St. Louis Park in the 1950s was an exciting place, with homes, schools, and churches springing up like wildfire, new organizations forming, and a pervasive enthusiasm for all things community. The baby boom was producing a vast number of graduates from the local universities, many of which had degrees in theater. In these days before the Guthrie (which started in 1963), community theater groups were popping up throughout the suburbs. For a timeline of theater in the Twin Cities, see www.theatreintheround.org.
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COMMUNITY THEATER OF ST. LOUIS PARK
Into the mix came the Community Theater of St. Louis Park. The St. Louis Park Historical Society is fortunate to have received materials of the Community Theater of St. Louis Park from three sources: Ruth Steimle generously donated her collection of programs and articles, Margit Robl Detchons sent in articles about her mother’s instrumental role in starting the group, and a wonderful scrapbook kept by the group was found in an obscure closet at Central in 2005.
A “Talk of the Town” article dated August 14, 1959, describes the establishment of the Community Theater as the fulfillment of a five-year dream of Mrs. Eileen Robl. She had moved to the Park in 1954 from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where she had 13 years of experience in community theater. Since moving to the Park he had worked with dramatic groups in church settings.
The article explained:
But it wasn’t until  that she was given the impetus that led to creation of the community theater.
It came from Roger DeClerq, a drama teacher at St. Louis Park high school, and Mrs. David Taylor, a theater enthusiast. Both expressed genuine interest in her proposition and worked closely with Mrs. Robl to attain her objective.
A public meeting was held in April 1958 to “sort of feel the pulse” of the neighborhood. Only a dozen persons attended.
The meeting in May was more widely publicized, and a turnout of 48 persons gave expression to the interest and support of a theater. From then on things really jelled, Mrs. Robl says.
The photo below, printed in the Dispatch on July 9, 1958, had this caption:
Membership in the St. Louis Park Community Theater group is increasing every week and charter membership is still open. Principal activity these weeks is the reading and discussing of plays to be scheduled. The board of officers is now complete and are introduced here to the public for the first time.
Front row: LaVerne Skunberg, publicity director; Jeanne DeClercq, archivist; Eileen Robl, director, house management.
Second Row: Lin Tayor, vice president; Min Himmelman, director, public relations; Mrs. Ewen J. (Helen) Cameron, secretary; Ruth Winsor, recording secretary.
Back Row: Howard MacMillan, business manager; Ray Lammers, director, play reading chairman; Roger DeClercq, president.
A somewhat alternate history of the troupe was described in an early program:
In April of 1958, Roger DeClercq and Lynn Taylor approached the Women’s Club of St. Louis Park with the idea of a Community Theatre in the Park. The Women’s Club offered their spoken encouragement, and financial support. Thus, the theatre began in June, and was incorporated. Many meetings and much organization transpired, and new members turned up at every meeting.
In September of 1959, rehearsals, scenery construction, and costume round-up began for “Inherit The Wind,” directed by Roger DeClercq. The ticket committee sold 1300 season tickets. A total of 2600 people saw our first production which ran November 6, 7, and 8, 1959.
January started us right back into production on “Thieves’ Carnival.” This play was directed by John Ahart from the University of Minnesota. The play was presented on February 12, 13, and 14, 1960.
Our season ended, we went into production of one act plays to be shown at the monthly theatre meetings. These were directed and acted in primarily by people with little or no previous experience. We also had several readings of short scenes from plays. In the spring of 1960, new officers were elected.
Our constitution states objectives, which set us apart from many groups. It states: “The purpose of this corporation shall be to encourage and cultivate the dramatic arts in St. Louis Park, and to effectuate this end to produce plays for the entertainment, education, and edification of the general public, to afford opportunities for the expression, development, and training of skills and talents relating to the theatre arts; to cultivate social relationships among its members…”
PRODUCTIONS OF THE SLP COMMUNITY THEATER
Performances were presented in the High School Auditorium until the 1966-67 season.
1959-60 Season: Howard MacMillan was named Business Manager of the Community Theater in June 1959. At the time, MacMillan was the business administrator for the St. Louis Park school system. Supporter Colby Skinner organized a host of volunteers who sold 1,634 season tickets.
The first production was “Inherit the Wind,” which opened on November 6, 1959 and drew 2,600 people (at $1.50) over three performances. DeClercq was the director and Kloth was the scenic director. Featured was Bobby, a South American Sapajou monkey, who made his first appearance in the same play the year before in St. Paul. On loan from the Como Zoo, Bobby bunked with Mr. and Mrs. Al Anderson during the run of the play.
