Curtain Call: The Old Town Players
“I can’t wait for the future, Joe,” says Mag, the young heroine of Brian Friel’s play: ”Lovers (Winners and Losers)” imagining a life of happy tomorrows. But the audience knows what Mag does not. Her tomorrows will not be happy. She is 17, pregnant, and three weeks away from marrying Joe—the father of her child. The high school has refused to allow them to graduate because the pregnancy occurred out of wedlock—a major issue when the play was written in 1967. Periodically, the spotlight shifts to a somber man and woman who read from scripts that tell of the young couple’s future, which, in a sense, they are powerless to change. The audience knows something else—this night in 1981 will be the final curtain call for the Old Town Players, ending their run at the little theater known as the “Miracle on N. North Park”. With the price and availability of land in Chicago’s Old Town area at a premium, the landlord could no longer afford to rent the space.
Fourteen years earlier, the company had taken to the same stage in Jean Anouilh’s “Antigone”, a retelling of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy in which the heroine, Antigone goes up against an all-powerful state with no hope of changing the course of events. In Sophocles’ play, the gods intervene in the end and set everything right. There is no such intervention in Anouilh’s version. Every character in the play will die, and Antigone’s world will be destroyed. The circle closed with “Lovers”.
Antigone was an auspicious beginning for the group of 50 volunteers who had converted an old church at 1720 N. North Park into a 98-seat theater space. Working around the four ornate pillars that supported the vaulted ceiling, they turned the pews into raked risers facing the performance area. The choir loft became storage space as well as the lighting and sound booth. The basement was used for rehearsals and a coffee lounge on performance nights. The renovation was so successful it was featured in “The Arts in Found Places”, a report published by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Old Town Players began acting in the basement of the Marshall Field Apartments on Sedgwick Street in 1933. None of them was paid. They built their own sets from donations or what they could salvage. They made props from found objects. (A Victorian settee constructed from three old restaurant arm chairs was so spectacular that several audience members wanted to buy it.) Volunteer costumers stitched together one of the most versatile costume collections in the city. Masterpieces of reincarnation, every costume was altered to fit the period of whatever play was in production. No one in the audience was the wiser.
At first, the Players specialized in children’s theater. When they added an adult component, the company really took off. They outgrew the Sedgwick theatre and moved twice more before settling in on N. North Park. Forty-nine seasons later, the Chicago Sun Times designated them the “best community theater in the city”. One hit followed another: “The Lady’s Not for Burning”, “Tiger at the Gates”, “”A Doll’s House”, Juliet in Mantua”, Major Barbara”, “The Three Sisters”, “Madwoman of Chaillot”, “The Corn is Green”, “Look Homeward Angel…the list goes on. By 1981, they had mounted 51 major productions, 20 of which were Chicago premiers; and played to more than 100,000 people—quite an accomplishment considering the theater’s 98-seat capacity. The group was so popular that aspiring theater people lined up to join. More than 125 actors showed up to audition for “Lovers”.
Some big theatre names found their way to N. North Park. In 1978 they premiered “Juliet in Mantua” by Robert Nathan, widely known for his film work. Famed designer Budd Hill, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama who had designed for New York’s Shakespeare in the Park, off Broadway plays, ballet, and television; volunteered to do the costumes for Juliet. They rivaled those of any Loop or Broadway production.
The Players’ versatility was nowhere more apparent than in “One-Two-San-Shi” and the “Kwaidan Quartet”, which were based on Lafcadio Hern’s translation of two Japanese ghost stories. Clive Rickabaugh, a designer, sculptor, and Broadway producer, adapted the stories in the style of the Bunraku Puppet Theater. He devised the puppets, the costumes, and the staging. Though Clive has passed on, these shows live in the memories of those who saw them, acted in them and who were part of the production team.
Over 500 actors performed with the Old Town Players. They helped raise awareness of the excellent work being done by Chicago community theaters and were responsible for non-equity companies being recognized for their achievements by the Joseph Jefferson Committee. “Lovers”, which drama critic Richard Christiansen called “…a handsomely crafted production…that shows the Old Town Players at their best”, took home four Jefferson awards: one for directing and four for performance.
A Farewell to Charms
It was a sad group that assembled to strike the set of “Lovers” after the final performance. They took down their little playhouse board by board and sent everything to a storage facility. Cast members pocketed a few bent nails. Calico, the troupe’s mascot was retired to a farm in Michigan. There was one last thing to do before they exited to go their separate ways. The Players and friends stood in the bare, unlighted space and said good-bye to fellow Old Town Player, Gertrude Soltker--one of the finest actresses to grace the Chicago stage. Her portrayal of Miss Moffat, the schoolteacher in a Welsh coal mining village in Emlyn Williams' "The Corn is Green" won her a Jefferson Award; and those who saw her performance will never forget her famous line: "...and when I walk--in the dark--I can touch with my hands where the corn is green."
Act 3: Enter, Laughing
It would be 30 years before The Old Town Players would reassemble at the behest of Old Town Triangle Board member and archivist, David Pfendler. One by one they filed in into the apartment of Dr. Sherwood Snyder, a director and staunch supporter of the group; expressing their joy at seeing one another and sending enough memories floating into the air around them to fill the 30-year gap. The last to arrive was Barbara Hobart, announcing, “I was in ‘Madwoman” (of Chaillot). They smiled when she reminded them that she had entered the theater declaring she wanted to join the company. They handed her a broom and said, “Welcome to the Old Town Players.” Only one member of the group was still “in the business”.
The Old Town Players will come together once more in the fall of 2013 in the courtyard of their former home on N. North Park. After a "soapbox" performance, they will walk to the Old Town Triangle Center, where an exhibition of their productions will be on display. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
It would be easy to mourn the demise of the Old Town Players. I won’t do that. Instead, I'll paraphrase the closing lines of the late historian Samuel Eliot Morrison in his biography of Christopher Columbus, "The Admiral of the Ocean Sea"
Sing no sad songs for the Old Town Players. They enjoyed long stretches of pure delight such as only people in the theater may know, and moments of high, proud, exultation that only those in their profession can experience.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times