The history of Alpena Civic Theatre (ACT) is a history of people, thousands of people, who've joined together over 50 years to create an organization, a family really, of dedicated volunteers interested in giving their time to "put on a show" for themselves and Alpena-area audiences. That goal has been reached over 200 times; we're hoping and planning to produce hundreds more. Some of these people have been with the theatre for most of its 50 years. Others have come across the stage briefly and gone on. All are important. Each has contributed his/her special talent, created a special piece of the whole.
Alpena Civic Theatre produced its first play, See How They Run, on February 18, 1956, at Ella White School. Homer Story directed the show, which starred James McEachran and Harriet Kelm in the leading roles. The story, organizer of the all-volunteer community theater group, was to direct this show and eleven others over six years with this fledgling group, all of them on the stage of Ella White School. Of course, rehearsals had to be held and sets and costumes had to be built elsewhere, moved and set up on the day of the production, and torn down after each run. In 1958, the Alpena Public Schools gave the group permission to use the empty Baldwin School for rehearsals, the building of sets, and storage of costumes, sets, and materials, a great boon to the new group. Later the schools purchased a warehouse adjacent to the Ella White School playground, and again a large space was granted to the theatre for rehearsals, meetings, and storage. Many thanks are owed to the school system for this early support.
Keith Titus, later to become ACT's director himself, but then an Alpena Community College (ACC) sophomore, first appeared with the group in Earnest Money in 1958. Some of the other regulars in the Story years were Howard and Harriet Kelm, Adolph Brosz, Stan and Donna Beck, Marvin Wysocki, Annie Olsen, Pat Wallace, Helen Parker, Jim & Evelyn McEachran, and Mary Cross.
By 1958 ACT had joined the Community Theatre Association of Michigan and was sending representatives to state conventions to share ideas and bring back expertise in the theater.
Following the staging of The Gazebo in 1961 Homer Story resigned as director of the group and, through Carl Titus revived the Christmas show, Why the Chimes Rang, it was the only play offered in 1962. During that year the legal work required to incorporate the theatre group as a non-profit corporation in the State of Michigan was completed.
In the fall of 1963 ACT was reborn with the arrival of Don Heady as a new instructor of speech and theatre at ACC. Interested people, including many members of the dormant group, were soon called together and a $50 treasury, carefully held by Stan Beck, was offered as start-up money. Heady loved children's theater and opened his directing tenure with Rumpelstiltskin, offered for five performances at Baldwin School. ACT also sponsored the Michigan State University Players' production of Medea, Alpena's first sampling of classic Greek drama, staged at the State Theater. The same group returned to Alpena under ACT sponsorship several more times with classic theatre productions, all sellouts at the State.
The theatre offered four plays in the 1963-64 season, ending with Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, which actually went on tour to Mio! Heady built all of the elaborate costumes needed for this period comedy from heavy draperies purchased for $50 from the Alpena Hotel when it went out of business, lots and lots of black velvet, which he stripped of color and dyed in glowing rainbow shades. Some of those "blacks" are still being used to screen side areas of the stage.
The need for a permanent place for the theatre became increasingly evident, as the problems with building and transporting sets and costumes and finding rehearsal and performance space multiplied. After a summer tour of the City assessing empty buildings, Don Heady and Bill Maxwell approached the Alpena City Council to request the use of the former Eagles Building, now City-owned and empty, for the community theater. They were granted a one-year lease and the cleaning, repairing, and building to create a real theatre "home" began. All of the men in the group still remember taking turns in "hell" with the daily chore of shoveling coal - lots of coal - into the stoker. What a relief when, within a couple of years, the boiler was converted to gas.
Another children's play, Pied Piper of Hamelin premiered in the building in the fall of 1964, with the first performance being a benefit for Pied Piper School. Don Heady himself played the piper and Bill Maxwell directed the show, his first of many for the ACT. The audience heard an extensive impromptu welcoming speech from Maxwell when the blowing of a fuse in the basement "Green Room" necessitated keeping the audience in their seats between the acts. The fuse box had to be located and a runner sent to buy a replacement fuse before the theater-goers could be released to enjoy the special reception planned for them. That same season ended with the theatre's first musical, Gilbert & Sullivan's Mikado, starring Clayton and Patty Bunce, Bill Maxwell, and Jim Hart. A very elaborate set was constructed, including a large bridge the length of the theatre and, under the bridge, a real orchestra, directed by Archie Best, with his wife, Jan, at the piano. Its great success proved to be a forerunner of the many musicals to follow.
