As the house lights dimmed for the opening scene of the July 25th performance of “Dial M for Murder,” Peninsula Players celebrated the 80th anniversary of its first performance. In 1935, “Hay Fever” by Noël Coward opened the Players first season.
Eighty years later, it is almost inconceivable that curtain calls and the echo of applause still reinstate. At moments I am overwhelmed by the depth of this Grand Lady of summer theater’s rich history. More than 500 plays have been produced, from world premières, to classic dramas and contemporary comedies. The works of Anton Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Eugene O’Neill, and W. Somerset Maugham to Neil Simon, Ray Cooney, Stephan Sondheim to new playwrights such as Tom Dudzick, Sean Grennan and Paul Slade Smith
More than 600 interns and apprentices have enhanced their skills working alongside theater professionals. Hundreds of performers have honed their craft on her stage, passing down their artistry to the next generation while sharpening their own.
Sam Wanamaker, a stage and film actor who was in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” and later a director of stage, opera and film, was a company member in 1937 when the Fisher family first moved onto the location of the former Wildwood Camp for Boys. Sam helped to build the stagehouse the Players called home for decades. I am often left dazed by this knowledge. Was Sam’s tenacity and desire to rebuild Shakespeare’s Globe Theater for the world fueled by sparks kindled at the Players that first season along the shores in 1937?
Considerable change has occurred in those decades since Sam helped to haul wheelbarrows of gravel. In 1935 the first audience was nestled in a garden behind the Bonnie Brooke Motel in Fish Creek on a balmy July night. Tonight, July 29, along the picturesque shoreline of a former boys camp, is the opening night of “Lend Me A Tenor” in a 621 seat all-weather pavilion.
The Players facility may have grown in size, but its mission to bring a variety of works to its audience still rings true. The 1935, season was an eclectic mixture. Coward’s outlandish comedy “Hay Fever” opened the season, followed by the classic “Hedda Gabler,” by Henrik Ibsen which premiered in Munich, Germany in 1891. The mystery thriller “Criminal At Large” by Edgar Wallace and S.N. Behrman’s comedy “The Second Man” delighted audiences. Closing the inaugural season was a brand-new play, “The Mad Hopes,” by Romney Brent which had its New York premiere in 1932.
This same mix of thrills, laughs, suspense and contemporary social commentary continues to delight audiences. Hundreds of thousands of patrons have been inspired to venture down the hill to the theater’s forested hamlet. Millions of tickets have been sold and stubs torn. Curtains calls have led to standing ovations, emotional performances have elicited tears of empathy, shouts of elation and joyous laughter has washed over audiences and spilled onto the waves of the bay.
Readers familiar with this column know I tend the Players archives and as I type, this a slideshow of images flickers through my mind:
Caroline Fisher in “Rain” and “Wuthering Heights;” Margo Fisher in “Little Foxes” and “Salome;” Leo Lucker in “The Caine Mutiny” and “Laura;” Robert Thompson in “Da” and “Foxfire;” William Munchow in “Harvey” and “Tea House of the August Moon;” and Jeannette Leahy, Jeanne Bolan and Maggy Magerstadt in “The Madwoman of Chaillot.” Photos of Carle Benson, Dennis Kennedy, Patrick Walker, Pamela Gay, Amy McKenzie, Monty Davis, Lawrence Pressman, and Michael Tezla flicker in my mind.
Tidbits of history pass through as well. Harvey Korman, earned his Actors’ Equity union membership treading these stage boards. Rene Auberjonois performed his first musical theater role in “The Threepenny Opera” before becoming a Tony Award-winning musical theater performer. Stacy Keach, Sr. performed in the world première of Richard Fisher’s (our founder) “This Mercy We Have Shown.” Before “The Waltons” Ralph Waite, performed “Zoo Story” with Clint Kimbrough.
The files of my mind then scrolls through recent performances of perennial favorites including Greg Vinkler, Tom Mula, Carmen Roman, Tim Monsion, Joe Foust, James Leaming, Peggy Roeder, Erin Noel Grennan, Sean and Linda Fortunato and so many, many more.
Countless people have contributed to the Players 80 years of success, including energetic interns and dedicated board members; talented performers, designers, and carpenters to diligent office staff and caring ground keepers and volunteers.
However, the Players would not have thrived over the decades without our devoted patrons and audience members. We sincerely say, “Thank you.” Thank you for your support. Thank you for purchasing a ticket, hanging a poster or handbill in your shop, booking an ad in our playbill or for sharing a Facebook post. Thank you for telling your neighbors, friends and family about this special theater in the woods of northern Wisconsin. Thank you for being a party of the family.
Help us celebrate 80 seasons, join us by the bay! Come early, enjoy a beverage from the Luna Bar, relax under the canopy of the cedar forest or take in the setting sun before partaking in the hilarity of Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor;” or John Patrick Shanley’s quirky Irish love story “Outside Mullingar” or Dan Goggin’s musical comedy “Nunsense.”
For tickets or more information on our pre-show seminars or backstage tours visit www.peinsulaplayers.com or phone the Box Office at 920-868-3287. I look forward to seeing you by the bay this season, where the sun sets, the curtain rises and the stars shine!