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Show goes on at Omaha Community Playhouse, where Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire got their start


Cropped screenshot of Henry Fonda from the fil...

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I wrote this New Horizons story during the 75th anniversary season of the Omaha Community Playhouse, a not so ordinary community theater where stage and film legends Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire both got their start in acting.  The Playhouse is a genuine institution in my hometown. It’s rich history is interesting enough, but the theater’s success over all these years  is the passion of the people who make its productions possible.  That love of theater is the same today as it was decades ago, only the names and faces, casts and crews, most all volunteers, have changed.  After a rocky couple years, the Playhouse has regained its bearings and the tradition, just like the old theater credo about the show going on, continues.

 

Show goes an at Omaha Community Playhouse, where Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire got their start

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

For 75 years now, just about anyone with a bit of ham in them has been afforded the chance to trod the boards or rig the lights or erect the sets at the largest community theater in America — the Omaha Community Playhouse. Because it is first and foremost a volunteer theater, where no professionals need apply, countless people, from all walks of life, have left their 9-to-5 jobs behind at the door for its magical world of greasepaint. For a chance to go on with the show. And for the chance to launch a Broadway or Hollywood career, as some Playhouse alums have done, most notably Nebraska natives Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire.

On April 7, another opening night found an electric current running through the crowd, cast and crew for The Last Night of Ballyhoo, a bittersweet comedy. No matter what the show, it never gets old, this thrilling adventure in live performance. There is a palpable excitement among the playmakers, whose craft brings a make-believe world to life, and among audience members, who willingly surrender to the spell the players cast. Then there’s the unpredictability of live theater, where anything is liable to occur. Only the night before, a mechanical wagon smashed into wooden flats that did not fly out in time and, amid the sound of splintering wood, everything came to a screeching halt.

“No matter how many plays you’ve done, it’s absolutely a live experience and anything can happen. You never get too smug because you’re always perfectly capable of having your pants pulled down around your ankles. It’s truly putting yourself out on a limb,” Playhouse Artistic Director Carl Beck said. “And being a community theater we have varying degrees of experience. It runs the gamut from veteran actors and actresses to some doing their very first show.”

Adding to the charm is the fact just plain folks — friends, neighbors, relatives, co-workers — are the ones putting on the show as performers or technicians.

With the main stage auditorium still empty that April night, the crew trussed-up the Ballyhoo set while lead actor Jeffrey Taxman paced-off nervous energy with his character’s (Uncle Adolph) ever-present stogie in his mouth. Backstage, director Judy Hart encouraged her players to “break a leg.” The show, opening in mere minutes, was out of her hands by then. According to Beck, at that late stage the director, any director, is “the most useless person in the world. There’s absolutely nothing you can do by the time opening night rolls around, except stay out of the way and keep your fingers crossed.”

In a dressing room, four female cast members animatedly chattered while applying makeup, adjusting wigs and squeezing into costumes. A stagehand knocked at the door to ask, “Hey, how’s it going?” and the actresses replied, “Just fine, honey,” mimicking the southern Belles they portray. Even as an overhead voice announced, “Ten minutes to the top of Act One,” the girls of Ballyhoo continued nonchalantly getting ready for the curtain rising on this opening night, only their steady jabbering betraying their butterflies.

Out in the lobby, arriving theatergoers buzzed with anticipation. Among them was Omahan Lisa Jensen and her family. For Jensen, the appeal of live theater is “the excitement of seeing real people up there portraying a show, a story, a song. You get a different interaction than you feel watching a movie or a TV program. You’re clapping for people who are up there performing for you, and that’s exciting. And I think you get a little different excitement on opening night you don’t get as the play progresses. The actors are more breathless, the jitters more pronounced.”

As the near-capacity crowd filed in the auditorium and settled in their seats, the sound of eager voices rippled throughout. A darkened set, meant to represent a richly-appointed Southern parlor, only hinted at what lay ahead. Then, as the lights dimmed, a hush fell over the theater and the stage was illuminated by the glare of spots and warmed by the spark of actors breathing dramatic life into a space that only moments before was cold, static, dead. For the the next two-and-half hours 400 people suspended their sense of disbelief at the unfolding story before their eyes. As in all good theater, a visceral exchange occurred between stage and spectator, until only the play became the thing. Until the lines between fantasy and reality blurred. Another show begun. Another journey into imagination joined.

