The Community Theatre of Terre Haute is a story of dreams, visions, and most of all, dedication of hundreds of volunteers who refused to give up in the face of adversity.
It all began in 1926 . . . Madge Polk Townsley approached the Pen and Brush Club and the Woman's Department Club with the idea of sponsoring a nonprofessional civic theatre group. Miss Townsley had been inspired by a visit in Detroit with her sister-in-law, Mary Townsley, and her friend, the late Jesse Bonstelle, owner of the Bonstelle Playhouse. Miss Bonstelle had trained nationally-known actors and actresses and fostered the emerging little theatre movement in America.
The idea took root and prospered. In 1928, the Community Theatre produced four plays between February and May, no mean accomplishment for neophytes. They were presented in the Garfield High School auditorium under the direction of Frieda Bedwell.
The next year, the budding thespians moved to Indiana State Normal School Hall, certainly an inadequate facility for the presentation of plays. It was a large lecture room with chairs on a flat floor. The stage was a narrow platform of polished oak.
In 1931, the group moved to the vacant, once grand, legitimate theatre called the Hippodrome, a magnificent auditorium, albeit crumbling, shabby and cold. Community Theatre stayed there until the fall of 1947. Various professional directors were retained. Six weeks rehearsal culminated in one lone performance on Thursday night. It was said Thursday was picked because it was "maid's night out."
Furnishings and costumes were borrowed. Local merchants were generous; newspaper and radio publicity was free. Volunteers working with "colorful" union stagehands, indulgent with "these amateurs," created settings. Scenery was largely that belonging to the Hippodrome, immense flats of a bygone era, many rococo or paneled to resemble formal, some palatial, room settings used year after year in various arrangements. Others were painted and repainted. Homes and attics were searched for drapes, costumes, and properties, as is done today.
The dismal financial woes of the thirties threatened bankruptcy for the little group, but lenient creditors and generous friends came to the rescue. In March 1937, the Community Theatre of Terre Haute was formally incorporated.
For 28 years CT led a nomadic existence until the purchase of the Best Theatre. On December 1, 1954, following ten months of frenetic planning, fund raising, and remodeling, the Community Theatre realized its dream, a home of their own. Receiving gifts and pledges from supporters throughout the community, the Best Theatre a neighborhood movie house on the corner of 25th and Washington Avenue. became the permanent home of the Community Theatre of Terre Haute.
1965-66. The fortieth anniversary of CT was indeed a busy year. In preparation for construction of the new warehouse, the house on the newly purchased land south of the playhouse was razed. Hap Miller, in consultation with Juliet Peddle, supervised construction by contractors Newlin-Johnson, BA Electric, and Pfleging Plumbing Co.
The new addition included a spacious workshop/warehouse, costume loft, and areas for props and paint. A full basement with restrooms was designed to be used for rehearsals and as a general meeting space. A sink was installed to facilitate light food preparation for meetings or play purposes. The newly cleared land was made into a parking lot for patron and provided access to a new stage door and vestibule.
The final move into the new warehouse was made in November 1965. CT said "good-bye" to the rented warehouse at 1427 Liberty Av which had been home for many props, costumes, and scenery. At last, all the activities of the theatre were under one roof.
First Nighters, a new women's auxiliary was organized under the leadership of Irene Burget. The primary purpose of the group was to stimulate attendance at opening night performances by hosting receptions in the new lower level of the warehouse after the show.
In the meanwhile, the board had decided to discard the idea of having just one director, as was the case in the previous year, and voted to use a variety of directors. Four of these were associated with Indiana State University and one from the Community Theatre group.
In 1965 Mr. Benjamin Blumberg commissioned artist Gilbert Wilson to create two large murals for the Community Theatre auditorium in memory of his wife, Fannie B. Blumberg. An artist in her own right, Mrs. Blumberg had first offered to make the murals possible. The 8 by 10 foot panels were installed in the art gallery/lounge at the front of the theatre where, for several winter months, patrons were privileged to see the progress as Wilson worked.
The murals, hung on either side of the auditorium and illuminated by special lights, were completed and dedicated at the end of the season. As "Gil" described them,
"For Comedy I will do a happy mythological subject using centaurs and fauns in a moonlit leafy forest." The design was from a Beaux Arts project for which Wilson had received a bronze medal while a student at Yale.
For Tragedy, Gil took his theme from Walt Whitman's "Drum Taps" poems of the Civil War. An old soldier has returned to the battlefield to find the body of a comrade wrapped in a blanket and buried where he fell. Gil's repugnance of war was again expressed as he had many years before in his murals in the halls of the Laboratory School and Woodrow Wilson Junior High School.
In 1991, planning began on the 1998 addition and remodeling. For the first time in 42 years, Community Theatre asked the Terre Haute community to support its programs by providing funding for the $1,033,000 renovation and expansion of the Theatre building. This plan included the addition of large restroom facilities, a spacious 2 story lobby, concession area, small kitchen, a rehearsal hall the same size as the stage, and new costume and furniture storage space.
We are very proud of our progress. The Community Theatre is the second oldest non-professional theatre, in continual operation, in Indiana, and the only one offering a film series as well as live theatre. No one is paid except the professional film projectionist and the custodian. We are financed by the sale of tickets, voluntary donations, and occasional grants. Considerable assistance and cooperation are extended to other cultural projects and organizations in the community. Providing five stage productions, and five international films, CT gives the people of Terre Haute the opportunity to see and become a part of live theatre. Behind the scenes and on stage, a simple love of the theatre has generated our mission statement: The mission of Community Theatre of Terre Haute is to entertain, educate, and enrich the community through dramatic arts.
The coveted Mummy Award began in 1953 as a special award to a worker who has given many years of service backstage. A life-sized mummy case was built in 1946 for the Man Who Came to Dinner. In 1953 the mummy turned up again when scenery and properties were being moved to a warehouse on Liberty Av. This is before the theatre was purchased. Deemed of no further use it was taken to the dump. At the end of the day as the last 5 volunteers were locking up the warehouse there was the mummy lid leaning against the telephone pole in the alley. Jane Hazledine tossed it into the truck and placed it on the mantle when they gathered that night at the home of George Mayrose. Throughout the winter the mummy lid showed up at each of their homes, all having ceremoniously signed it: Bob Wiandt, Hap and Ewing Miller, George Mayrose, and Jane Hazledine. When the Millers moved to England for a year the next spring, convinced that would not be happy without the mummy, Jane presented them with a small copper mummy case she created engraved with those 5 names and filled with X-rated scrolls. A couple of years later Bob Wiandt commissioned his father Walter Wiandt, a master jeweler to create a sterling silver mummy of the same design for Jane. Over the next 35 years Jane Hazledine continued to make the copper mummy cases. Ken Hazledine made them from 1990 to 1994 and daughter Peggy Apgar took over the making of the mummy in 2000. A bedraggled piece of the original mummy lid hangs in the lobby of the theatre along with a list of the Mummy Award winners.