Since 1935, Peninsula Players has been entertaining and educating Door County audiences by staging slices of life on its stage. For several decades, comedies, musicals, original works, mysteries and dramas have played before generations of theatergoers. Thousands of patrons have taken in the pleasure of walking the grounds and nestling into a chair along the cedar-lined shore to watch the setting sun’s reflection over the waters of Green Bay before they settle into their seats for an evening of live theater.
Hundreds of actors have trod the stage boards at the Players introducing generations of audiences to many unforgettable real life and fictional characters including Sherlock Holmes, Sally Bowles, Sister Aloysius, Sir Thomas More, John Merrick, Maria Callas, Eleanor of Aquitaine and many, many more. However entertaining these characters were on stage, they also left the audience pondering bigger questions. These characters shared their decisions, explored diverse topics and educated patrons about a moment in time, about their slice of life, stimulating conversations among playgoers.
The opening play of the Players’ 2009 season, The Lady with All the Answers, brings another unforgettable character, Ann Landers, to life. Through her newspaper column, Ann Landers entertained, educated and helped readers through tough moments. David Rambo’s comedy runs June 16 through July 5, and is based on the life and letters of Ann Landers with the cooperation of her daughter, Margo Howard.
For nearly 50 years Ann Landers was America’s Mom, dispensing homespun advice to newspaper readers on topics ranging from divorce and parenting to such controversial subjects as sex and war. Her witty, blunt and sometimes sarcastic columns were translated into more than 20 languages and printed in more than 1,200 United States newspapers. If Ann asked her readers to write their congressman, they did. When the nation was debating the National Cancer Act more than 900,000 letters descended upon Washington due to Ann’s urging. She was very proud of helping to get that act passed.
“Ask Ann Landers” first appeared in print in the Chicago Sun-Times in 1942 and was first written by Ruth Crowley, a nurse who died July 20, 1955. Esther Pauline Friedman Lederer became the second “Ann” and wrote her first column on October 16, 1955. “Eppie,” as she was nicknamed, quickly stood out from other “Miss Lonelyhearts” columns of the period because she shared no-nonsense, practical advice.
When Eppie started writing her column Winston Churchill had just resigned; three-cent stamps mailed a letter and Ike was in the White House. In 1955, the Players’ season included Dial M for Murder, Laura, The Rainmaker, The Fourposter, Sabrina Fair, and Mr. Pim Passes By. For an evening out gentleman wore suits and ties; ladies donned white gloves and boys opened doors for girls.
When Eppie started writing her column, her viewpoints on love, sex and marriage reflected those of her generation. As she continued to write, Americans of every age wrote her and shared their opinions on those same topics. “My column serves as a national soapbox,” Eppie said. “A forum, if you will. People tell me exactly how they feel about everything.”
As the decades passed and attitudes evolved and changed, Eppie’s did as well. Yet her readership never faltered. Eppie maintained her moral ground, but she grew to support women working outside of the home and her thoughts about divorce changed. She supported many hot topic issues including getting out of Vietnam, abortion rights, gay rights and dismantling nuclear weapons. Eppie took her role as counsel and advocate for her 90 million readers seriously.
Eppie became one of the first advice columnists to gain celebrity status through widespread syndication. She had a wide circle of friends with clout and used them in her column. When someone needed legal advice, she called her friend, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. She was in a class by herself until her twin sister, Popo, decided to join the advice business.
What Popo learned from Eppie’s beginnings was to get her column trademarked early. From the onset she owned “Dear Abby” and often taunted Eppie with it. Eppie loved her younger twin and often chose to ignore making any public or official statements in retaliation. Popo loved being a twin, Eppie did not. Eppie wanted to be her own person, and this, too, caused tension.
Eppie openly opposed racism and anti-Semitism; she devoted many columns to battling intolerance. She was candidly liberal in her politics and bluntly traditional in her morality. Her emphasis on individual responsibility and self-reflection inadvertently helped spawn the self-help movement. Psychology Today once gave her credit for likely having more influence on the way people work out their problems than any other person of her era. She had a profound effect on playwright David Rambo.
“When I read her obituary, I was struck by how affected I was by her death,” Rambo said. “She had been at the breakfast table all my life. It was odd to think of her not being there anymore.”
Rambo had been thinking about writing a one-person show and was in search of the right character. “As I looked over biographies and collections of her columns, I realized that her dialogue with her readers through the column was very much an artist-and-audience relationship,” he said.
Those qualities made Landers a perfect character for the stage, Rambo said. “She so created herself as a theatrical character.” Ann Landers joins the other characters that have stepped in front of the footlights at Peninsula Players. The Lady with All the Answers will be on stage at Peninsula Players through July 5. For more information about the comedy or any other show in the Players’ season visit http://www.peninsulaplayers.com or phone the box office at 920.868.3287.
Audra Baakari Boyle is the Business Manager at Peninsula Players and is celebrating her 15th season by the bay.