the same 13 seasons as the original seats.
Milt Boyd, host of “Grandpa Happy,” what we used to call a “kiddie show,” which aired daily on one of the Quad Cities TV channels, invited me repeatedly to pitch for TLP and for our various shows. Milt joined the TLP board a few years later, and acted in one or more of our musicals. One day, his cordial but extended introductions to other TV personalities, who might later host our spokespersons, delayed me when I was due at a rehearsal for the opening show, Teahouse of the August Moon. The whole company waited on the Shimer tennis courts, one of our various rehearsal venues. They had assembled for the blocking of a large, complicated scene, one that included the presence of a Jeep we had borrowed from the Savanna Ordinance Depot. I felt terrible about calling to delay. But when I arrived, they had blocked the scene themselves! Bill Larson and Gary Gisselman lead the way with cleverly conceived action. I threw away my notes, and greatly appreciated that later, on-stage, everything worked, even the Jeep.
I won’t go into every play in detail, but some are worth special note. Obviously, that first play, the only one we slated to open on a Saturday, had our hearts in our mouths. Teahouse, a typical John Patrick comedy where lowly people triumph over the more powerful–in this case, the U. S. Army of occupation in Okinawa–had enough recent Broadway cache that it merited lead-off selection. With a mix of Japanese costumes and military outfits, plus ritual ceremonies with sword play, even Sumo wrestling, and that goat, the one needed to test the brew that would return industry and dignity to the struggling village, Teahouse served plenty of spectacle. In selecting it, however, we never imagined how much the large cast would also be needed to finish building the theater. The irony of the show was that its plot success eventually requires the on-stage construction of a teahouse. Off-stage, construction was even more critical. A play within a play.
I would dearly love to have the dress rehearsal photo of Gary Vitale, in character as a humble villager wearing his ragged kimono, but with a contractor’s apron and tool belt prominently holding things together. Most of our rehearsal spaces for that first show had to be off-site. However, increasingly we were slipping into the adjoining woods, so that any idle actor could answer contractor call. All in all, I guess I remember the melodrama of opening night festivities more than any histrionic nuances in the production itself.
Opening night, June 29, warm and muggy, slightly overcast, but never threatening. The pre-show ceremonies were looming, as was the 8:30 PM curtain. A final, run-through–without costumes–was critical, because we had never been able to stage the entire show without interruption. I had been up nearly all the previous night, as had everyone else. No air conditioning, remember, and we were perspiring and dirty. In that state something was bound to go wrong, and sure enough, the ad hoc sound system failed us, just when we needed both microphones for the ceremony and the enchanted music that underscored the ancient tea ceremony, the show’s turning point.
Around 7:00 PM Max and Dorothea Rahn arrived in their best duds to help welcome theater-goers, no doubt pouring punch, maybe even iced Oriental tea. Max greeted me with his usual Andrew-what-can-I-do-to-help cheeriness, and I probably said, “Please speak to Buddha.” Actually, I asked him to race to town with me to disassemble my home audio system, the one I trusted. Off we went.
What followed is now something of a blur, but among the most magical blurs I have ever known. Max and I disconnected cables, hoisted amplifiers and tape decks, loaded the Peugeot, I took a quick shower, Max labeled leads. Fortunately, my wife knew nothing of this, she was pouring punch. We were back at the theater, fifteen minutes before show time, and I will never forget what greeted me.
Everywhere were dressy people and cars parking, all carefully directed by a dozen guys on Palomino horses! In their sharp turquoise shirts, the Carroll County Sheriff’s Mounted Patrol far surpassed klieg lights. Then, across the front porch were strings of colorful, lighted Japanese paper lanterns. Where had these come from? (I never knew who called the mounted patrol, but I learned later that the guys from the Woodshed schemed the porch decorations. These two fellas had appeared during our rehearsals, pouring a cement pad next to the theater, moving one of Don Mackay’s out-buildings to the site, repairing it, and filling it with amazing trinkets for sale, the most amazing of which were wooden cricket cages, the key prop of Teahouse!) Only thing missing out front were the Japanese musical strains Max and I soon rectified.
I am sure I watched the ceremonies from the light booth, checking sound levels and exchanging hand signals with Max as he roamed the house. I am fairly certain Dave Hayhow was our master of ceremonies. Not sure I recall anything that was said, I was so stunned by the massive red ribbon draped across the purple curtain. Who did that? And who found the ceremonial scissors? And who summoned Don Mackay, and Mt. Carroll’s mayor, and Bob Traum, our contractor, to do the cutting? Buddha?
