For Love of the Players: 75 Years and Counting
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful little theater in the woods, in a quaint place called Fish Creek. The theater sprang up in 1935 from the passions of a brother and sister, Richard and Caroline Fisher, but soon the whole family got involved. Mama Fisher made up the costumes and meals for the company, and Papa Fisher, with his superb electrical skill, was the handy man.
It was behind the Bonnie Brook Cottage/Motel, that their first play, Noel Coward’s, Hay Fever, was staged. Word spread fast, and many people reached into their pocketbooks to pony up one dollar for a ticket, in exchange for a fine piece of theater. Soon, they outgrew their location and moved to a 22-acre piece of land on Green Bay’s shores. There were apple trees, and the teenagers filled their stomachs with applesauce to fuel their creativity. Audiences sat outside under the stars, while the players acted for them on warm summer nights.
This was the magical land where the Peninsula Players grew up. A land where people, slowly recovering from the Great Depression, and a theater, created at a time when those same people needed it most, teamed up to bring the county something truly special.
Seasoned stage, screen, and television actress Jean Sincere performed at the theater off and on from 1939 to 1995. “It was really sort of like a fairy tale place to be, where nothing in the outside world made a difference. It was a wonderful place to act, and we were all so young…” Sincere said.
From the time of its birth, Peninsula Players has been a place where actors, directors, designers, and apprentices work, eat, and sleep side by side. Together, young and old, experienced and inexperienced artists hone their craft. Initially, the Players staged one show a week, scrambling to bring everyone and everything together by opening night.
Somehow, they still had a little spare time for shenanigans.
“In the early days, it was a very free way of living. Mama Fisher made wonderful liverwurst sandwiches after the show and we’d go golfing on the golf course at 4:00 am. I don’t know how many times we did that,” Sincere said.
Jean Sincere, and actor Bob Thompson, who began his career with the Peninsula Players in 1938 and ended it in 2003, are just a few of the many people who have made lifelong contributions to the Players. It was a combination of location – the bay stretching out alongside the theater – the people, friends, and the quality of work produced there that brought them back summer after summer. And, as Thompson put it, “It’s better than selling shoes.”
Back then, according to Thompson, bats made regular appearances at the evening shows. They expertly navigated through the bundle of wires above the stage, and, like little dive-bombers, made straight for the lights. Papa Fisher fought them unsuccessfully, and eventually audiences and actors acknowledged their position as members of the Peninsula Players community.
“If you didn’t have the bat swooping down in the middle of a show, you didn’t have the character, and you didn’t have the play,” Thompson said.
John and Pamela Walker, who now both work for Pixar, spent nine summers with the Peninsula Players. John joined the cast in 1979, and Pamela came on board a year later. Eventually, John started to produce shows under Jim McKenzie’s (who was the Executive Producer) guidance and tutelage. Then, in 1984, he became the General Manager.
John Walker said, “Everyone would come, the sunset would be great, and so would the weather. You could talk to the audience while you were waiting for the show to start. It was really wonderful. It felt like you were having this big party and people really enjoyed coming down there for the theater and the setting.”
Don’t worry; this fairy tale has its fair share of romance, too. The Peninsula Players’ Web site features a quote from Sam Wanamaker, a member of the cast in 1937 who later organized fundraising for the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.
“What romantic memories! So many firsts – first play, first car wreck, first passionate unrequited love affair (Caroline), first star-filled nights, first Northern Lights…It was a beautiful time which I shall always cherish,” Wanamaker said.
And there’s more: John Walker proposed to Pamela Walker on the stage of Peninsula Players in 1981. After the curtain call for Children of a Lesser God, a role which John and Pamela vigorously studied sign language for in preparation, John got down on one knee and popped the question in sign language.
Sincere said, “Nobody ever got any sleep, and there was always music playing – except when we were rehearsing. There were lots of romances; it was that kind of place.”
The fall season at the Players began in the early 1980s, and was a particularly special time of year. The crowds thinned out, the air was crisp and brisk in the evenings, and leaves fell along the shoreline. To keep warm, they set up wood stoves and a fire pit at the back of the theater (it was not too long before the fire department requested the stoves be removed), and blankets were provided to patrons.
“It was very romantic and cool,” Pamela Walker said. “It was a real growing experience and also such a pleasure.”
The Peninsula Players’ mission statement, which reads “To support, without reservation, the most exciting theatre company possible; to preserve the Theatre in a Garden’s natural beauty; to provide artists the freedom, tools, and facilities they require to entertain, uplift, and inform our audiences; to foster future generations of theatre professionals through the internship program; and to maintain fiscal policies that insure the future security of the theatre,” shows the nature of their commitment to the theater’s unique history, and to Caroline and Richard Fisher’s vision.
