A lot of magic possible in community theater

I am a big fan of community theater. I like attending plays, I?like being in plays. Since my first part as a chorus member in “Finian’s Rainbow” back in Albert Lea in 1977, I have been hooked on theater. I?have often said that being in a show is the most fun you can have without being arrested.

(By the way, the chorus director for “Finian’s Rainbow” back then was a spunky young middle school vocal music teacher named Marijo Wachal. I smarted off to her at one of our first rehearsals, one thing led to another and we’ve been making beautiful music together ever since.)

So I have been excited at the resurgence in community theater in New Ulm the last few years, especially with the development of the State Street Theater Company as the owner of the former Middle School auditorium. It is a big dream for the theater group to have its own space, and frankly, its going to be an expensive dream to make it into the kind of facility that it could be.

So it’s disappointing to see the turmoil – temporary, I hope – over the development of the property and the question of utility payments.

Right now the power is off in the theater and the rest of the building, which is slated to be developed into apartments. Who is responsible for paying the electric bill and why they aren’t paying it is a topic I’m not going to get into. I want to talk about the magic that can happen when partnerships happen between a community and community theater.

I?lived in Albert Lea for eight years, and for the first few years the long-established theater group performed at the Albert Lea Middle School auditorium, paying rent for rehearsal time and subject to scheduling conflicts with school activities. It worked, but it wasn’t ideal. The theater group had been saving money for a long time in the event that it might someday have a home of its own.

The opportunity came through the Federal Revenue Sharing program. It seems crazy now, but there was a time – 1972 to 1986, to be exact – when the federal goverment gave piles of money to cities, villages and communities to use as they saw fit. The program ended with the rise of the federal debt, but for a while, lots of cities were able to do lots of good things.

The Albert Lea city fathers. knowing the program wasn’t going to last forever, didn’t want to use the money for recurring expenses like salaries and street cleaning. They had some $400,000 available and wanted to do something big for the community.

So they joined forces with the local Community Theater to renovate an old building downtown into a theater. The building had been a lot of things over the years, including a vaudeville house, a makeshift movie theater and most recently a youth center, but it was really too decrepit for much of anything. The third floor of the building, housed the local Masonic Temple.

The city agreed to use the Federal Revenue Sharing money to remodel the building to create a modern theater, from the basement to the top of the second floor. The third floor remained the Masonic Temple, with an elevator to allow the Masons to get to their meetings without climbing stairs. They were ecstatic. The theater group spent $90,000 for the lights, curtains and sound equipment for the theater. The theater itself was beautiful, small and intimate. It held about 270, with a low thrust stage that really put the front-row patrons within arms length, almost, of the actors.

It became a wonderful home for the theater group, which hired a young artistic director named Michael Brindisi, who today is artistic director at the Chanhassen Dinner Theaters. Local actors got a chance to do their own productions, and in summer work with professional actors in a summer festival theater that Brindisi created. For the dedication of the theater, actress Marion Ross, (Mrs. Cunningham of the TV?show “Happy Days,”)?a native of Albert Lea, came home to do a Neil Simon comedy she had done in summer stock, with her leading man and a couple of local amateur actors to fill out the cast.

Now, the New Ulm RENU committee is considering a proposal to help the State Street Theater Company undergo some much needed renovations with city sales tax revenue. I have seen the kind of magic and excitement that support of the performing arts can have on a community. There are a lot of questions about how this partnership should work, but I believe it is a partnership well worth considering.

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