Audiences at that time were sitting on borrowed folding chairs, which were transported from various locations, including funeral homes. In 1965 Heady learned that Wayne State's Bonstelle Theatre was renovating its theatre and replacing its seats. He negotiated for the used seats, arriving at a price of $2.00 each, rented a U-Haul truck, and, with his wife and a colleague, drove to Detroit, loaded the 200 seats, and returned to Alpena, all in a day.
In those days and for several years more, sets were built with free Abitibi Corp. "seconds," and bent nails were straightened for reuse.
In addition to many carry-overs from the Story years, some of the people important during Heady's years here were: wife, Sue Heady, Roy Beard, Elaine Sacra, Jim Rogers, Mary Westerberg, Sylvia Owens, Clayton & Pat Bunce, Joan Rings, and Marilyn Walchuk Some have remained active ever since: Ron Ross, Bill Morey, Bill & Sue Maxwell, Jim Miesen.
Altogether during Heady's three years, twelve plays were performed, eleven directed by him. He brought huge energy and drive to the theater, a demand for excellence, and expert training in all aspects of play production. Heady left the theatre to follow his dream and pursue a Ph.D. in theater arts. Behind him, though, he left a theatre with well-trained people, a beautiful home, and a commitment to continue.
In 1966 Keith Titus returned to his hometown to assume Heady's teaching position at the college and also to become the new director of ACT. With him came his wife, Sonya, and 7-yr. old daughter, Toni, both to become important members of the ACT "family." The season was expanded to five shows under his leadership and the theatre was redesigned with the building of a new permanent stage and risers and the rewiring of the theatre lighting system and installation of professional lighting instruments and a control board and light/sound booth. Titus also found grant money to have the theatre seats rebuilt and reupholstered so that they became the most comfortable auditorium seats in town.
Keith brought tremendous talent as an actor, director, and technician to ACT, as well as high energy and enthusiasm for teaching others. Keith and Sonya Titus appeared together during that first season in Death of a Salesman directed by Bill Maxwell. Interestingly, their daughter, Kirstine Furtaw, not yet born at the time of that performance, unknowingly chose that same play for her first directing stint at the theatre this season. Keith delighted local audiences by appearing on stage once each season, training other theater members to direct, a program that became very important to the continuation of the group. He resigned as theatre director in 1970, having directed 16 plays, although he returned to ACT to direct or appear in many shows over the next few years. During his years at ACT, he'd initiated a new summer company, Thunder Bay Theatre (TBT), which shared the theatre building. Now he needed to devote more time to it as it evolved into a year-round operation in its own building. Many new people became involved in the theatre during Keith's tenure: Don & Barb Elliott, Dave Elliott, Donna Gilmet, Clarence & Joan Dailey, John & Pat Stretchko, Shirley Weaver, Norm Foster, Charmian Washburn, Jim & Mary Louise Hart, Emmett & Dorothy Heiberg were among them.
The theatre changed its operating system from that time forward with a system that remains in place today. The group uses several volunteer directors each season, working to present balanced programs that offer audiences a wide theatre experience, from classics like The Visit, The Crucible, and Hedda Gabler, to modern drama like God's Favorite, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Butterflies Are Free, to new theater like Waiting for Godot and Steambath. Every season also includes a musical; Hello Dolly, Cabaret, H.M.S. Pinafore. In the ensuing years, 40 different directors have produced over 150 shows: Sonya Titus, 12, including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; Grace Morrison, 12, including Move Over, Mrs. Markham, Barb Elliott, 11, including H.M.S. Pinafore; Ron Ross, 11, including My Fair Lady; Bill Maxwell, 10, including Waiting for Godot, Clarence Dailey, 9, including On Golden Pond, Jerry Lannoo, 9, including Midsummer Night's Dream.