Providing artists “the facilities they require to entertain” and audiences a little protection from summer storms can be trickier than it seems. In the Peninsula Players long history, weather has reared its ugly head more than once, complicating the art of performing theater in the great outdoors. As a result, the Peninsula Players theater has gone from no rooftop, to a canvas one, and finally to something more permanent.
In his book, An Actor’s Life: It’s Better than Selling Shoes!, Thompson recalls the huge canvas top that was strung up over the audience in 1946. Although it protected the audience from weather, the canvas would flap loudly during inclement weather. More often than not it required audience participation in holding it down. Several years later, in 1957, Caroline Fisher’s dream of a permanent roof over the theater came true.
The Peninsula Players demonstrated their promise to preserve the future of the theater when, in 2005 and 2006, the aging stage house and audience pavilion was renovated. No longer could the worn down director’s chairs comfortably seat patrons, many of whom were beginning to complain.
“We had folks that didn’t want to come back because we took down the theater, and those who wouldn’t come back unless we took down the chairs,” Brian Kelsey, Managing Director of the Peninsula Players, said.
Most patrons who have visited since the new theater was constructed, however, give glowing reviews. The state-of-the-art building has the ability to be an outdoor or indoor facility, with sidewalls that can raise and lower depending on weather conditions. It can get a bit chilly down by the bay in the fall months, but radiant in-floor heat adds a little warmth.
“We have to rebuild for the next 75 years. The new theater enabled the Players to continue to do what they’re doing,” Kelsey says. “It didn’t lose any of the touch or any of the feeling. It just reinforced the professionalism.”
The new facility, while beautiful, maintains a sense of simplicity. “Last time I visited, I was amazed to see how [the theater] had changed, but at the same time how little it had changed,” Sincere said.
First time visitors are easy to spot. They are in disbelief the theater looks the way it does, says Kelsey, and the most commonly asked question at the box office is “Where’s the theater?”
After all these years, choosing each season’s shows continues to be a challenging, sometimes tricky job. Keeping the summer audience and the 75th anniversary in mind, Greg Vinkler, Artistic Director at the Players, is in charge of puzzling out how to compile a successful season.
In a 2009 press release, Vinkler described the process: “I am always on the look-out for a variety of theatrical works to bring to Door County audiences,” Vinkler said. “Friends give me scripts to read. I see shows. The Players’ has a self-imposed 20-year rule; we try not to do the same show twice within that time frame. So I take time to search for new theatrical pieces to bring to the stage, scripts that our company will be excited to work on and ones that will give a thrilling, challenging and above all exciting experience at the theater.”
For 2010, and the 75th anniversary, the roster of shows will combine tradition, crowd pleasers and new works all into one top-notch season.
“I can tell you that I went through a lot of thinking about what an anniversary means – especially a 75th one. I came to the conclusion that the best way to celebrate our anniversary was to do what we’ve always done well: to put a variety of shows on and to have a good time,” Vinkler said.
Heroes, a play written by Gérald Sibleyras and adapted by Tom Stoppard, launches the summer season with a hilarious tale of friendship and courage. Heroes, which debuted in London, won the 2006 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.
Jumping from friendship right into family, Over the Tavern, by Tom Dudzick, keeps the laughs coming. “It’s a very funny, very touching story about family,” Vinkler said.
A Little Night Music, by Steven Sondheim serves as the centerpiece of the season and the show that will most definitely please the crowds. Inspired by the only comedic film that Ingmar Bergman ever did, the show tells the story of the romantic lives of several couples. It’s a period piece, set at the turn of the last century, and features the well-loved song, “Send in the Clowns.”
Vinkler said, “It will be very pretty. I’m thinking of it as a sort of valentine to our Door County audience.”
The sci-fi romantic comedy, Comic Potential, by Alan Ayckbourn, serves as a nod to the future, and all the seasons yet to come. Finally, as fall approaches, the chill won’t just be in the air, but also in Joseph Goodrich’s new thriller, Panic. Winner of the 2008 Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for Best New Play, Panic, wraps up the 75th anniversary with a bang. Starring an Alfred Hitchcock-like main character, there will be blackmail, disappearances, and, of course, murder.
“We stand behind the idea that every year we put on a ‘75th’ season, because every year is as important as the next year,” Kelsey says. “To me, it marks the milestone of looking forward 75 years.”
Now America’s oldest professional resident summer theater, the Peninsula Players still wows audiences with stellar performances and an idyllic landscape. Steeped in tradition, the theater operates much as it did 75 years ago.