The theater’s second production was “Thieves’ Carnival,” presented on February 12-14, 1960 and directed by guest director John Ahart from the U of M.
1960-61 Season: On October 20-23, 1960, “The Visit” was presented at the high school auditorium. An estimated 2100 people came to see the play. The cast party was held on October 28 at the Edina Legion Hall, and featured entertainment on guitar and bongos. A Community Theatre newsletter, “The St. Louis Park Lantern,” was produced for members who supported the troupe. Here we find that Robert Stone served as Chairman of the Board for the 1960-61 season.
“Look Homeward Angel” was staged on February 9-12, 1961, also at the high school. Both productions were directed by DeClercq. Staging by Stanley Kloth, costumes by Ms. Leon Hyatt.
1961-62 Season: In October 1961, “Beggar on Horseback” was produced with a cast of 31, directed by DeClercq and staged by Stan Kloth.
“Teahouse of the August Moon” was presented on January 25-28, 1962 at the high school and featured a live goat. The play was directed by DeClercq and designed by Darrell Fluke. Playing the lead role of Lotus Blossom was Betty Wong, wife of Jimmy Wong, owner of the Foo Chu Café on Excelsior Blvd.
“The Andersonville Trial,” was produced on April 26-29, 1962 with an all-male cast of 26. The play was directed by Irving Fink and designed by Stan Kloth, with Ms. Leon Hyatt on costumes. This was the first play so far not to be directed by DeClercq. It was presented at Hopkins High School because of a scheduling conflict at Park High.
1962-63 Season: Season tickets were $4.50. The first production of the season was “The King and I,” presented on November 1-3 and Nov. 9-11, 1962, directed by DeClercq. A last minute King change had to be made when the original actor got transferred to Japan. Opening night featured visits by the Queen of the Lakes and Miss St. Louis Park, and got excellent press coverage. The show featured 61 performers wearing 200 hand made costumes.
“Three Men on a Horse” was presented on January 24-27, 1963, directed by Lee Adey. The 1935 comedy was written by George Abbott and featured two real-life married couples playing husband and wife in the play.
“Little Mary Sunshine” was presented on June 13-16, 1963, directed by DeClercq. Patrons were treated to the sight of two Mounties on horseback as they arrived at the high school. Meanwhile, the play was picketed by the Minneapolis Musicians Union protesting the use of two nonunion piano players, Jean Rodberg and Donna Edwards. The dustup started when the union took exception to the use of student musicians in “The King and I.” The union threatened to put the high school and the school board on the “unfair” list. As a result, the school board denied the group the use of the high school for their productions. In October 1963, an injunction was issued to stop the union from intimidating the school board. As a result, the school board reversed its decision and allowed the company to perform at the high school.
On March 29, 1963, the group held a workshop in which three plays were explored: “Riders to the Sea,” directed by Harriet Fink, “Hello Out There,” directed by Al Anderson, and “Clerambard,” directed by Marcelle Ayme. August 15, 1963, a housewarming party was held for the troupe’s new home in a storefront at 2629 Louisiana.
1963-64 Season: “The Mouse Trap” was directed by Patrick Ptacek and performed on October 31 through November 3. This play replaced the scheduled “Annie Get Your Gun,” which had to be scotched because the group refused the union’s demands to hire unneeded musicians. The Agatha Christie play was designed by Stan Kloth, with costumes by Nancy Anderson.
“The Crucible” was directed by Lee Adey and performed on January 30-31 and February 1-2, 1964 at the Park High auditorium. Cast members included faculty members from five different schools. The Arthur Miller play was designed by Stan Kloth, with costumes by Nancy Anderson.
The Community Theatre performed the children’s play “Land of the Dragon” as a fundraiser for the Eliot School PTA, with performances on April 24-25 and May 1-2.
“Gideon” was directed by DeClercq and performed on June 11-14, 1964. Set design was by Richard Ptacek and costumes by Jan Stageberg. The cast included a live goat (and the goat’s stand-in), which frolicked in the Steimles’ back yard during the run of the play. Veterinarian B. Robert Lewis injected these four-legged actors with a long-acting anaesthetic to get them through the sacrificial ceremony. The premiere was graced by much royalty, including Miss Richfield, Miss Edina, Miss Bloomington, and Jane Veker, Miss St. Louis Park. The performance of this Paddy Chayefsky play was its Upper Midwest premiere, according to the Minneapolis Tribune.
