The Making of Third Avenue Playhouse

Lucky the town that has a theater. The rhythm of an ever-changing marquee (playing now, coming soon, playing now, coming soon) is like a steady, collective heartbeat, a 100 percent reliable indicator that “there’s life in that thar town.”

A theater’s vibrancy spills over into surrounding restaurants and coffee shops. It adds dimension to the lives of the people who live in the community and it might even convince a visitor to add said community to his or her list of “places I could live someday.”

Why theater? For most of us, entertainment options are abundant, convenient and cheap. In other words, canned. Live theater is to the entertainment industry what local produce is to the dining industry – fresh and nourishing. Television episodes and movies offer the same lines delivered in the same way by the same actors each and every time they’re seen, but theater is dished up fresh every night. Depending on the cast, director and audience, a show is subtly different each time it’s performed. Tonight is the only chance to see tonight’s show.

Robert Boles and James Valcq, co-artistic directors of the Third Avenue Playhouse (TAP) in Sturgeon Bay, know this. In their words, “Theater is all about the experience. People don’t come for the titles; they don’t always recognize them. They don’t typically come for the actors. They come for the experience. We’re committed to making that experience remarkable, memorable and accessible.”

Let’s go to the theater!

From the Cedar Street Confectionery to the Third Avenue Playhouse: 1911 – 1999

The Third Avenue Playhouse occupies a large brick building on the north end of what is now Third Avenue and was once Cedar Street but has always been Sturgeon Bay’s “main drag.” All the places that make a small town hum – the hardware store, bank, post office, shops, salons, saloons and restaurants – are within

Submitted photo.

Submitted photo.

spitting distance.

The structure itself first appears on hand-drawn fire insurance maps in 1911 as a confectionery and shares the block with a “five and dime” and a Chinese laundry. It also housed a grocery store and the Ideal Restaurant. In the 1940s, Cedar Street became Third Avenue and in 1950, Frank and Madonna Borchert converted the building to The Donna Movie Theatre.

In 1999, a multi-screen movie theater was built on the outskirts of town and the tradition of going downtown to see a show came to an end. The blank Donna marquee might just as well have read, “Seen Better Days”…for itself and for downtown.

It Began as a Dream: 1998 – 2004

As they say, one man’s vacant, ugly, dilapidated, musty old confectionery-turned-movie house is another man’s treasure. Or, in this case, young woman’s treasure.

Amy McKenzie grew up in the theater. Her father was award-winning Broadway theatrical producer James McKenzie. The younger McKenzie had directed and acted in productions across the country as well as many at the Peninsula Players Theatre in Fish Creek. It just so happened that when The Donna closed, McKenzie was looking for a meaningful way to give back to the only home she had ever really known.

“We moved a lot when I was growing up, but we always came back to Door County,” said McKenzie. “I felt it was crazy that Sturgeon Bay, a town of 10,000 people, didn’t have a theater. It deserved a theater. But times were really tough then. In some ways, Sturgeon Bay seemed to be experiencing its own private recession.”

McKenzie had more than a stellar theatrical pedigree and résumé. She also, it turns out, had a good head for business.

“For some reason, I always have been able to put deals together.”

McKenzie’s recitation of TAP’s birth reads like a too-long and too-tough “to do” list:  form nonprofit entity, convince owner to donate buildings, draft business plan, secure financial backing, acquire needed licensing, deal with budgets, grant writing, bylaws, royalties, promotions, advertising, insurance, tickets, etc., etc., etc. Fortunately, the list of people who stepped up to help was equally long and equally tough.

“They were and are all my heroes,” recounts McKenzie. “James Kaplan [composer of many American Folklore Theatre (AFT) favorites, including the hit musical Guys on Ice] was in the trenches with me. Dennis Statz, Tom Herlache, Carla and Ellsworth Peterson, Pete and Carol Schuster, Karen McClellan, Tom and Carol Lyons, Becky McKee, the list goes on and on. We all worked harder than any of us thought we could to make a dream come true.”

On October 26, 2000, with McKenzie and Kaplan as directors, TAP opened its doors. Guys on Ice was performed on a makeshift, temporary stage with minimal sound and lighting in a converted cinema, but it was performed…and there’s been no looking back.

When asked about the founding vision for the Third Avenue Playhouse, McKenzie is clear and passionate.

“From the beginning, the dream was to offer a ‘pantheon’– the full shebang of theatrical experience, if possible. We wanted a performing arts center that was used by the community both for amateur productions, especially those involving kids, and other events, too – lectures, film, etc. I also strongly desired a professional troupe. Amateurs learn by watching professionals. It’s the best way to do community theater. Being surrounded by professionals makes you ‘step up your game.’”

Photo by Len Villano.

Photo by Len Villano.

Terry Lundahl succeeded McKenzie and Kaplan as director of TAP and her interests took the theater in a musical direction, attracting performers such as Janis Ian and the Siegel-Schwall Band. Through TAP, Lundahl launched a career in music programming that continues at various venues to benefit the Door County community to this day.

The Little Theater that Could:  2004 – 2011

In 2004, TAP’s board of directors asked Judy Drew, a new board member and recent retiree, to take over as a short-term interim director. Drew had limited experience with theater but possessed impressive business and marketing acumen.