Literally, thousands of people have been involved at ACT in big ways and small, on stage and off. These days, Grace Morrison designs, builds, and decorates gorgeous sets; Marion Brown designs and builds hundreds of personally fitted costumes each year; Lorraine Schultz finds or makes special stage props and stage-manages every production; Fran Hamp keeps the box office-friendly and efficient; Sue Maxwell sells the season tickets and writes grants, Jim Phillips keeps the building in tip-top shape and handles lights and sound; Evelyn Hunter is a great organizer and jack-of-all-trades, Terry Carlson serves as secretary and house manager, Harry Johnson writes the newsletter; Mary Jo Skiba handles the P.R. Four fine treasurers have served in a lonely and thankless but most essential task: Bill Maxwell, Maggie Lamb, Roland Fancher, and Bill Morrison. Marlys Schultz oversees it all as long-time president, with the help of a Board elected by and from the membership. When the efforts of all these workers coalesce, usually about a week before opening day, real magic is created.
The audience, of course, doesn't often see any of these people. They know the actors and actresses, especially those who've appeared on our stage many times: Stan Beck, Keith Titus, Harriet Kelm, Annie Olsen, Marilyn Olsen, Jim Miesen, Bill Maxwell, Sylvia Owens, Shirley Weaver, Sonya Titus, Toni Titus, Charmian Washburn, Barb Elliott, Carol Lannoo, Gayle Wismer, Ron Ross, Carol Witherbee, Pat Jacques, Susan Martindale, Doug Niergarth, Mike Centala, Mary Bouchard, Jean Martin-Brown, Greg Altman, Dave Usher, Cary Keller, Terry Carlson, Rosina Phillips, and hundreds of others with so many memorable performances.
ACT has been in its theatre "home," owned by the City, since 1964, and the group is very grateful for the cordial, supportive relationship we've enjoyed over the years with many city councils and city staff. We've tried to be good tenants. In the last several years ACT has added a fire escape and emergency lighting throughout the building replaced all outside doors and the front entrance, put in a new kitchen, removed all asbestos, renovated the theatre with new seats and new carpeting, paved the parking lot all around the building, put on a state-of-the-art new roof and, last year with major help from the Besser Foundation, insulated the walls and put in an entirely new high-efficiency heating system.
Throughout its 50 years, the theatre's philosophy has stayed the same. All participants are volunteers and everyone is welcome. Newcomers are especially encouraged and there's work for all. Auditions are always open. Enthusiastic encouragement and support is given to other groups and other theatres, including TBT, ACC, Alpena High School, and some in other communities, with loans of our equipment, costumes, set pieces, and expertise.
As written in our 25th Anniversary Program, "Every amateur theatrical production is an exercise in faith: faith that a cast will be found, that technical persons will have time to devote, that advertisers will make a printed program possible, that an audience will appear in the theatre. Amateur theatre is volunteer work, and each little facet of a stage show, no matter how seemingly insignificant, from the initial selection of a script to the final striking of the set, is based on the belief that such a venture is time spent in a worthwhile manner."
Our sincere thanks go to the City of Alpena, the Alpena Public Schools, and the Alpena News for their generous, continuing encouragement. We're very grateful to the Besser Foundation, the Community Foundation for Northeast Michigan, the State of Michigan, Abitibi Corp., LaFarge Corp., and Steve Marks for grant support. A bequest from Jesse James was most appreciated. Local businesses and people have been important with their donations of supplies and materials.
Most of all, we thank the audiences who've attended our plays over the years, and some of them have been with us from the start. Your support, your laughter, tears, and applause, assure us that you agree that our efforts are indeed worthwhile. Don Heady, with mixed feelings in leaving us, said, "Nothing can better repay the sweat and tears of those early years than the continued existence of ACT as a cultural force in the community." Our continuation, then, is a tribute to the vision of Homer Story, Don Heady, Keith Titus, and all the others who have been true believers in the magic that is community theater.
Sue Maxwell, 8/25/05
Bill Powell - President
Ted Rockwell - Vice President
Judy Beyer - Secretary
Jay Kettler - Treasurer
Grace Morrison - House Manager
Jim Phillips - Building Manager
Fran Hamp - Box Office
Bronwyn Woolman - Photography
Grace Morrison, Jackie Herbert, - Archives
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