Part I

Oak Park’s longest-running, professional non-equity theater, the 46-season-old Village Players, will be celebrating their proud history with a special Founders’ Day event on Saturday, Sept. 9. Few people now remember that the company began in 1961 as a group of dissidents who’d defected from an older, larger theatrical organization.

The Village Players Theatre was essentially a splinter group from the Oak Park Recreation Department’s Theater Guild. In those days the “mother” company mounted their shows in the Hamilton Theater in the old Lowell School (razed in the early ’70s) at Lake Street and Forest Avenue, in downtown Oak Park (now 100 Forest Place). Their purpose was to present “first class entertainment for the entire family,” but not all the members were in favor of doing only “family shows.” Several wanted to tackle more adult themes and dramas, such as Arthur Miller’s controversial allegory of the McCarthy “witch hunt,” The Crucible. When that play was proposed, however, the supervisor of the Recreation Department objected to its controversial themes.

So in 1961, a small but dedicated band of 15 theater enthusiasts split away from the Oak Park Theater Guild to form the Village Players. This new group began to hold their meetings and rehearsals in the basement of St. Paul Federal.

“When we broke away, the early Village Players simply wanted more freedom and room to grow,” remembers Miriam Petzke. “Eventually many other Guild people came over to the Players, too. It was quite an exciting time.”

The Village Players immediately established their by-laws, consisting of 13 paragraphs. The most important items dealt with the purpose of the group, the membership requirements, and the election of board members and their duties. Committees were established, such as Play Reading, a group of members who recommended the upcoming season’s shows. Membership varied in the early years but it was often around 100. The first membership dues were $5.

A nominal budget of $75 was established for the first production, which was, in fact, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The director, Jim Cronin, worked without pay. Playwright Miller sent a letter to the fledgling company congratulating them on their choice of his work as their opening show.

“I have always believed that the community theater is one of the most important means at hand for breaking the hold of commercialism on the theatre,” Miller wrote.

“I myself started with Village Players when they were still renting and mounting shows in the Hamilton Theater in the old Lowell School in 1966,” recalls Petzke. “I did performing, I stage managed at least 18 shows, I served on five boards of directors. Once we moved over to South Boulevard to the ‘Studio Theatre,’ we all did literally everything. We painted sets, we did box office, you name it. We were all totally committed to doing whatever it took to create good theater. But that made us incredibly close. People who would move away would join other community theater groups and would report back they expected to find what they had enjoyed at Village Players, but it was always lacking.”

Stars cleaned the toilets

“In the old days, it was truly a Mom-and-Pop kind of situation at Village Players,” recalls Mary Nardulli. “We did it all. You’d spend the afternoon cleaning under the seats and scrubbing toilets, then you’d run home and quick grab a shower because you had to go on in a big role that night.”

“From an acting standpoint, the old Village Players was like this wonderful repertory company,” Nardulli said. “The same core people stayed involved for decades, so you didn’t have to spend a lot of time and energy getting to know one another’s quirks and acting styles.”

“As corny and clichd as it sounds,” says Petzke, “we were truly a ‘family’ back then. We really created our own sweet little world. We played bridge; we had a gourmet club. Remember, 40 years ago, there were few off-Loop shows, almost none of the little storefront theater companies that began to spring up on the North Side in the ’80s. There were really few opportunities for young performers in the ’60s. There was no Great America for dancers and singers.”

“It was wonderful to be in the Village Players in those early days,” says Laverne Murphy, who sang and danced in shows with her husband Dick. “We started doing shows in 1962. It was all pretty thrilling. Then we’d go to parties after the performances and discuss the different shows all night long. We shared so much and learned a lot from one another.”

“People often mock community theater,” says Petzke. “We howl at the film Waiting for Guffman because it’s so hilarious, yet painfully true. But over the years the Players had an incredible number of highly talented people in their productions. Megan Cavanagh, for instance, never had big roles. She’d be in the chorus. But then she went on to do Mel Brooks stuff in Hollywood and big films like A League of Their Own. Johnny Galecki, who was a regular on Roseanne, was one of the children in our Fiddler on the Roof.”

All of the early players agree that this venue for nonprofessional dramatics provided an ideal opportunity for people from a variety of backgrounds to share the satisfaction of being part of an active, social and artistic community. Relationships deepened. And with each show, attendance increased. The company continued growing and thriving.

“While producing shows at the Hamilton Theater, Village Players’ productions were staged under very challenging conditions,” observes founding member Audrey Erber, now living in California. “The theater could be rented for only one week. So during those seven days, final rehearsals had to be held, sets constructed, lights installed, and the set decorated. It was also mandatory that everyone be out of the school each night by 10 p.m. so that didn’t give the cast and crew much time. Then after the curtain came down on Sunday night, the set would have to be ‘struck’ and the theater returned to its original condition.”

In the pink, but in the red

During the early years, the group operated in a deficit. Income from ticket sales was supplemented by members’ donations, rummage sales, and Las Vegas Nights. Other money-raising events included classes for both adults and children, plus classes in make-up, lighting, and “tech” workshops. Members also sold everything from hot dogs to T-shirts.

New projects were launched every season. Broadway Toppers, an annual musical revue, featured numbers from popular shows. These productions were “taken on the road” to various civic and social organizations as money-making vehicles.

In 1964 the first “SAM” awards were given at a special banquet. “SAM” stood for Special Award of Merit. These trophies were awarded to recognize the time, effort and talent of the members. The first year these awards were given only to the tech people. But in 1965 actors’ names were added to the ballot.

Jaime Sandoval remembers, “The Village Players company was always so special. With professional theater you’re working for pay, so supposedly that’s the best, but you don’t have time to share as much. The actors at V.P. made room for the personal stuff, the sharing. They were literally your neighbors. You could go out after rehearsals together. People grew very close.”

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Doug Deuchler

Doug Deuchler has been reviewing local theater and delving into our history for Wednesday Journal for decades. He is alsoa retired teacher and school librarian who is also a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent...