The Play's the Thing
Ninety tumultuous years of Ann Arbor Civic Theatre
by Grace Shackman
From the January, 2020 issue
In 1991 the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre (A2CT) moved into the theater of their dreams. A former roller-skating rink on Platt Rd. had been cleverly repurposed by architect John Mouat to meet all their needs.
"There was ample space--a beautiful theater, a board meeting room, three rehearsal studios, and a huge set-building area," recalls Cassie Mann, whose connection with the A2CT goes back to 1976. In addition to a 175-seat auditorium, there was a spacious lobby, a snack bar, and an office. The Ann Arbor News reported that the move ended "seven decades of wandering in an architectural wilderness, no more temporary offices and converted meeting halls."
When the Civic Amateur Theatre was organized in 1929, it put on plays in members' parlors. In 1935, it opened membership to the public, inviting participation in both "dramatic interpretation" and "the practice of stagecraft ... including painting and construction sets, making and designing costumes, and the selection of plays and casts."
Since then, openness has been A2CT's defining feature. Board president Jacqueline Courteau calls it "the area's most community-based group. Anyone can propose a show, and auditions are always open."
The group initially met in the Michigan Union, then, after they were were crowded out by the post-WWII surge in enrollment, in an 1898 log cabin in Burns Park. The chinking was falling out, some of the windows were broken, and it was so cold that they had to heat up the paint before they could use it, but it had space for meetings, building scenery, and rehearsing plays.
When the log cabin was torn down, the theater upgraded in 1961 to a former water pumping station at the north end of Mulholland (now condos). Mayor Cecil Creal, a big fan, helped make it possible for them to buy the building for $8,518. With financial contributions, volunteer labor, and donated materials, they created a meeting room, kitchen, lounge, storage areas for costumes and sets, and rehearsal space.
who built stage sets there, remembers that the work area was so small that "if we wanted to lay a set flat down, we had to open the garage door and work on it outside then haul it back in." One they painted outside in the snow started peeling after it was moved to the warm theater and had to be quickly repainted.
To gain more space, they sold the Mulholland building in 1979 and bought the Elks Hall at 338 S. Main. (The Elks continued to meet in the basement, but complained that the rehearsals upstairs disturbed their bingo players.) Nine years later, developer Mike Vlasic offered them twice what they paid for the building (it's now the site of his 350 S. Main office building), so they moved seven blocks south to the American Legion Hall in an old house on S. Main, next to the Michigan Stadium (now a parking lot).
In the early days they put on shows at the old Ann Arbor High School on State St. and at Pattengill Elementary. They later became the first outside group to rent the U-M's Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. They have since used most of the theaters in town, including the Power Center, WCC's Towsley Auditorium, and lately the Arthur Miller Theatre on North Campus.
The Civic Theatre's first public production was The Late Christopher Bean by Sidney Howard. Their offerings were usually comedies or mysteries such as You Can't Take It with You and Arsenic and Old Lace.
In 1950 Ted Heusel directed and starred in his first A2CT show, The Silver Whistle, getting rave reviews. In 1954, the board of directors offered him a job directing all their plays and overseeing production for $65 a week plus a share of the profits. He directed every play for six years, and many others over the next thirty-four.
After getting the job, Heusel married Nancy Born, an actor who had also studied at U-M. Many say she could have been a star on the national scene if she hadn't decided to stay in Ann Arbor and raise a family. She started acting with A2CT after the birth of their first child, playing the lead in Tea and Sympathy.
Her husband "let people develop their character in their own way," Nancy Heusel says. "He wanted to bring out their creative selves, to have confidence in themselves." An early proponent of blind casting, in 1961 he caused a stir by choosing an African American, EMU prof Bucky Buchanan, as the male lead in Joan of Lorraine.
Their first attempts at Shakespeare, As You Like It in 1957 and Julius Caesar in 1958, got poor reviews in the Ann Arbor News. But they tried again in the 1970s, and have since produced a number of Shakespeare plays successfully.
The News raved about their first attempt at a mainstream musical, a 1958 production of Guys and Dolls. From then on musicals were a staple. "Musicals filled the theater, but were costly to mount," recalls Pieper.
After 1964, most of the musicals starred Judy Dow Rumelhart, who remembers that time as "the happiest period of my life." Heusel recruited her when she was in the old St. Joe's hospital on Ingalls St. "I was there to lose weight, in those days you could do that, when Ted came to visit me," she recalls. "We went down to the nuns' dining room, me in my bathrobe, and he said 'think Ethel Merman.'"
Rumelhart's A2CT credits include Most Happy Fella, Once Upon a Mattress, Hello Dolly, and Sweeney Todd, which she also directed. "She was wonderful!" says Pieper. Mann agrees, saying, "Judy had a commanding presence on stage."
Other talented regulars included Phyllis Wright, Robin Barlow, Beverly Pooley, and Burnette Staebler, just to name a few. Many other actors passed through the company on their way to professional careers. In 1969 U-M student Gilda Radner played the lead in She Stoops to Conquer. The play, and Radner, received rave reviews. Radner went on to star on Saturday Night Live.