By the time she left her “interim” position seven years later, she had worked a good amount of magic. Under her watch, a small theater with an uncertain future became an anchor of the Sturgeon Bay community.

Drew shored up TAP’s finances and was able to make much-needed improvements to the facility. A successful “Raise the Roof” campaign provided the means for a new roof, hundreds of old seats were reupholstered, a new marquee was erected, and a cash reserve created.

Most importantly to Drew, TAP began to once again produce theater. TAPWorks produced two shows each year and ran a popular theater day camp for young actors. When current directors Boles and Valcq reflect on their immediate predecessor’s legacy, they agree, “We and the community owe Judy a lot. She kept the theater open and solvent against great odds. She also stabilized the building, which is something we’re thankful for every day.”

Photo by Len Villano.

Photo by Len Villano.

Enter Stage Right: 2011 to date

Boles and Valcq were having dinner at Cornerstone Pub in Baileys Harbor when they heard the news that Drew would soon be resigning.

“We didn’t think a lot of it, it was just the gossip of the evening. The next morning, Hans Christian [an accomplished local musician] called us to say ‘you should apply for that position.’ Hours later we were sitting in the parlor of the White Lace Inn with Dennis Statz [innkeeper and founding TAP board member] , and about a month later everything was official.”

When life took this unexpected turn, Boles had been preparing to return to his position as the director of the theater program he founded at the University of New Haven in Connecticut and Valcq was midway through his third season performing for Door Shakespeare. They had just purchased a vacation home in Door County.

Boles’ and Valcq’s roots in the theater world run deep and their accomplishments are impressive. They have each authored award-winning works; Valcq’s Spitfire Grill, written with AFT’s founder Fred Alley, won the illustrious Richard Rodgers Award and Boles’ one act play Birthday Boys received the Lipkin Prize for Playwriting.

Between them, they have directed, composed music for, acted, sung and danced in more theater, television and film productions across the country than seems possible for their years.

How did two such credentialed gentlemen find their way to Door County?

“High school music camp,” explains Valcq. “I met Jeff Herbst [longtime artistic director for AFT] and Fred Alley at Sellery Hall in Madison. Fred was too cool for camp, but he visited Jeff and we all got to know each other there.”

The Heritage Ensemble (AFT’s precursor) hired Valcq to cover for Alley during its second season.

Sturgeon Bay’s First Black Box Theater and Stage Door Theatre Company:  2011

One of the first things Boles and Valcq did when they assumed leadership of TAP in 2011 was to complete the long wished for renovation of a “black box” theater. Black box theater consists of a simple, somewhat unadorned performance space, usually a large square room with black walls and a flat floor.

Black box theaters became popular in the 1960s and ’70s when low-cost experimental theater was in its heyday. In addition to being relatively inexpensive to create, it is considered by many to be a place for “pure” theater, a place where the more intimate and human elements of theater upstage the technical.

Valcq recalls, “We were excited about the idea but we first had to clear out a mountain of accumulated stuff from what had been a storeroom – old sets and furniture. Then we unearthed chairs from the main theater that were being stored in the basement, hauled them upstairs and bolted them to the floor, all 84 of them. We then had to figure out how to create a freestanding structure for the lighting equipment. There’s no manual on how to do this stuff. I remember spending four or five hours on top of steel bars suspended over the stage.”

The work has been more than worth it as the black box space met immediately with rave reviews. Boles explains, “It’s a very intimate theater—‘up close and personal’ as we like to say. With the audience that close, you can’t fake anything.”

The new theater space gave birth to a new theater company. The Stage Door Theatre Company was founded in 2012 and joins AFT, Door Shakespeare and Peninsula Players Theatre as one of Door County’s four professional theaters.

According to Valcq, “The theaters in Door County co-exist in a spirit of collaboration, not competition. We share some of the same talent pool and audience, but we fill our own niche. Each organization has something distinctive to offer. There’s great variety for those who want to see theater in Door County. Third Avenue Playhouse offers a very intimate, indoor theater experience and we are the only one of the four that operates year round.”

A small performance space requires small cast productions. This has been no problem for Boles and Valcq.

“We have a phenomenal stable of actors, many of them professionally trained, and it allows us to showcase their individual talent.”

In just three seasons, Stage Door Theatre Company has offered 20 full productions, well-known favorites such as The Glass Menagerie and Shirley Valentine and lesser known, but equally well-received, treasures such as Talley’s Folly and The Drawer Boy. The shows run six nights a week for four weeks, with a matinee or two thrown in.

“A typical run is about 29 shows,” explains Boles. “This allows word of mouth to get out. There are some slow nights, particularly mid-week in the winter seasons, but overall our attendance is growing. We had twice as many people see Talley’s Folly as had seen The Glass Menagerie shown at the same time a year earlier.”

Valcq adds, “The first two seasons, we’d peer out the front door and watch people stroll down the street. We’d play the ‘TAP or Van’s Guessing Game.’” Van’s was the neighboring bar at the time. “One of the saddest nights was when a group wearing Peninsula Players sweatshirts went to Van’s.”