A few things have changed since 1935, though. There’s a new roof over the Peninsula Players’ heads, special effects aren’t as simple as they used to be, there are fresh faces in the cast, and more people in Door County.
Though some of the Players have changed, the basic concept that created them remains the same. Since its inception, Peninsula Players has offered artists and audience members alike the opportunity to recharge their batteries.
“People come there and leave transformed. Their life might take a different direction – they’re reinvigorated,” Vinkler said. “It’s a summer camp for everybody.”
Kelsey says, “We were born in the great depression, we’ve survived world war, several armed conflicts, and we’ve survived the great recession. It’s still here. It has that rightful place. Art. Door County. Peninsula Players.”
Peninsula Players: there’s something about that place. Where the Green Bay shoreline greets patrons as they roll down the hairpin curve, and suddenly it seems the whole rest of the world has up and disappeared. Fading sunlight glows fondly on the faces of awed visitors, and the creak of the porch swing where lovers sit softly accents the evening air.
“Perhaps more individuals will remember the simple things in life that make us happy, like gathering with friends and family for a picnic dinner and enjoying an evening of theater in the true Door County icon that is Peninsula Players,” Kelsey says.
Nothing says, “Love and Be Loved,” like the Peninsula Players, where the words still stand on the back of the stage house. Originally painted on the old building, the saying was saved and remounted on the new.
Now that’s romantic.
A Beacon at the Theater in a Garden: Jim McKenzie
By Tom McKenzie
To be clear, James B. McKenzie was my uncle. He and the Peninsula Players – the theater he nurtured for over five decades – made a huge impact on me. Without the enchantment I experienced watching Players’ performances, hearing his stories, and exploring the Players’ beautiful grounds, my interest in the dramatic arts and love for Door County would never have blossomed, nor would I currently be pursuing theater through my work at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
Jim became an intern at the Peninsula Players in the mid ‘40s after he returned from the Navy. He had come under fire in Okinawa during the final bloody days of World War II, and Door County’s placid shoreline must have been a welcoming place to renew his pursuit of the theatrical craft. He worked during summers at Peninsula Players while attending the University of Iowa. Afterward, he founded Dobbs Ferry Playhouse in New York and worked in the pioneering days of live television at NBC and PBS.
Meanwhile, by the late 1950s the Peninsula Players began to endure severe financial hardship. In 1960, a New York attorney purchased the theater at auction and asked Jim to serve as the theater’s managing producer. Jim agreed, and on September 22, 1961 the Peninsula Players became established as a charitable non-profit organization with a public mission “to promote, encourage, and stimulate public interest in the theatre arts, music, and literature by presenting dramatic, operatic, or musical entertainments of a high quality.” Jim served as producer for the Players from 1960 until he died in 2002, during which time he staged new works, Broadway hits, and classics. All were of the highest caliber that could be found north of Chicago, and arguably anywhere.
Simultaneously, Jim remained active in theaters nationwide, and his experience contributed to what he could secure for Door County each summer. All told, he helmed over 2,000 productions, hundreds of which were at the Players. He was producer at 10 other regional theaters, including the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut. He also produced over 60 national and international tours and three Broadway plays. This included the Tony nominated And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little by Paul Zindel, whose work Jim championed twice on Broadway as well as at the Players.
Drawing on his extensive connections in the theater world, Jim had the opportunity to fashion the Peninsula Players as a testing ground for promising playwrights of the day. It frequently held true that if it played well in Fish Creek, it could be a hit in New York. Door County audiences have reveled in having access to, and input on, some of the freshest contemporary theater. The relationships Jim cultivated with groundbreaking playwrights, like Neil Simon, A.R. Gurney, and Marc Connelly, created a boon for theater lovers. Thanks in part to Jim’s talented custody of the theater over so many years, a magic continues to reverberate between the venerable resident ensemble members who lift each Peninsula Players production to its highest potential and the audiences that bring joy and celebration each summer to this spot on the shore.
By Gérald Sibleyras, adapted by Tom Stoppard, June 15 – July 4
Over the Tavern
By Tom Dudzick, July 7 – July 25
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, July 28 – August 15
By Alan Ayckbourn, August 18 – September 5
By Joseph Goodrich, September 8 – October 17
June 15 – September 4: Tuesday through Saturday 8:00 pm, Sunday 7:30 pm.
September 8 – October 16: Tuesday through Saturday 8:00 pm, Sunday 7:00 pm.
Except Sundays: July 4, July 25, August 15, September 5 and October 17 at 4:00 pm.
Ticket prices: $29/$33/$36. Season and group rates available.