It was at this point that the group gave up its rehearsal space on Louisiana Ave. as too expensive. They did, however, get use of the old City Hall/Lincoln School building at 37th and Alabama pending sale and demolition. It was there that a creative dramatics workshop for children was conducted.
1964-65 Season: “Most Happy Fella,” directed by DeClercq and designed by Stan Kloth, was presented on October 30-31, November 1, 5-7, 1964. This production featured the Minneapolis Choralaires in the chorus and a great deal of solo performances – 75 performers in all. Lead Robert Mantzke didn’t have a broken leg, but needed a cast for the play, so a doctor at Deaconess Hospital obliged.
“Five Finger Exercise” was presented on January 21-24, 1965 at Park High. It was directed by Lee Adey and designed by Richard Ptacek. This play received less-than-stellar reviews.
Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” was presented on June 17-20, 1965. It was directed by DeClercq and designed by Richard Ptacek. Jean Rodberg designed the costumes. Again the critics were unkind, but were roundly criticized themselves in the paper.
“Many Moons” was performed on April 12 and 13, 1965, sponsored by four elementary schools. The children helped sell tickets and other tasks, and got a portion of the proceeds. The play was adapted from a story by James Thurber, and featured 10-year-old Jana Andren in the lead.
In July 1965 the musician’s union placed St. Louis Park schools on its “unfair” list, making it impossible for students to book bands for dances. The union rep, Biddy Bastien, lifted the ban for 24 hours so that the all-night senior party could go on. “Ah Wilderness” had pickets at its door.
1965-66 Season: “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was presented on October 28-31 and November 4-7, 1965. 1961 Park High graduate Nancy Bantel played Molly. The premiere was a benefit for the National Kidney Foundation. Rehearsals were held at the home of Mrs. Fred Nordstrom, 4308 Brookside, in an auditorium at Methodist Hospital, and at the old community center on Lake Street. Although they could store items at the old City Hall building, it had no heat, electricity, or water, so was unsuitable for rehearsal. Reviews pointed out problems with the orchestra, and the reviewer for the Minneapolis Tribune gave the show a terrible razzing.
A children’s play, “Crown Prince of Wanderlust,” was presented on December 29 and 30, in conjunction with the St. Louis Park Women’s Club. The cast included 45 children and one adult. 20 Pioneer Girls and Girl Scouts served as usherettes. The performances netted $475 for scholarships to graduating seniors in the class of 1966.
In December 1965 it became untenable to continue using the Park High auditorium. The cost was considerable, and the 1,000+ theater too big for many productions. It was also increasingly difficult to schedule the amount of time necessary for rehearsals and performances. The Theatre contemplated raising funds for their own building, but it never panned out. Conditions were also bad at the old City Hall building, where the leaks in the roof were causing stalagmites to appear, threatening stored costumes. Finally they were evicted on March 15, 1966.
“Time of Your Life,” by William Saroyan, was presented on January 20-23, 1966 at the Park High auditorium. The production was noted for the participation of 8 members of the aptly-named Stageberg family. Richard Ptacek was set designer, with Bess Yocum on costumes.
“Take Her, She’s Mine” was presented on June 16-19, 1966.
All plays presented in the 1965-66 season were directed by DeClercq. In 1966, the Community Theater presented a $300 scholarship to a Park High drama student.
On September 19, 1966, Colby Skinner of the Community Theater made a request to the City Council that the recreation center being proposed include space for community theater.
1966-67 Season: “I Knock at the Door” was presented on November 4-5 and 11-12, 1966, directed by Burton Frink.
“Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp” was produced December 28-29 in conjunction with the Park Women’s Club.
“The Death and Life of Sneaky Fitch” was presented on March 3-4 and 10-11 at Central Jr. High, directed by DeClercq.
“West Side Story” was produced on August 4-6 and 11-13, 1967. The stars of the show sang “Tonight” at the Maid Marian (Miss St. Louis Park) coronation on August 17, with two pages of the program going to promote the production.
1967-68 Season: “Luther” was produced in November 1967, directed by Roger Cornish.
“South Pacific was performed on August 8-11 and 16-18, 1968. The Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (precursor to the Minnesota Orchestra) accompanied the show, but it cost so much money that even if the troupe had sold every seat, they would have still lost money. Choreographer of the show was Toni Swiggum, who later became the choreographer for the Parkettes. Performers from the show sang “There is Nothing Like a Dame” at the Maid Marian (Miss St. Louis Park) coronation on August 15, with two pages of the program going to promote the production.