I do recall that eventually the curtains parted, stage lights glowed, and Tobiki Village came alive. And a full house laughed and clapped and ate popcorn. We gave that first evening to our donors, a practice we have followed ever since. As subsequent houses thinned the next week, we learned somewhat to our regret that our best potential theater-goers had all been used up for free. But we also learned that word-of-mouth was our best advertising. In one-week stock, by the time a media review could appear, the show was over. I think the reviews were good, but we were too headlong into preparing for Sabrina Fair, our second show, to wait on notices.
Sabrina Fair is a romantic comedy mostly about rich folks, and about a young woman of modest means, who disturbs their values. It has been made into two films, one fairly recent, with Harrison Ford. I think our audience was reasonably charmed, what few came. We were now discovering the harsh realities of rural theater-going: very few citizens ever expected to see more than one or two shows all summer, let alone one every week. Sheldon and Si raised cash flow alerts, but we were once again deep into readying the third show, Mister Roberts.
The question was, were there really enough folks in northwestern Illinois to warrant what we were doing? Clinton, IA, Sterling-Rock Falls, and Freeport could total a little over 100,000, and the rest of the audience base was perhaps just short of another 100,000, but could you name even one metropolitan area with that population that supported something on our scale all summer? Not the Quad Cities, not Rockford. What did we think we were doing?
Mister Roberts, that’s what. This was my second TLP show to stage, a show full of male extras I conned in the community, plus our goat. Mister Roberts had been both a huge Broadway hit and a film. About bored WW II sailors enduring an ogre of a captain, with only resourceful Lieutenant Roberts to ease the pain, the play captured the against-all-odds spirit of the Pacific war. One more time on an opening night we needed a last-minute run-through. I was watching the cast go through its paces, making notes, when Don Mackay tapped me on the shoulder. Could we talk for a few minutes?
During a scene change, I ducked out on the front porch, where Don was waiting for me, seated on one of his home-made benches. He tried to tell me in a stumbling way that in his mind we would have to close after this play. He said he had talked with both Si Chapman and Sheldon, and the news wasn’t good. He had seen the advance sales in the box office, there was no way we could meet our payroll, much less his debt. Did I have any ideas? My ideas were all inside, rehearsing. But I continued to suggest options. Perhaps, I thought, the company would work for even less, all the while knowing that half of nothing is. . .I’m sure I was both tired and upset. “I dunno, Don, perhaps we could raise our prices.” Per ticket, $2.25 seemed modest enough. “Or, Don, you might lead a special fund drive? We have yet to try door-to-door.”
The more we talked, the more we began to see folks arriving, cars driving up for tickets, a surprising crowd growing out front. Eventually the doors opened, and I had to forget all about my cast notes. Don said we had better drag our bench inside. We then went around looking for more benches. By curtain time, the house was 110%! For five nights overflow seating was needed every night. Where had they come from? Very few had reserved ahead, assuming, I guess, that the last time they saw Mister Roberts, they just went to the movie theater, and paid.
So, we had a proven audience, demographics be damned. Not another word about closing was heard, even though a few must have been muttered during the next show, Rhinoceros. During the 50s and 60s, Theater of the Absurd was the intellectual rage, and indeed, Eugene Ionesco’s play had enjoyed some Broadway success. Mark Benney felt we owed it to our company to provide something meaty in exchange for all the comedies we were otherwise asking them to do. This play about a social non-conformist who turns into a literal rhinoceros was just the thing. Alas, more people in the company saw it than the total of our audience on any given night. I think it still holds the record for the smallest total turnout in TLP’s history. I must thank my wife for braving the process, once Mark had determined to cast her. I wonder now who babysat our two small children.
With Rhinoceros, one-week stock was a blessing. Next on tap was a crime melodrama, Dial M for Murder, slated for revival in TLP’s current season. This show also inspired two successful films, one recently released as A Perfect Murder, featuring Mike Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow. For that opening season Dial M provided a way to for us to say, look how talented and diverse we are! The critical task for the stage manager of a show where telephones must ring on cue is doing exactly that. And we did it!
