Bahr and Thomas were looking for talent – enough talent to bring local theatre out of church basements and friends’ living rooms and onto a real stage with a real, and possibly critical audience. They found both talent and enthusiasm, and Sheboygan Community Players (later to become Sheboygan Theatre Company) was officially launched in 1934 with Mrs. Thomas as the group’s first president.
Bahr drew the fledgling organization into the operations of the Recreation Department and under the umbrella of the Sheboygan Board of Education, enabling Players to share the services of a professional drama teacher/director with the school system. Frederick W. Hilgendorf was engaged as Theatrical Director – a post he was to hold throughout Player’s first decade.
Community Players began its first season with 67 charter members and no theatre to call its own. Devil in the Cheese, the debut production opened on January 24, 1935 and was staged for two performances in a local movie theatre. The effort showed a net loss of $38.32.
Realizing that they needed a stable source of income so that they could plan for future seasons, Players established a policy of “closed membership” – attendance at plays limited to only members whose membership included a prepaid season ticket — and saw its audiences swell from 239 to over 1,000 in their second season.
Two full-scale productions a year, plus a few evenings of one-act plays was the usual format during the first five years. The organization used the Central High School stage or whatever other facility they could beg, borrow or rent.
In 1939, Community Players found its first permanent home in the newly completed North High School (now Urban Middle School) and was able to abandon the one-act plays in favor of three full scale productions per season.
Walter J. Pfister became Player’s second President in 1942 and served in that capacity for the next nine years. It was to be a period marked by a curious mixture of stability and transition. Hilgendorf retired in 1944 and was subsequently followed by five different theatrical directors during the next thirteen years: Lynne Nuerenburg (1944-46), Arnold Rhiel (1946-48), Jerry Kahan (1948-52), Kenneth Abrahamzan (1952-53), and Robert Quinn (1953-57).
Nuerenburg and Rhiel were high school English/drama teachers who worked with Players on a part-time basis, but Kahan was the first full-time staff member, hired under a nine-month contract with 50% of the salary paid by the Board of Education. During his first season with the group the schedule was expanded to include four full-scale productions. Players staged their first musical in 1950, presenting Of Thee I Sing under an informal cooperative arrangement with the Civic Orchestra (which at the time was also operated under Recreation Department auspices).
While musicals were enormously popular, the production demands on cast and the costs of staging were heavy, and the group made only periodic attempts in that field for a number of years. The second musical “The Student Prince” was produced in 1953, and it wasn’t until some years later that musicals became an annual event. Production problems for musicals were eased considerably in May of 1956 when Players and the Civic Orchestra were formally merged, beginning a relationship which was to last for 16 years.
Walter Pfister’s philosophy of theatre was a strong influence on Community Players during their second decade as they explored a variety of theatrical formats. In a statement of policy which he drafted for the group in late 1947, Pfister outlined out goals.
1. Get as many people as possible interested in the theatre.
2. Give people interested in the drama an opportunity to get up on the stage and act, paint scenery, shift scenes, or do any other of the many phases of work in the theatre.
3. With the best talent and equipment available, give your play-going, but otherwise inactive membership the highest caliber of theatre possible.
Under that philosophy, Players gradually grew from an organization specializing in what Pfister referred to as “sweetness and light” plays to a group with a serious dedication to quality theatre.
After its somewhat rocky youth and adolescence, Sheboygan Community Players entered its third decade in search of a certain measure of stability, especially in the area of theatrical directors. That stability came in 1957 with the hiring of David C. Bryant, who was to direct the organization’s efforts for the next 14 years until his untimely death in 1971.
Bryant was a master of public relations and soon made the entire area aware of Community Players and its activities. This considerably broadened both the audience and the pool of active participants, both on stage and backstage. Players also became a force within the larger world of community theatre. Bryant became a leader in both state and national organizations devoted to the cause of community theatre, establishing bonds which continue to this day with groups across the country.
Membership stood at approximately 4200 when Bryant arrived; by 1969 that number had grown to an all-time high of 6200. After 30 years of residency at Urban Middle School, it was increasingly apparent that the theatre facility there had some serious short-comings, especially from the perspective of those who worked backstage. The lack of on-site storage space for Player’s growing collection of set materials and properties, the temporary dressing room accommodations which forced some actors to run around the outside of the building to make their stage entrances, and the absence of working room for technical crews all made it extremely difficult for the group to maintain quality production.
When the Sheboygan School District decided to build a third junior high school on Sheboygan’s far west side, it seemed a “natural” for Players to request that the auditorium be designed with community theatre needs in mind. As part of their bargain, Players undertook a major public subscription drive in which over 700 local citizens and business groups donated over $65,000 to help equip the new facility.