“Really, Really, Really Good Theater”

Len Villano

Photo by Len Villano.

Arthur and Dee Hopper have spent decades entrenched in theater. Arthur is professor emeritus of theater and dance at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and he and Dee, between them, had acted in and directed hundreds of productions, including some for TAP.

They recently attended Stage Door’s production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. They’ve seen most of Stage Door’s shows and have nothing but praise for the new theater company.

“We’re so impressed with the quality,” Dee said. “We feel that it’s some of the best theater being done in Door County today. ”

Arthur agrees and adds, “Bob and James have a good feel for their audience; they’re thoughtful in what they select and have chosen many shows that ought to be revived. They work with their actors and that’s evident in their productions.”

Regional theater critic Warren Gerds expressed similar sentiments, “Stage Door offers really, really, really good theater!”

Keeping the Dream Alive

One of the things that makes TAP unique among Door County’s professional theaters is its overlap with the community. This harkens back to founder Amy McKenzie’s dream.

TAP employs a community theater model with its StageKids programs. The ambitious and powerful production of columbinus in 2014 showcased students from four of Door County’s five high schools. Boles is excited about the teaching aspect of TAP.

“When kids study theater, they’re learning creativity and self-confidence and cooperation…life skills.” Boles and Valcq have also instituted an internship program and they hired four interns in 2014.

TAP runs an ongoing staged play reading series that also follows the traditional community theater model and uses local actors. Community auditions are held not only for the StageKids shows and the readings, but also for Stage Door Company productions. Many people from the community have been hired to perform in TAP’s professional productions.

Photo by Len Villano.

Photo by Len Villano.

In addition to holding acting classes for students of all ages, TAP has brought workshops and performances to schools in Door County and has opened its space to community theater groups such as Rogue Theatre and Isadoora. This spring it will host Sevastopol High School’s spring play. Boles and Valcq encourage any and all community theater organizations or schools to inquire about using one of TAP’s two stages.

“What James and I have consciously tried to do,” Boles explains, “is to broaden the definition and scope of the community TAP serves. Our community is all of Door County – its year-round residents, its part-time residents and its visitors. While not actually a ‘community theater,’ we have tried very hard to make this a theater for the entire community.”

Living the Dream

Running a theater isn’t for the faint of heart and there’s a lot to be done in order to accomplish TAP’s mission “to entertain and educate while provoking thought, laughter and tears.” Though perpetually busy and short-staffed, Valcq admits, “We know we’re living the dream. We get to exercise every talent we possess on a regular basis.”

Boles adds, “Every day is exciting because we’re planning for the next show or the next season and we’re seeing progress. We used to say we were 10 to 12 steps behind; now we’re only three!”

When asked what they are most proud of, after the success of Stage Door and their work with kids, being ‘in the black’ the past two years is high on the list.

That’s not to say challenges don’t exist, Boles cautions. “It’s not as if we’re an entrenched cultural institution. We operate on a shoestring budget and we have a long wish list. We need power tools, better dressing facilities and a scene shop.” Valcq jumps in, “What we really need is an employee with no artistic responsibilities.”

They recount a recent and too common experience when rehearsal for The Fantasticks had to stop while Boles dealt with the utilities company. While they laugh, Boles frankly states, “Things are good, but I’d characterize us as ‘pretty fragile.’ The financial condition of a theater company will always be a concern. That never stops whether you’re TAP or the Metropolitan Opera. As long as the support is out there for outfits like ours, the theater has a fighting chance. And our support has been enormous.”

After three years of frenetic activity, TAP will embark in 2015 on its next strategic plan.

Submitted photo.

Submitted photo.

“We’re just starting to feel like we can come up for air and think about the future. We’ve done hundreds of shows and events in three years with three staff and we’re still here. At one time, TAP was, by necessity, closed two-thirds of the year and opened one-third. We’ve turned that around. We feel really good about the direction the theater is going but there are opportunities out there,” states Valcq. “With more resources, there are certainly things we’d like to do.”

Boles expresses the desire to someday offer a top-notch film festival and make more consistent use of the large 250-seat theater.

As much as Sturgeon Bay is lucky to have TAP, Boles and Valcq feel fortunate to have Sturgeon Bay.

“We feel appreciated in the community and part of the community. Whenever we drive over the bridge, we say ‘we live here.’” Valcq continues, “I feel like we’re making a difference in a real community and that doesn’t happen when you work in New York. I ride my bike downtown and people stop me and thank us for being here and for staying here. That means a lot. We’re not going anywhere.”

10 Ways to Keep Live Theater Alive

  • Go see live theater and take your kids. They’ll remember it. Student tickets at TAP are just $10.
  • Make a year-end contribution to TAP, 239 N. Third Ave, Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235. Gifts of all sizes appreciated!
  • Sponsor a show. It feels good.
  • Volunteer.
  • Go see live theater and take your parents.
  • Have a local business? Place an ad in the playbill.
  • Hold your company’s holiday party at the theater.
  • If you like one of the shows, tell your friends.
  • Have out-of-town guests? Be a cultured host and leave two tickets on their pillows.
  • Go see live theater. Go see it again.

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