Another comedy, this one about the funeral business, followed. Send Me No Flowers had enough mistaken identities to keep even funeral director Sheldon in laughter, and our regular audiences were growing. We followed with an American classic, Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, the play on which the then-current Broadway hit, Hello, Dolly, was based. Gary Gisselman and Daryl Ruhl created their remarkable Barnaby and Cornelius routines, and before we knew it, the final musical was upon us.
I’m not sure how I found Hez Diefenthaler to stage Finian’s Rainbow, probably through Dale LeBaron once again in Freeport, where Hez owned a floral business. I do remember the cast tryouts, held in a Shimer lounge with a grand piano, Bill Bottom presiding. My goodness, here were all these engaging actors I had come to know all summer now doing their best to belt out tunes. What was I thinking, when I hired them without auditioning them? Some, like Janie, our ingenue, could in fact sing. Some, like Carl Hunkins, could do a patter song, which was largely speech with an Irish lilt. Most, like Gary Vitale, had to sell it. Gary was given the romantic lead, and he sold every night.
By the time Finian’s Rainbow was reaching final rehearsals, I felt myself succumbing to a virus. I escaped to the Walgreen estate near Dixon for a few nights of rest. When I returned midway through Finian’s opening performance, I was flabbergasted. There they all were, singing and dancing! Coming straight from a millionaire’s retreat to a production number called, “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich,” I believed I was in a rainbow warp.
What had possessed us to pick Finian’s Rainbow? It must have been the sentimental Irish lyrics asking musical questions like, “How are Things in Glocca Mora?” Perhaps it was the limited amount of chorus dancing the show required. We certainly had not taken into account the social commentary inherent in poor Southern folks seeking a pot of gold. The play called for African-American actors, mostly to do stereotype roles, and even though the roles pointed out the ridiculousness of racism, we had no Black actors! Wouldn’t have any until 1978. But, if you can imagine, just a year before Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous speech in Washington, we had white guys in blackface, like a minstrel show!
Dave Hyndman, a Shimer fill-in, did his famous slow shuffle across the wide TLP stage, “Yessuh, Massah, I’s comin’ with yo mint julip, I sho is comin’.” What were we thinking? And then, Jodi’s cook, Dick Deitch, commanded the final production number in pitch black make-up, Preacher Sam, gathering all for a rousing Gospel glory song. (Dave, by the way, went on to be an Episcopal priest. Dick, a Jewish lad, was also ordained an Episcopal priest, later converting his priesthood to Roman Catholicism. No doubt social change meant a lot to these fellas.)
I attended Finian’s the night that Daryl Ruhl, our leprechaun painted green, could not complete a backstage costume change involving green tights. For a while the on-stage cast waiting Daryl’s entrance ad libbed, some betraying their less-than-Irish antecedents, until tall John Martin, as the Southern sheriff, entered and said, “Well, y’all, how about we sing another song?” What song, I could see Bill Bottom saying, as he thumbed madly through his scores. I think the idle poor once again became the idle rich, until Daryl eventually interrupted with a flying cartwheel in fitted tights.
Remembering the Ohio tent, I had urged the company to do a post-final show performance for about a half hour, passing the hat. I recall some rehearsal, but I think the idea was mercifully dropped in favor of unwinding at the Oakville Country Club nearby. The first season was over, Labor Day was upon us. Gary Vitale had been selected as the following year’s artistic director, and he was hard at work, hustling company members about returning. I even finagled Don Reuter to extend an appointment for Gary to do the plays at Shimer, and though I continued to direct, both at Shimer and again at TLP–in 1963, when I staged “Mr. Roberts Goes to Salem” by way of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible--, but I was ready to be simply board president and senior statesman. Before leaving Mt. Carroll in 1964, I even acted, if that’s the word for it, improvising a role as a political hack in the musical Fiorello, and singing “A Little Tin Box.” The song no doubt foreshadowed my future role as a professional fund raiser. But that’s another story, and one that did not start until I had spent most of the 70s as TLP’s artistic director.
Forty years? If I ponder that most of our first company members are now in their sixties, with kids and grandkids, it only makes me aware of my own age, an age Sheldon, Dorothea and I share. This is where we’re supposed to rise up and say, “Listen, folks, our dads can still build the sets, and our moms can still make the costumes, and we’ll open Babes in Arms in no time!” But I, for one, am content to watch, and to urge young talents to get going and open their own theaters.