Whimsy alone is not enough to make a theater succeed. It also takes guts, vision, labor, love and money. With that kind of dogged spirit behind it, the Playhouse has enjoyed 75 uninterrupted performance seasons — weathering wars, a depression, a tornado and changing times along the way. This spirit of “the show must go on” has been translated into unparalleled support for the theater, which boasts a season membership base of 9,800, a volunteer corps of 2,000 to 4,000 and a large, plush physical plant including two theaters, many rehearsal halls and bustling costume and scenic shops (The theater is unique among community theaters in building its own own costumes and sets rather than renting them.).

Former Playhouse executive director and artistic director Charles Jones, who is credited with growing the theater into the nation’s largest, said, “A strength of the Playhouse has been that people have cared so much about it, and when people really care about something it’s bound to flourish. A secret to the Playhouse’s success has been its professional staff and  volunteer brigade. It has also been fortunate to have a wonderful board of directors who have always enjoyed a marvelous rapport with staff and volunteers.”

What accounts for the community’s deep embrace of the theater? Longtime volunteer Florence Young, who appeared in the very first play there in 1925, said, “There’s a feeling that it is OUR theater, and that makes it seem very close to us and very special to us. That we’re really a part of it. We love it.” She said community support for it mirrors the support Omahans show the Henry Doorly Zoo and the College World Series. “We really get behind things in Omaha. We don’t do things half-way. People really pitch-in, and that’s been the story of the Playhouse…of so many people contributing to it. One person’s enthusiasm for it draws another person to it, and they become enthused too. It’s an inspiration.”

Perhaps Henry Fonda summed it up best when he said once, “The Omaha Community Playhouse isn’t a mere building. It’s the spirit that has been put into the Playhouse by thousands of volunteers over the past many years.”

And true to its grassroots community origins, the theater’s artistic staff work hand-in-hand with amateur casts and crews to achieve productions of professional caliber. “Prior to most people’s first visit to the Playhouse they have certain expectations of what a community theater will be — a group of amateurs getting together to do a show of not so high caliber quality — but after they see the work of the Playhouse their perceptions of community theater are generally completely altered. It is the mission of the Playhouse to bring the quality of performances and production values to their highest possible end,” Beck said. Over the years its work has shined outside Omaha as select casts have participated in regional, national and international (Bulgaria and the former Soviet Union) theater festivals and through annual touring shows of its A Christmas Carol production.

The Playhouse presents 10 to 12 diverse productions each season. There is no sure formula for finding the right mix of plays that will please young, old, conservative and adventurous theatergoers alike. Said Beck, “There are people who have been members of the Playhouse for 20 and 30 and 40 years. These same people will support you but will also let you know very quickly when artistically you’re falling short. You see it directly in box office and membership sales. As a staff we try to live up to the heritage and continuity of the Playhouse by finding a balance of plays that challenge both the audience and the performer and that live up to the mission of a community theater, which is a varied and diverse season.”

The Playhouse also has an educational component via theater arts classes and workshops for all ages. It also offers an accredited apprenticeship program in technical theater. As part of an educational outreach effort to make theater available to everyone in the state the Playhouse formed a professional touring wing, the Nebraska Theater Caravan, in 1976. Since then the Caravan has taken to the road each year performing plays in smaller communities across Nebraska, Iowa and the greater Midwest. The Caravan annually mounts three productions of A Christmas Carol for audiences coast to coast. The Caravan, which recruits performers and technicians at regional auditions, has become an internal talent pool for the Playhouse. Beck, a Caravan veteran himself, said, “We have at least a dozen persons on staff who began as Caravan personnel. Together, we bring a professional strength and continuity to this community theater that is exciting.”

From the first opening night in 1925, when The Enchanted Cottage premiered, to this 75th anniversary season’s finale production of My Fair Lady, closing June 18, thousands of volunteers have supported the theater through long rehearsal hours, generous contribution dollars and annual season memberships. The story of the Playhouse is the story of the arts in Omaha. Of visionary figures (including early Playhouse stalwart Dorothy Brando, the mother of Marlon) pursuing a dream. Of a community pitching-in to realize that dream. Of supporters not letting hurdles stand in the way of grand designs. With The Roaring Twenties in full swing, the idea of creating a playhouse in Omaha was a natural. The city was fast transitioning from a frontier outpost into an urban center where all the amenities of modern life could be enjoyed. Movie and vaudeville theaters flourished. Why not a playhouse then? A group of civic and arts-minded citizens took up the challenge. By the fall of 1924 a board of directors was elected and by the following spring the Playhouse, aided by proceeds from fundraising events, was incorporated — with $10 shares issued to hundreds of stockholders. Now, it only needed a performing space.

