I have been feeling very nostalgic lately. While handing tickets to patrons at the Will Call window or helping them over the phone to book tickets for “Always…Patsy Cline” we get a chance a visit. Sometimes they share how much they enjoyed the musical the last time the Players performed it in the old space in 1999.
Which leads me to ask if they have fond memories of canvas-backed director chairs and tent-like flaps we used to have. A big smile brightens their faces and they reply with joy, “Oh, yes we do!” A couple recently stopped to chat at Will Call about how they remember picking up their tickets from the gazebo in the upper parking lot and descending the stone stairway into the back of the theater.
I remember that staircase well; a flagstone staircase canopied by cedar trees and stained-glass star lights. Before computers and the internet, I stood at the top of that magical gateway and sold tickets. Every evening I would carry a box of tickets, a cash box and a telephone to the top of those stairs.
A few seasons later I stood at the foot of that grand staircase each night and greeted patrons as they descended into the enchanted world of Peninsula Players.
I felt a part of the past, knowing generations of theatergoers used those same stairs on each and every visit since the theater moved to this location in 1937. At first patrons descended into an open grassy knoll and they sat under the stars on garden chairs to be enchanted by performances with Leo Lucker, Caroline Fisher, Sam Wannamaker, Helen “Casey” Bragdon and others.
Then in the late 1940s the stairs led patrons to a roofed canopied tent, and then in the 1950s to the all-weather pavilion we used until 2005. The gateway led to toe-tapping musicals, tension-filled thrillers, laugh-out-loud comedies, pre-Broadway tryouts and many other theatrical adventures. All featured the likes of Robert Thompson, Amy McKenzie, Dennis Kennedy, Jean Sincere, Jeannette Leahy, Harvey Korman, Bill Munchow, Greg Vinkler, Tom Mula and many more steadfast Players.
In my quest for Players lore I did a little research in the Players past to learn the staircase was a part of the property long before the Fisher family founded Peninsula Players.
The flagstone staircase was the original entrance for Camp Wildwood for Boys, which occupied the property prior to 1937 when the Players moved in. In the 1920s, Door County boomed with summer camps for girls and boys including Camp Wildwood.
Boys from all over the country graced the Juddville/Fish Creek area and would descend the flagstone staircase anticipating their summer adventures. Girls from Wildwood’s sister camp, Camp Meenahga in Peninsula State Park, would visit the boys camp and use the grand staircase.
Many memories were made on the Camp Wildwood/Peninsula Players properties and continue to evoke memories in patrons today. Those stairs were an iconic and nostalgic as well as functional element of the Peninsula Players experience.
I venture to bet, as you read this you are thinking of when you ventured down that staircase for the first time. Perhaps it was with your parents, grandparents or first date. Maybe you were an usher, greeting patrons descending the stairs.
As I stand at Will Call I recall how we heartbreakingly lost the stairs during the demolition, excavation and construction of the new theater. Today the staircase begins in the upper parking lot, but is roped off as we lost a portion of the steps and the foot of the original staircase. It remains roped off, unable to be safely used by patrons. It harkens to those who see it, repair me.
I am excited to say we will bring back some of the nostalgic “welcome way” for the opening of the 80th season next year. Peninsula Players has received support and partial funding from the Raibrook Foundation to rebuild it.
Completion of the stairs would provide Door County residents, patrons and visitors a glimpse back into the theater’s past while providing an additional welcoming and memorable entryway into the theater-in-a-garden. I am already giddy with the excitement knowing ushers will once again greet patrons descending that magical gateway for generations to come.
There is still time to catch “Always…Patsy Cline.” We perform two 4 p.m. matinees Sunday, Oct. 5 and 19. Join us around the pre-show bonfire Tuesdays through Sundays when our curtain time is 7 p.m. We hope to see you by the bay this fall. For more information or tickets to our toe-tapping musical, visit www.peninsulaplayers.com or call (920) 868-3287.
Audra Baakari Boyle is the Peninsula Players Business Manager, celebrating her 20th season by the bay.