A CRITIC REMINISCES
I arrived in the Valley in 1977, right in the middle of the Valley’s golden age of community theater. There had been a few professional theaters here. None of them lasted long. The community theaters carried the flag, providing not only a place to see world theater but see world-class actors performing it.
You may laugh when I say “world-class” but many of the actors, directors, designers and technicians who worked in the Valley could have plied their trade anywhere in the world.
You must understand that this was not the community theater of popular denigration (fluffy comedies, war horse musicals), though there was that, it was a world of the classics – Shakespeare, Marlowe, Euripides and Socrates, Shaw, Ibsen, Williams, Inge, Wilder, Saroyan, O’Neill, Kaufman and Hart, Beckett, Ionesco, Lorca and Odets.
To name a few.
One of the companies that carried the flag highest was Scottsdale Community Players. Founded in 1951, it produced its first season the following year. For decades, it was housed in the city-owned Stagebrush Theatre on Second Street in downtown Scottsdale. Then, in the late 2000s, a weak economy and changing public tastes brought its long run to an end.
But as James Bond put it so memorably, never say never.
The Players’ youth wing, Greasepaint Youtheatre, survived the closing and continued to operate out of the Stagebrush. In 2013, the youth group’s leaders decided to bring the Players back to life.
The newly reconstituted company’s first production was Fiddler on the Roof later that year. It played to sold-out houses. It was followed by Steel Magnolias, which opened in May, 2014.
It is hoped that full seasons will follow, bringing the Players back to the forefront of Valley theater.
ARC SPOTS IN THE SKY: A WORLD PREMIERE
In March of 1975, Scottsdale Community Players presented the world premiere of Tim Kelly’s Frankenstein at the Stagebrush Theatre. Kelly with a prolific playwright, with more than 50 titles to his credit by this time. Tim directed from his script and his cast included Thomas Mastronardi as Dr. Frankenstein, Steven Mastroieni as Henry Clerval, Thomas Blackwood as ‘The Creature,’ Joan Silberschlag as Frau Frankenstein, Martha Welty as Elizabeth, Gene Smith, Fay Bullock and Royce Bauder. Ken Kloth designed the sets.
Martha Welty remembers … “I played Elizabeth in this production! I was 17, still a senior at Scottsdale High School and absolutely THRILLED to be working with such talented actors and playwright-director. Tom and Steve and Joan were just lovely to me and took very good care of me!”
Steven Mastroieni remembers … “Tim had worked in the Valley with Scottsdale Community Players before and he also worked as the theatre critic for the Arizona Republic and as theatre editor for Point West Magazine. He was a ‘fellow’ at Yale University for a year.
This was the first time Frankenstein had been preformed.
The original book by Mary Shelly was extremely florid, rich and rococo. This was difficult to translate into a viable stage version, according to Tim.
Tim said he considered Scottsdale home and he had a special fondness for the Stagebrush and Scottsdale Community Players, and that it was a luxury to take time off from filming to come back for five weeks to put Frankenstein ‘up’.
It was very exciting for me, a young actor to have the experience of working with the writer as director and being in a premiere. The show was both a critical hit and an audience favorite. Performances sold out.”
- “Steel Magnolias.”
- Director: Judy Rollings.
- Cast: Patti Davis Suarez, Jamie Sandomire, Laura Durant, Jodie Weiss, Maureen Dias Watson, Ashley Faulkner.
For Kerry Lengel’s review in the Arizona Republic, go HERE.
- “Fiddler on the Roof“
- The Will Rogers Follies.
Chris Erikson, as Will, was the star of this production, but in just a few years he would be eclipsed by his Follies showgirls: Natalie Charle Ellis, Laurie Trygg, Andi Watson and Beth Anne Johnson.
- 1978-1979 Season.
- Director: Kyle Lawson.
- Choreographer: Lesley Collis.
- Music Director: Joshua Missal.
- Cast: Richard Fink, Marlene Saens, Paty Lombard, Jerry Hansen, Noel Irick, Larry Collis, Sheldon Simon, Hillary Hirsch, Mark Henle, Margie Ghigo, Jim Servis.
- “The Boys in the Band.”
- Director: Hope Silvestri.
The theater was scared. The actors were scared. Heck, even I was nervous at the thought of covering it for my paper, the Scottsdale Daily Progress.
“It” was The Boys in the Band, a landmark production in Valley theater history. It was the first overtly gay-themed play to find commercial success on Broadway. Ten years after it opened in New York, intrepid actress/director Hope Silvestri brought it to the Stagebrush Theatre in Scottsdale.
Steven Mastroieni, one of the actors in the play, remembers it well.