The result was the Leslie W. Johnson theatre, one of the finest community theatre “houses” in the Midwest, which opened in May of 1970 with a production of My Fair Lady. Bryant, who had done so much to develop and equip the new theatre, had only one season in which to enjoy it. In August 1971, he suffered a heart attack while on his way to a national community theatre convention, bringing an abrupt end to an important era in Players’ history.
With their season already chosen and time of the essence, Players retained Jan Ewing, who had been directing the summer program at the Kohler Arts Center, as an interim director while the organization began to sort out its options for the future.
Responsibility fell to the members of the Board of Directors to take a more active role in the routine operations of the organization. In 1971, by mutual agreement with the Board of Education, Players assumed full financial responsibility for its budget, foregoing the “safety net” of school district underwriting for any budgetary shortfalls. For the first time in its history, ticket sales became vital to Players’ continued survival. And the news in that area was far from good!
A combination of factors – the dislike of some “traditional” theatre goers for the thrust stage at Horace Mann, some very troublesome problems with acoustics, a growth in the variety of other forms of entertainment competing for the same dollars – whatever the reason(s) Players attendance began a steady decline, slowly at first during the five year tenure of Director Jim Loeffler and then precipitously to an all-time low in 1978 during David Keyte’s two years as Director.
Rob Dipple joined Players as Director in 1979 with a great deal of enthusiasm and convinced the Board that Players should offer five full-scale productions each year. To assist in that effort, he championed the hiring of the organization’s first Technical Director, Bernie Markevitch. However, a new social phenomenon — a wife’s job change — took Dipple from the community within two years.
His unexpected departure in mid-summer left Players once again with a season selected and a Director search underway for the fifth time in the decade since Bryant’s death.
Ralph Maffongelli stood out among the many applicants because of his strong background in theatre, his experience as a teacher as well as his strong business sense. His skills earned him the first twelve-month contract in Players history and, a few years later, the first multiple-year contract from a Board which was committed to establishing a period of continuity and growth.
Under Maffongelli’s leadership, the decade of the 80’s saw Players making progress toward solving a number of chronic problems. A generous patron contribution allowed “mikeing” the house – the first step of several planned toward improving sound quality. The Board began the long and sometimes agonizing process of serious Long Range Planning to determine a sensible course of action to recapture audience share in a time of ever-increasing competition. The backstage departments were reorganized with the assistance of new Technical Director Marty Kooi, who joined the group in 1989, to more closely parallel the operations of professional theaters and to provide more meaningful educational opportunities for the volunteers who work there.
As Players approached their 60th anniversary year, they made the most noticeable change of all, setting the wheels in motion to change their name to the Sheboygan Theatre Company, effective with their 1993-94 season. The change, the Board announced, “is symbolic of a new direction for the organization and a fresh commitment to ensure both the artistic and financial viability of the Sheboygan Theatre Company for the next 60 years.”
Reorganization in the next few years also resulted in a decision on the part of the Board of Directors to place full responsibility for day-to-day activities in the hands of the staff so that the Board could concentrate on policy making and fund raising. From this has come a very successful annual fund raiser, Swine & Swing. Meanwhile the decade of the nineties also saw the inauguration of a yearly Broadway Show trip to New York City, the presentation of two volunteer recognition awards each year, the initiation of a college scholarship for theatre studies, and the beginning of a summer program in drama for middle school youngsters. That the Company also entered the Cardboard Boat Regatta six times and won an average of one award a year was merely on the side.
In the midst of all this activity Dustin L. Uhl joined the Theatre Company in the fall of 1997 as Designer/Technical Director. As the third person to hold that position he has built on the successes of his predecessors and contributed significantly to the organization.
With dramatic production naturally at the heart of The Sheboygan Theatre Company, the last twenty years have seen such programs as Theatre in the Park for children, Chamber Players as a venue for readers’ theatre and eventually the presentation of Children’s Theatre and Studio Productions to enhance the mainstage. Along the way the Company also entered various competitions, the highlight of which was 1989 when The Seahorse won the state title and placed second in the region. In recent years the organization has focused on new play production, mounting in the past ten seasons eight new scripts, seven of them seen by their authors and four of them world premieres. With the recent advent of a second stage space to produce smaller, more intimate, lesser-known scripts in a dinner theatre format, the Sheboygan Theatre Company intends to continue offering a variety of theatre fare to the residents of the county.
Like all volunteer groups, The Sheboygan Theatre Company has experienced its share of highs and lows during its first six decades. But it has survived to become one of the oldest and largest community theatre organizations in the nation. And Walter Pfister’s statement of philosophy still holds true: STC exists to provide quality performances for its audiences and quality opportunities to participate and learn to all who might be interested.