On Stage

Dayton’s local theatre, from humble beginnings

by Jacqui Theobald

Photo: [l-r] John Saurine, Stage Manager Ralph Dennler and Laurie Scott of The Dayton Theatre Guild

Dayton is a great theatre town, we often say, and the question is, what makes that happen? Here’s a suggestion: It is the people who absolutely love theatre and have a passion to create; it is the people who are interested in a variety of attendance options; and it is the support of local philanthropists and local business. Those factors have combined over the years to maintain several excellent local community theatres and Dayton’s own professional company.

The Dayton Theatre Guild had its first brave beginnings back in 1945 with “Outward Bound” at the Dayton Art Institute, then moved to another available space; the Dayton Playhouse began in 1959 and also used various locations; and The Human Race Theatre Company was hatched in the minds of three Bowling Green State University students in 1974. Scott Stoney, Marsha Hanna and Kevin Moore later moved to Dayton. “The three of us formed Illumination Theatre, a Readers’ Theatre for the Dayton Playhouse in 1978, by then on West Third Street,” Stoney said.

Then, as now, there are interconnections.

The Human Race found its first home in the old Biltmore Hotel, a challenge of marble floors to which no seat or set could be secured permanently. For those in heels, especially men in period costume shoes, the slick surface was a challenge. Suzy Bassani, who started the youth-focused Muse machine, was the Human Race mentor and a supporter of going professional.

Memory keepers with each group have been generous in sharing their stories and statistics. They all cite those who came first, the generous people who helped in various ways and all the work it takes to keep every aspect going.

“The very first space the Theatre Guild called its own was a loaned carriage house on Belmont Park, with a small space on the second floor that could only be reached by outside stairways,” Fred Blumenthal told me, remembering early days. “If a character exited stage left and the next entrance was stage right, the actor ran down the outside stairs, crossed over and ran back up. It had 33 seats, and soon we had to do 10 performances for each show. By 1950 it was time for a permanent home.”

The Guild found a former Post Office building on Salem and moved in 1963. Although it was never quite sufficient, they liked it enough to stay for 46 years. Female audience members may remember the trek to their restroom backstage, carefully avoiding paint cans, props and a few spare set pieces.

More memorable were the people who made it all happen in that 88-seat theater. Tom Rice was described by Blumenthal as a tech-genius who was able to make anything work. He and Jean Barger met in one of the first productions and married, continuing to share their multiple skills with the Guild and many other theatrical projects.

Jean brought to the Guild a growing belief that non-professional need not mean amateur, that community theatre actors, when properly directed, are capable of far “more than ‘John Loves Mary’,” that intelligent audiences wanted more than just the style, but the substance … that you could actually develop a home for serious work …with a sense of fun.”

This a partial quote from the DayTony nomination of 2003 written by Ralph Dennler, who was also a significant Guild pioneer holding the same ideals and is still an active supporter. He has directed, acted and been significant in acquiring the present spacious home on Wayne Avenue. Jesse and Caryl D. Philips generously helped. Others include John Jakes, the novelist who wrote and performed in reviews; Ken Hardin, a big talent on WHIO-TV; the multi-talented Gil Martin; and Blumenthal, who has directed and acted in more than 100 shows since the beginning.

The first performances of the Dayton Community Theatre, before becoming Dayton Playhouse, were at Longfellow School on Salem Avenue. It has inhabited a former bowling alley near Linden Avenue, an old vaudeville house downtown and finally, sponsored by the city at first but no longer, their permanent home at Wegerzyn Gardens, with copious parking available.

“Early ‘pioneers’ included Sue and Art Jackson and Eileen Gault, who also gave memorable cast parties at her home, The Castle,” Dodie Lockwood, a pioneer and a DayTony Hall of Famer (as most mentioned here) said. Lockwood and John Riley were the innovators of Future Fest, now in its 25th volume, the new script competition that has become well-known nationwide.

Jack Blackburn is remembered by many as a creative force: an actor, director and designer who was clever, funny and more than a bit impulsive. There are stories best told by those who know.

Each community group has its specialties. The Playhouse does musicals, often including young people. The Theatre Guild often does more literary and challenging scripts. The professional Human Race is now selecting several new plays for regional premieres each season.

“I think there is more cooperation between the community theatres now,” Lockwood said. “Actors may work in several [theatres], props and costumes are loaned to each other, there’re fewer proprietary feelings.”

The joy and enthusiasm with which these pioneers and the histories are recalled verifies the pride of involvement and a firm goal, and of hard work, physical and mental and always emotional. “Are we having fun yet?” is answered with a big, resounding “YES, we are! And we have been for years and years and years.”

There are several delightful newer groups to be featured in a later column.

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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