“The remarkable Hope Silvestri strong-armed this show to the stage,” he says. “Some actors had to be replaced, they were frightened. This was 1978. Anonymous threatening phone calls were made to the theatre, we had “religious’ pickets marching outside the theater … and boy oh boy (no pun), did we sell out.”
I remember the opening night well. Steven is right. It was a capacity crowd, though not everyone was sure they should be there. You could feel the tension. In the lobby, patrons talked mostly about the pickets outside. A rumor circulated that someone had threatened to set off a bomb in the theater. I was standing next to Hope when she asked an usher to “be sure and check the rest rooms … if you see any thing suspicious…”
I felt like a real reporter, not one of those softy entertainment types other journalists treated so condescendingly.
It is hard today to realize how ground-breaking this was. For all its reputation as a culture bastion, Scottsdale was to the right politically and conservative in its core. Homosexuals were not an accepted topic of discussion. To have them depicted blatantly and favorably on the stage was not something to be taken lightly by many people.
In the end, except for a dozen or so pickets, those who didn’t approve stayed home. No bombs exploded. The production made made money. More importantly, it crossed the line. There was no turning back.
For the record, the courageous actors who made it to opening night were Steven, Steve Schemmel, Kelly DeWitt, Bill Mick, Gary Stephens, Gerald De Hart, Michael Colvin, John Cunningham and Joe Woodard. Betty Wood produced for Hope and Bud Guiles was her assistant director. Stage Managers were Mike Simpson and Dennis De Luca. Dennis also designed the sets. The lighting design was by Bill Clift.
1977-1978 Season Notice
- Director: David Vining.
- Producers: Alice Plencher, Gordon Giles.
- Cast: Pam Ramsay, Mark Buckner, Von Prahl, Thomas J. Myers, Janice Robillard, Ellen Benton, Mary Anne Busey, Christy Welty, Tom Frederick, Jeff Hammond.
- Musical Director: Brian Hall.
- Choreographer: George NeJame.
- Stage Manger: Carol Beams.
- Lighting Design: Keith Miller, Ron Scarborough.
- Scenic Design: Roland Hartley.
- Costumes: Tami Evans.
- Props: DeeDee Urban.
Scottsdale Daily Progress, Dec. 2, 1977.
JANUARY 1977. “The Day After the Fair.”
British playwright Frank Harvey based his romantic drama on a Thomas Hardy story. Deborah Kerr starred in the London and New York productions. The Stagebrush mounting was helmed by Andrea Nesbit, at one time the artistic director of Black Theatre Troupe. She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and directed the American premiere of Genet’s The Blacks. She left Black Theatre Troupe to become the director of the Phoenix Ten-Arts Project. Her cast included Carolyn Cimon, Edith Harnham, Ward Henderson, George Grand, Jody Poole and Susan Miller.
NOVEMBER 1973 “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers” Cast: Hal Chidnoff, Elaine Navazio, Catherine Crawford, Bobbie Michele, Debee McFadden, Sonia Abrams.
If you were a regular theatergoer in the 1970s, you likely were a fan of Hal Chidnoff. Hal divided his time between performing and directing, winning raves for both. In this Neil Simon comedy, he got a showcase role and made the most of it. Also in the cast was was Sonia Abrams, one of the greatest of the Valley’s comic actresses.
1970. APRIL. “A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS.” Playwright: Robert Bolt. Director: Edward Osborne. Producer: Larry Holmes. Lighting Design: Walley Kile. Scenic Design: Lee Ritterbush. Sound Design: Ellie Rice. Makeup Design: Gene Smith. Costume Design: Margaret O’Malley. Cast: Daniel Witt, Jim Edmundson, Ron Harris, Hope Silvestri, Peggy Harris, Gene Smith, John Apicella, Oxo Whitney, Clyde Rohrig, Marty Manning, Joan Silberschlag, John Graff.
Bina Breitner’s review in the Arizona Republic
- OCTOBER 1969
- A THURBER CARNIVAL
- Cast: Joan Silberschlag, Donna Grossman, Phil Peulecka.
ARIZONA REPUBLIC, SEPT. 28, 1969: BINA BREITNER REPORTS ON THE STATE OF VALLEY THEATER
- AUGUST 1969.
- “He Done Her Wrong: Or Wedded But No Life.”
- Director: Al Wyatt.
- Music Director: Ann Milsop.
- Cast: Jacqueline Gaston, Mary Ann Maxfield, Dorothy Rands, Kip Miller, Susan Rubinowitz, Paul Blackwood.
- This old-fashioned melodrama featured musical and comic olio acts in the vaudeville style.
- MAY 1969
- INVITATION TO A MARCH.
- Playwright: Arthur Laurents.
- Director: Trudy Hurley.