A temporary home was found in the Cooper Dance Studio at 40th and Farnam. It was there The Enchanted Cottage, with Dorothy Brando and Jayne Fonda (a sister of Henry’s) in the cast, was performed. Within months a shy, gangly young man named Henry Fonda made his stage debut there, and, well, the rest is history. The Cooper remained the Playhouse’s home for two and a half seasons but when it was unceremoniously converted into a chicken restaurant in 1928, the theater finished its third season at the Benson High School Auditorium. In need of new quarters, the board set their sights on five nearby lots purchased a few years earlier from Sarah Joslyn, the widow of printing-publishing magnate George Joslyn. The story goes the lots, on the corner of 40th and Davenport, served as pasture land for Dame Joslyn’s cow. The fertile ground proved a rich spot for the new Playhouse, erected in only 28 days, to grow. The theater, variously described as “an old barn” and “an ungainly thing,” was meant to be a temporary facility but instead saw service for 31 years. Casts and crews made do with the structure’s shortcomings, including backstage space so cramped actors exiting stage left had to dash outside, exposed to the elements, to enter stage right.

By the end of World War II the theater was badly in need of a new and larger home. Enter Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire. The two stars, who performed together in the theater’s 1931 production of A Kiss for Cinderella, returned in 1955 for benefit performances of The Country Girl (co-starring Henry’s daughter, Jane) at the Music Hall to kick-off a capital fund drive. Within four years the Playhouse had opened at its present mid-town 69th and Cass Street site. Henry Fonda, who served on the Playhouse advisory board until his 1982 death, played an active role in visioning the theater’s future growth and ensuring its legacy. By the early 1960s, his son Peter also found his way on stage at the Playhouse. Besides the Fondas and McGuire, scores of Playhouse alumni have gone on to significant careers in theater, film and television, including actor Jim Millhollin and cabaret performer Julie Wilson. Even famed artist Grant Wood worked there — as a set designer. The place is still turning out talent. “We have a multitude of people out there doing exceedingly well. Last spring, for example, we had four former Playhouse or Caravan performers appearing in separate productions on Broadway,” Beck said.

A defining moment for the theater came in May of 1975, when a killer tornado ripped the roof off the building, blew -out the windows and doors and scattered costumes and props to the winds. A Rebuild the Playhouse campaign fund drive promptly began and by that fall the structure was repaired and a lavish 50th anniversary production, The Golden Follies, dazzled audiences. According to Charles Jones, the disaster made the community realize how much they valued the Playhouse and how fragile its continued existence was without their support, and people’s quick and generous response to its plight was the springboard for a new era of dramatic growth — in terms of memberships, contributions and additions.

Major renovations and expansions in the mid-1980s saw the refurbishing of the plush lobby, the addition of a second, more intimate, performing space (the Howard Drew Theater) and the creation of a newer and bigger scene shop. Later improvements have included a state of the art computerized lighting console. But now, some 15 years later, the Playhouse has once again outgrown its digs and is pursuing a new, grander vision: namely, to become a regional theater on par with the fabled Guthrie.

To bring that ambitious vision to life the theater is embarking on an $11 million dollar fund drive to support a new renovation project and to supplement its endowment. To stage today’s large-scale musicals, plans call for enlarging the main stage proscenium to allow for soaring two-story sets. To update the physical plant, old heating and cooling systems are to be replaced. To house the growing staff, who share quarters now, more office space is on the drawing board. To meet the growing demand for acting, dancing, singing classes, additional classrooms are in the works.

Big dreams indeed. Then again, the world of theater is all about making dreams come true. Will the Playhouse meet these lofty goals? Only time will tell, but if longtime supporter Dee Owen’s recent donation of the former Chermot Ballroom building (to provide more storage space for the theater’s $3 million worth of costumes) to the Playhouse is any indication, than Omahans will once again heed the call.

Just ask season subscribers Steve and Cindy Hutchinson of Omaha. According to Cindy, she and her husband value the Playhouse for the “consistent high quality of its marvelous productions” and “the continuity” it offers from year to year. Steve said they feel they have “an investment” in the Playhouse: “Because it’s a community playhouse the community stars in it. It’s a real expression of how much people here appreciate the arts.” Season subscriber Lisa Jensen of Omaha added, “It’s a little piece of Omaha culture at its best, and something we should all take advantage of.”

Bravo, Omaha. Now, let’s go on with the show.

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