Backstage crews outnumbered the actors on stage. Volunteers changed sets, did makeup, handled costume changes, handed out props, and ran lighting. Pieper called it "orchestrated chaos."
"Casting was no problem," he recalls. "There were actors, singers, dancers in the community, but backstage they had to hunt for volunteers."
In 1976, for Oklahoma, they borrowed an Ann Arbor-made Walker and Company carriage. When they needed coconuts for The Night of the Iguana, they put in a request in the newspaper for people visiting Florida to bring some back. And when they needed a goat for The Rose Tattoo, they borrowed Henry from a nearby farm; in pictures, he looked totally bewildered.
In 2000, after only nine years in residence, A2CT lost its wonderful Platt Rd. space when they couldn't manage a huge balloon payment that was due. "It was so sad," says Pieper, who had found set building much easier there. "The building was perfect for the Civic Theatre."
"We were passionate about art but not good business managers," explains Mann. She says the main problem was the "staggering" cost of maintenance. They thanked Robertson Morrison Heating and Cooling for the reduced rate they were charged when money was tight by appearing at their Christmas party. "This was during the Simpson case, so we dressed as Judge Ito," says Mann. "Judges' robes weren't that hard to find, and we penciled in mustaches. We ran into the room and did a little dance and ran out."
In retrospect, Mann thinks they should have had a facility manager who could have rented out space they weren't using. Rumelhart, who had been instrumental in raising the money to buy the place, was no longer involved. "I think she was disappointed in us," says Mann.
But all was not lost. A2CT was able to sell the building to the Vineyard Church for $1.4 million, enough to pay off its debt with $600,000 left to start again. "We were never down and out; we didn't just walk away," Mann says.
In 2001 Mann and Suzi Peterson Steward, who had been involved almost as long as Mann, agreed to share a part-time paid appointment. Close friends who had often worked together on plays, Mann as director and Steward as producer, they faced the daunting task of getting the Civic Theatre going again.
Their first goal was to keep as many of their members involved as they could, but the membership lists had been lost during the upheaval. Using a list of the building donors on old programs, they began by calling them to explain that their investment hadn't been lost. They found more names by going to the warehouse in Ypsilanti where A2CT's possessions were stored and looking at the names on the back of chairs which patrons had bought to contribute to the theater.
Mann and Steward organized a meeting and invited everyone who wanted to get involved. There was no enthusiasm for another big purchase, but people wanted the group to continue. "They couldn't imagine an Ann Arbor without the Civic Theatre," says Mann.
They found a new home in the old American Broach factory on W. Washington, in the theater space that Performance Network had vacated when it relocated to the first floor of the Courthouse Square apartments. Although only a temporary solution--the building was slated to be torn down for the Ann Arbor Y--it gave them time to figure out what to do next.
In 2003 they rented an old warehouse building at the westernmost end of Ann St. and have been there ever since. In addition to a forty-seat theater, there's a lobby, office, storage for props and costumes, and a rehearsal space that can also be used to put on experimental plays.
Ticket sales, studio rentals, and special events cover about 45 percent of the $250,000 annual budget. The rest comes from memberships, donations, and corporate sponsorship.
"It's quite expensive to run a theater," says development director Dana Wnuk. She ticks off a list of expenses: rent, heat, water, insurance, royalties, scripts, salaries, rental of venues. Right now she's raising money to improve the lighting system.
In the late 2000s, corporate grants disappeared, but member dues, which start at $50 per year, kept them going.
After the Platt Rd. debacle, Mann and Steward were careful to be fiscally responsible. "We only did what we could afford," Mann explains. They kept the $600,000 they realized from the Platt sale intact, paying it back if they borrowed from it.
Catherine Zudak became involved in the A2CT in 2001, a few years after she moved to Ann Arbor. She was very impressed with all that Mann and Steward were able to do. "When Rec & Ed discontinued their theater classes, they asked Civic if they wanted to do junior theater," Zudak recalls. "Civic said, 'Sure.' When I talked about doing a new play festival in the studio, they said: 'Sounds cool.' Five or six years ago, some people like David Widmayer wanted to start an improv troupe at Civic, and they did. It's very flexible that way." They also added cabaret and outreach activities such as classes, workshops, and camps.
It's not unusual for people to become involved in one program and stay to work in others. Board president Courteau first joined when her son was in the Junior Theatre.
Mann and Steward reversed the traditional play selection process. Instead of the board deciding which plays to put on and then finding a director, they invited would-be directors to pitch ideas. "When they come with their own ideas, they are more passionate," explains Mann. A committee reads the plays and interviews the directors, then makes recommendations to the board.
However, there are exceptions. "Sometimes we need a cash cow," Mann says, "so we decide."
In 2015 Mann and Steward retired, although they both are still very involved as volunteers. Alexandra Berneis Hoag took over as executive director, assisted by two part-time employees.
In November, A2CT celebrated its ninetieth birthday with a party at the Polo Fields country club. More than 200 people attended, sharing stories of their involvement in the theater over the decades.
More information about A2CT's rich history can be found on the Ann Arbor District Library's Old News site, where more than 1,000 articles and photographs are posted.
[Originally published in January, 2020.]
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