Stage left, right & center

At age 40, OPRF's three theater stages are still going strong

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In 1968, as Jim Eitrheim prepared to debut three plays on the newly constructed Auditorium, Little Theater and Studio Theater stages at Oak Park and River Forest High School, he had opening night jitters.

In the weeks leading up to the school's official dedication of the new addition, and his simultaneous opening nights, workers were still in their faces and spaces.

The prospect of dodging construction became all too real one day when the visibly shaken director of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, fled the Auditorium.

"The riggers had dropped something from the flies, barely missing student chorus members and someone could have been killed!" Eitrheim recalls.

Since every available performance space was already in use, Eitrheim told him to hold rehearsals in the orchestra pit until the coast was clear, which the director did, somehow, with 120 kids.

Across the hall in the Little Theater, the British farce, See How They Run, was almost set in a black box-literally. Electricity hadn't been budgeted for the last-minute, smaller, add-on auditorium, so Eitrheim wired a portable board from the old theater space and used extension cords and scoop floods to light the show.

Meanwhile, upstairs in Studio Theater (Room 200), actors were timing student-produced plays to end in sync with the other two downstairs shows. The administration wanted Eitrheim's audiences to spill out en masse into the student center for an official dedication ceremony following the three curtain calls, and in that momentous opening weekend about 5,000 high school theater patrons did just that-ushering in a fabulous 40-year run of hundreds of stage productions and a long list of celebrity alums who got their starts here.

Movie and stage veteran Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio first acted on the Little Theater stage at OPRF; Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson, performed in plays and wrote original comedy skits for the speech team. Television actress Felicity LaFortune, irreverent comedienne Kathy Griffin, and Comedy Central Reno 911's Tom Lennon, started their careers here, as did prima ballerina Helene Alexopoulos who leapt from OPRF to the New York City Ballet.

Behind the scenes, a cavalcade of OPRF crew kids hit the big time, too. Jim D'Asaro was the production manager for the New York City Opera House, whereas Joe and Jon Champelli went west to do work with Flying by Foy in Las Vegas-the company that put Peter Pan in the air. Michael Reed, a 1976 alum, became a lighting roadie for Barry Manilow and numerous other rock bands mere months after high school graduation. Since 1993, he has headed Reed Rigging in Chicago, and in recent years began giving back to OPRF and the CAST program at Percy Julian Middle School pro bono.

Some history

The genesis of the three theaters was a perfect storm. The old school complex on the north end of the campus and the separate fieldhouse on the south end were bursting with baby boomers, so thanks to a multimillion-dollar school bond, OPRF sandwiched an addition between the two existing structures to add new classrooms, labs, cafeterias and lecture spaces, as well as those three theaters.

Initially, Eitrheim lobbied for a steel-reinforced balcony in the auditorium, but it was too cost-prohibitive. In its place, the architects leveraged a second, smaller theater a stone's throw away across the lobby. The determined high school director also pushed hard for, and got, more wing spaces on the auditorium stage, and preserved the existing underground tunnel, which still connects the green room to the auditorium and Little Theater today.

"I can hardly believe they listened to me, really. I had turned 30 years old in 1963, and in 1964 I was campaigning for that entire facility, and we got it done and moved in by 1968, spending millions of the community's dollars putting together a fine arts program that I could only dream about, and I had backing all the way," marvels Eitrheim, who left OPRF in 1990 to head a theater department at a small college in South Dakota until 1998.

Now officially retired with his wife Diane in northern Minnesota, Eitrheim says that while not every talented teenager in his theater program is a star now, scores of them are successful in their own careers and keep in touch-attorneys, judges, real estate brokers, teachers and a host of other professionals who say they use what they learned, "including a predilection for good diction, every day," he says.

"Those facilities are hard to ignore, and they have kept the program alive in hard times," says Eitrheim. "How fortunate I was to be there in that time and space."

Good old days

OPRF theater alums Kevin Bry, an attorney and local actor; Bill Sullivan, an attorney and real estate broker; and Karin Eitrheim Maas, a middle school drama teacher in Minneapolis, reminisce about how Eitrheim bellowed at them from the blackness with idiomatic colloquialisms like "Look and lean!" and "Don't go back, go on!" Such memories are coin of the realm for the ever-expanding virtual grouping of OPRF theater grads who now reunite on Facebook.

Eitrheim's daughter, Karin, recalls that in 1982 as the lead in Mame and came down with uncontrollable giggles during a dress rehearsal when two hefty kids settled into an oversized blowup couch and fell backwards.

"From the back of the auditorium, I hear this big voice: COME ON, COME ON, COME ON, and I tried to stop laughing and couldn't. Then I hear him saying, DON'T GO BACK, GO ON, and I started crying, and that was it for me. He paused, and then I hear, ALL RIGHT. SIT DOWN."

Bill Sullivan, who co-starred with her in Wizard of Oz and earned the lead in Brigadoon and other high school musicals between 1980 and 1984, can still smell the smoke and hear the pop of R.J. Mike Nielsen's backstage starter pistol.

"He was never successful in getting us to quiet down backstage until he pulled out a starter pistol and shot the blanks off, and for the rest of the run we all knew that boss Nielson was serious," Sullivan says. "Of course, after all the school tragedies that have occurred in recent years, that wouldn't fly now, but it did in 1984."