- Notes: Laurents’ comedy toys with the plot of Sleeping Beauty as it regales audiences with the antics of two permanent residents who become entangled with summer visitors on Long Island.
THEATER WORKSHOP MAY 1969
- SCOTTSDALE PROGRESS, SEPT. 20, 1968
- Joan Silberschlag is in charge.
- New Stagebrush Theatre will open on Oct. 7 with Moss Hart’s Light Up the Sky and a black-tie party.
MAY 1968 “Bus Stop” Director: Trudy Hurley. Cast: Jackie Qualman, Rod Kellogg, Jacqueline Gaston, LeRoy Gaintner, Charlotte Francis, Karl May, Al Wyatt, Bob Gusick
This one must have been great fun: Three of the era’s best actresses – Jackie Qualman, Jacqueline Gaston and Charlotte Francis – plus one of its sex symbols, the ruggedly handsome Rod Kellogg and one of its best supporting actors LeRoy Gaintner.
REVIEW by Nancy Bennett, The Arizona Republic, May 4, 1968
JANUARY 1968 “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” Playwright: George Bernard Shaw. Director: Hal Chidnoff. Cast: Trudy Hurley, Sonia Abrams, Carl May, Mark Farrington, Harrison Baker, Jim Jones.
Notes: Jim Jones made his SCP debut with this production, directed by Hal Chidnoff, who appeared as an actor or director for most of the Valley’s major troupes. Trudy Hurley, as big a name as Chidnoff when it came to actor-directors, starred as the scandalous Mrs. Warren. Yes, her profession was prostitution. Yes, it was a profession not mentioned in polite society. Much was made at the time of the SCP revival of the fact Shaw’s play was banned for many years in both this country and Shaw’s native England.
SEPTEMBER 1967 Clipping from the Scottsdale Progress of Sept. 14. Interview with Mrs. Joseph Cody, president of the Stagebelles, the theater’s women’s guild.
- AUGUST 1967
- PURE AS THE DRIVEN SNOW
- Director: Paul Blackwood.
- Cast: Markey Aden, Brian Duggan, Rick Cook, Mariann Cook, Peggy Davidson, Bernice Strand, Roger Vickers, Sonia Abrams, Joy Austin, Elizabeth DeGaris, Harrison Baker, Arnold Schwalb.
- JANUARY 1965
- A FAR COUNTRY
- Playwright: Henry Denker.
- Director: Trudy Hurley.
- Cast: Burke Rhind, Jacqueline Gaston, Bill Estes, Margaret Lisonbee, Paul Blackwood, Joan Eldridge, Irma Lange, Kathleen Hurley, Len Lange.
- Producer: Joan Plencner.
- Stage Manager: Sandy Lucchesi.
Burke Rhind was a much sought-after actor in the 1960s and Scottsdale Community Players landed him for A Far Country, Henry Denker’s tale of the young Sigmund Freud fighting antisemitism and prejudice against psychiatry. This was another classy production helmed by Trudy Hurley.
APRIL 1961. “Royal Gambit.” Scottsdale Community Players’ first attempt at theater in the round. Director: Bob Stout. Producer: Dick Jones. Cast: Harvey Shahan, Charlotte Francis, Susan Francis, Ella Marie Stout, Jacqueline Gaston, Jeanne Chittenden, Dorothy Jones.
This was the era when the cream of the Valley’s acting profession did their best work on community stages. This one boasted a line-up to die for, including Harvey Shahan, Charlotte Francis, Jacqueline Gaston and Jeanne Chittenden. Professionals all, even though the work was labeled “amateur” by the purists.
Jacque remembers: “This was done in the barn that housed the company before the Stagebrush Theatre was built. The sound of rain on the tin roof would drown us out and there were no toilets.”
- SEPTEMBER 1960
- RIDERS TO THE SEA
- Playwright: J.M. Synge.
- SPREADING THE NEWS
- Playwright: Lady Gregory.
- THE PLAYS: The first of these one acts is a drama, the second a comedy.
- Director: Trudy Hurley.
- Cast: Beatrice van Breems, Jeannie Chittenden, Lucy Wyatt, Dexter Duggan, Richard Stetson, Irma K. Lange, Phyllis Beston, Bob Bullock, Fay Bullock, Dick Jones, Dorothy Jones, Bob Gusick, Harry Wilson, Loren Gamache. Stage Manger: Joan Judkins.
1959. “The Male Animal.” Playwrights: James Thurber, Elliott Nugent. Director: Trudy Hurley. Cast: Sidney Smith, Pauline Plencner, Millie Skagstrom, Al Wyatt, Lucy Wyatt, Harry Wilson, Irma Lange, Jack Cook, Carol Hougeland.