So many exciting things have happened since the last column. It feels like a month has gone by! We held the final performance of the world première of “The Actuary” by Steven Peterson Sunday, July 2 to a sold-out house. The curtain rose at 4 p.m. and ended with more than 620 audience members bestowing the performance with a standing ovation.
The technicians, cast, creative team, staff – well, all company members – were hard at work for the next few days moving one set out and loading in our next offering, “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Administrative interns Mary Knight, Brianne Cullen and I participated in two 4th of July parades and we greeted cast members of “The Bridges of Madison County.”
I say this often, but each time it rings true. The teamwork and camaraderie among the company members to who accomplish this “change-over” process always amazes me. Within 72-hours all of the lighting instruments, costumes and set pieces are switched over. Actors finally rehearse on the set, entrances and exits are timed, queues are set and a new adventure awaits audiences.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” is filled with creative, imaginative and playful costumes, props and scenery. Picture very talented grown-ups at play, telling the yarn of Peter Pan’s origin story and you’ve got the spirit of this staged journey. So much is done behind the scenes to create the onstage magic from “aging” new fabric into orphans’ tattered clothing, to crafting two prop ships from various items such as baskets, rulers and tin cans. You have to see it to believe it.
Last week I promised to share more about Howard Witt’s acting partner Hilda Simms. Howard passed away two weeks ago and his first season at the Players was in 1959 where he was cast as Stanley Kowalski in “A Street Car Named Desire” opposite Broadway sensation Hilda Simms as Blanche DeBouis. See last week’s article for more about Howard.
Hilda was the first leading African-American actress to appear in a Broadway hit production.
The production and entire cast of “Anna Lukaska” made theater history in 1944 with a story that resonated with all theater goers.
Philip Yordan wrote his family drama based on a Polish family he knew from childhood. Unable to find a Broadway producer, he eventually attracted the attention of the founders of the American Negro Theatre (ANT). For the first time, American playgoers saw an all-black cast acting in a drama that did not deal with racial issues.
With a few changes, the drama debuted in Harlem with Simms, Earle Hyman (Russell Huxtable on “The Cosby Show”), Fredrick O’Neal (the first African-American president of the Actors’ Equity Association), George Randol, John Proctor and Canada Lee, whose film credit’s include Alfred Hitchcok’s “Lifeboat.”
The production created such sensation that Broadway producers moved it to the Mansfield Theater, which was renamed to the Brooks Atkinson Theater in 1960, where it played for a record 957 performances.
Hilda, a stunningly beautiful woman, graced the cover of Life and Jet Magazine. Hilda played the title role of “Anna Lucasta” for the tour of Europe and while on the British leg of the tour she met and married Peninsula Player Richard Angarola. In 1945, Richard portrayed Heathcliff opposite Caroline Fisher Rathbone’s Catherine Earnshaw in “Wuthering Heights.” Richard’s career is a whole other Players Pen topic.
Hilda played a boxer’s wife in the 1953 film, “The Joe Louis Story” and was interviewed by Jet Magazine about her experiences in Europe.
In 1958, Hilda was excited to be cast as Blanche in an off-Broadway run of “A Street Car Named Desire” that was to open September 17 at Carnegie Hall Playhouse in New York City. In Philip C. Kolin’s book “Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire” he states Tennessee Williams gave Hilda and other actors of color permission to produce the play. It was never produced.
According to Kolin, a week after the projected September 17 première it was announced that, at Williams’ request, this production be “shelved” until the following fall because of its proximity in time to Williams’ new play, “Sweet Bird of Youth.”
After her season at Peninsula Players, Hilda returned to Broadway in 1960’s “The Cool World,” 1963’s “Tambourines to Glory” and the revival of “The Madwoman of Chaillot” in 1973. She was a regular in the television series “The Nurses” and hosted her own radio show, “Ladies Day” on New York’s WOV.
Hilda’s 1994 obituary described her as an activist. She served as the creative director of the New York State Human Rights Commission amplifying racial discrimination concerns. She is also credited with opening up better film roles for actors of color in the 1960s and beyond.
Hilda started her education in the 1940s in Minneapolis, Minnesota hoping to be a teacher and those dreams never faded. She earned a Master’s Degree in Education from the City College of New York, settled in Manhattan and worked at drug treatment programs.
Peninsula Players celebrates its 82nd season and Howard and Hilda are just two examples of the amazing talents and human beings who have crossed our boards and enriched the lives of Door County audiences. I hope you’ll visit us this summer and enjoy the talents of our current artistic company.
If you enjoy rollicking humor and creative story-telling, join us for “Peter and the Starcatcher” before it closes July 23. If you appreciate lush music and great voices, book tickets now for “The Bridges of Madison County.” “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” is filled with silliness and muddled murder attempts and “Almost, Maine” features residents of this mythical town falling in and out of love in a charming off-beat comedy.
If you want to learn more about Peninsula Players history join, me Tuesday, July 25 at the Ephraim Historical Foundation when I give a presentation starting at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call them at (920) 854-9688.
Join us at Peninsula Players where the sun sets, the curtain rises and the stars shine. For tickets or information on pre-show seminars or Sunday backstage tours visit www.peninsulaplayers.com or call (920) 868-3287.