In 1980, Kevin Bry had a lead role in West Side Story, which drew an audience of 6,000. But he vividly remembers his first play in 1978 when he heard budding comedienne Kathy Griffin sing as the youngest daughter in Fiddler on the Roof.

"I used to watch her sing a very poignant solo called 'Far From the Home I Love' from the wings," Bry observes, "and do you want to know something? She was quite affecting and beautiful in how she did that song, which is very contrary to her current persona."

Regaling willing listeners with wild theater stories comes easily to Eitrheim-like the one in 1970, when future soap opera star Felicity LaFortune was playing the medium, Madame Arcarti, in Blithe Spirit and accidentally allowed the imported crystal ball to roll out of her oversized purse and break into a million pieces.

"We were in the main house for this, and when it happened, I got out of my seat like a shot," Eitrheim recalls. "I went back around the corner, and here comes the prop committee running. I said, 'We need to just be quiet and think. Have any of you seen anything anyplace that is round and might do?' One girl said, 'Well, I have a fish bowl at home.' I said to her, 'Come along.' We jumped into my car and ran over there. It was the end of the act and Felicity needed it for the next act.

"We dumped those fish out into a pail and got back into the car and got back to the school. I handed it to Felicity and said, 'Would you be a little more careful with this, because after this fish bowl I don't know where we will go.' She said, 'Yes, Mr. Eitrheim.' You always have hundreds of these things going on because kids are still kids."

Shy Dan Castellaneta was a rascal and perennial prankster who reveled in sneaking into Eitrheim's office and affecting his voice on the phone to callers. The talented cartoonist would also persistently pen outrageous cartoons of Eitrheim in unforgivable poses and leave them lying around for the merriment of his chortling fan club. Doh!

The petite songbird (and future film star) Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was a freshman in rehearsal for the small musical, Ernest in Love (1973) when Eitrheim first heard her sing.

"Here I am, walking through the student center and I hear this voice and make a beeline into the Little Theater," he recalls. "Here is this little curly-headed freshman girl, her feet locked and belting away from the center of the stage. Mary, good heavens, with that voice, she could have had any role she wanted, but instead took turns trying out for shows with her sister Gussie who is also a talented actress and dancer.

In 1974, he cast Mary Elizabeth as Dulcinea in Man of La Mancha, which she later reprised on Broadway. With Mastrantonio on the main stage was Dan Castellaneta, Michael Dunn, and Chuck Johnson, a dream cast who all went pro.

"Now you may not have heard of all those kids because if you starve long enough you tend to leave it behind, but I had them all on stage in one production," Eitrheim says proudly.

Three stages of life

In 1968 Patricia "Patt" Cheney was among the crowd of wide-eyed freshman who initially toured the new addition. Later, in 1976, after she had graduated from college, Cheney returned to her alma mater to attend the memorial service of her mentor, Morris Reidman, OPRF's makeup designer, who had died just prior to the opening of I Remember Mama that year. Eitrheim quietly asked his former student to fill in as the makeup artist for that show. She has stayed on and has applied her greasepaint to student actor faces in every OPRF show since, including the Summer Theater Workshop productions.

The 1972 alum is also the longtime coach of the school's speech team, director of the International Thespian Society, Troupe 5405, and was selected as executive director for the 2009 Illinois High School Theater Festival which is staging Hair Spray in January in its Midwest amateur debut.

For the last decade or so, OPRF's Speech Arts Department chair has been Joe Hallissey, who is filling Eitrheim's big shoes with a stable of teacher and student directors who stage up to 13 different musicals, dramas, comedies, edgy plays and dance performances a year, not to mention every other fine arts performance continually featured there. It's a busy place. In recent years he has been upgrading his facilities, including replacing that original rigging from 1968.

"The theater spaces we have now are easily the equal of most of the theaters in Chicago," Hallissey says. "We do have lots of lighting and sound equipment that is very first rate. All of this is assembled, cabled and patched by students during the productions, so sometimes we hear interesting noises from the sound system, or we have lights that perhaps don't come up when they are supposed to, but this is part of our role as an educational environment, to help students figure all this stuff out."

To date, the technically challenging shows have been Hallissey's favorites. Chicago (2006) was a beast with its two elevators and complicated staging needs. For Cabaret (2003) Hallissey sent out a technical lifeline to OPRF alum Michael Reed of Reed Rigging to figure out how to install lighting trusses over a temporary thrust stage. Reed was tapped again for Ragtime in 2007, the sprawling musical with scenes on boats and real cars, and in a stately house that appears and goes away from audience view, with every scene "fluid," meaning crew members had to get 120 actors, plus props and scenery on and off the stage without the customary 30 seconds of blackout. To keep everything moving, Reed installed a ground supported elevator system that moved a large platform with actors on it safely up and down.

"This is the place where you get to discover whether or not theater grabs your heart," says Reed, who credits his start in the business to his mentor, Mike Nielsen. "Again, it's three theaters. Take your pick. Do you want to do something small or be someone who belts it out on a big stage? It's all there. Just to have that there in a high school setting is nothing short of amazing."

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