Unknown year: “You Can’t Take it With You” (October), “Because Their Hearts Were Pure” (November), “JB” (February), “Guys and Dolls” (April).
1968-69 Season: On September 5-6, 1968, the group presented “Broadway, Our Way” at the Prudential Building on Wayzata Blvd. The show was put on as a fundraiser, asking patrons for donations in order to pay off some of the Theater’s old debts. In August 1969, the Community Theater was conspicuously absent from Robin Hood Days activites.
Just as the baby boom engendered the Park theater group, it also contributed to its demise. The sheer numbers of students entering the high school meant that there were more numerous and more elaborate productions for DeClercq to stage, and he could no longer wear both hats. It also meant that the high school auditorium was no longer available. The last program of the 1965-66 season indicated that the group would move its performance space to the audio-visual room at Central Jr. High, forcing a downsizing in the productions to fit the smaller stage. In 1971, when the St. Louis Park Rec Center was being built, there was some hope that there would be space available for a theater group, but it was not to be.
Some of the actors who appeared frequently in the theater’s productions include: Al Anderson, Russ Christensen (a teacher at Park High who appeared in at least ten productions), Saul Laiderman, Ray Lammers, Pete Peterson (also taught at Park High), Harry Pulver, Dennis Stageberg, Grant Stageberg, Bob Stone, and William Woods.
JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER
The Jewish Community Center began staging plays just about as soon as it came to St. Louis Park. The organization Center Stage operated out of the JCC from 1968 to 1984.
ST. LOUIS PARK COMMUNITY THEATRE
An article in 1977 announced this newly-formed group, housed at Union Congregational Church. The group’s first play was “Butterflies are Free,” running November 4-5 and 11-12. Director was John Kirtland, Jr.
PARK COMMUNITY THEATER
There was a rejuvenation of Community Theater in the Park in 1980. Performances included:
“Dark of the Moon,” presented on October 23-24, 30-31, and November 6-7, 1981 at the Eliot Center for the Arts. The director was Susan Pritchard.
“Story Theatre,” July 15-17 and 22-24, 1982 – an official Aquatennial event.
“Dracula,” Fridays and Saturday from October 15-30, 1982. Directed by Ed Jones.
“The Bald Soprano” and “The Great American Cheese Sandwich” (Studio Series) November 4-5, 11-12, and 18-19, 1982, Eliot Center.
“A Life in the Theater,” Thursdays and Fridays from January 13-28, 1983, Eliot Center.
“Getting Out,” February 10 at Eliot Center.
In 1983 Susan Pritchard directed Park Community Theater’s entry in the Minnesota State Theatre Festival on March 13 in Albert Lea. The winner would represent Minnesota in a regional festival in Iowa, with nationals taking place in Alaska. Park’s entry was “Sing to me Through Open Window,” and competed with nine other Minnesota local theaters.
“Patio/Porch,” April 1983.
“I Ought to be in Pictures” on May 14, 20, and 21, 1983 at the Eliot Center.
In 1982 an 8-member group calling themselves Outcaste found a home at the Eliot Community Center. That summer, the group performed 17 times in 12 different Minneapolis parks. Their first big production, ”Lion in Winter,” opened December 2, 1983 at Eliot. Passing the hat at the parks the previous summer paid expenses.
ST. LOUIS PARK FOLLOW ME PLAYERS
From about 1991 to 1992 the St. Louis Park Follow Me Players produced at least two performances.
ENSEMBLE THEATER COMPANY
In 1993 there is an item announcing the Ensemble Theater Company, formerly the St. Louis Park Players. Grif Sadow acted as the group’s artistic director, actor, and co-founder. “Baby With the Bathwater” was performed at Central Community Center on June 24-26, 1993. Previous productions were “Beyond Therapy” and “Laughing Wild.” The group planned to present “The Actor’s Nightmare” and “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it all for You” at the Brookside Little Theater in July/August 1993.
ST. LOUIS PARK COMMUNITY THEATER COMPANY
In July 2007 the SLP Friends of the Arts announced a community meeting to discuss the establishment of a community theater. The group established a formally recognized Community Theater Company, with the intent to launch an on-going performing theater company and promote its continual growth. The Company is a non-profit organization supported by donations and arts grants, and is fully endorsed by the SLP Friends of the Arts.
The SLP Community Theater’s first production was “The Piper,” performed city-wide throughout August and September 2008.