Home Entertainment Theater Look Back Elyria: Community Theater at midcentury – Chronicle Telegram

Look Back Elyria: Community Theater at midcentury – Chronicle Telegram

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Professor Harold Hill romanced Marian the Librarian —while singing and dancing—in the 1962 film of Meredith Willson’s hit Broadway show “The Music Man.” Sitting in the darkened Capitol Theater, an 8-year-old boy was transfixed. He dreamed that one day he, too, would be up on a screen or a stage, making music of his own.

The boy was David Cameron Anderson and, when he was a student at Elyria High School, he gave exuberant performances of Sancho Panza in “Man of La Mancha,” in 1971, and of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” the following year. Both musicals were directed by Gene Dulmage.

A different production of “The Music Man,” in 1966 at Elyria Catholic High School marked the first time on the musical theater stage for 17-year-old Marilyn Firment. Her piano-playing ability, as well as the singing lessons that she took with Louise Curtis, paid off: She was cast as Marian, the dubious librarian. Joseph Bonczek, not Robert Preston, was her Harold Hill.

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“The romantic scenes with Joe Bonczek were kind of fun,” Firment said.

To have her realistically convey the demeanor of a librarian, Sister Mary Joan Marie, the musical’s director, gave her an assignment: observe the nun who was Elyria Catholic’s librarian.

Playing a small role as one of the River City townspeople was Chris Wilczak. The following year, Wilczak, known as Crissy, lit up the stage as Eliza Doolittle in EC’s production of “My Fair Lady.”

“I think my mother made all my costumes,” Wilczak said. “She did such a fabulous job; we went off the movie, after what Audrey Hepburn wore. For the Ascot race scene she made a matching parasol and a big floppy hat out of cardboard, covered in yellow lace. I was so proud she had done that for me.”

After leaving Elyria, Anderson, Firment and Wilczak went on to tread the boards of New York’s stages.

The Golden Age of Elyria Theater

Anderson, Firment and Wilczak were fortunate: They were around for Elyria’s theatrical golden age. In 1966, the two high schools began to produce musicals of phenomenal quality.

The amateur theater group Black River Playhouse (and its predecessor, Elyria Playmakers), were important sources of entertainment at midcentury, priming Elyria audiences to expect excellence in live theater. In return, Elyria audiences supported fledgling thespians and community theater, helping to ensure the ultimate success of these and other young actors.

It’s no wonder that amateur theater was popular in those days. Two wonderful organizations, the Elyria Musical Arts Society and the Elyria Community Concert Association, offered the only real competition for audiences in the lively arts. The Internet did not exist. The television program listings in the newspaper covered only three Cleveland channels. Besides television, the only other entertainment outlets were the movies and radio. At one time, the newspaper even published radio program listings.

Anderson was 12 when he made his stage debut as Jether in a production of Paddy Chayefsky’s “Gideon,” produced by the Black River Playhouse. Richard Ehlke, who portrayed the Angel of the Lord, left an indelible impression. “He was the first actor I worked with,” Anderson said in a 2017 interview for the Elyria Bicentennial supplement in The Chronicle.

“I thought he was marvelous. Everyone (in the cast) was wonderful, but I was totally taken with his rich voice and commanding presence.”

Anderson recounted his memorable opening night:

“I had a crippling bout of stage fright, and I froze on stage. There was a curtain behind me that was part of the set; Conni (Mateer Little) had to run from the audience, go backstage, and push me through the curtain to get me going.”

Little, with her then-husband, Jim Mateer, helped found the Black River Playhouse and was involved in many aspects of its productions.

The Black River Playhouse

The Playhouse roster boasted several boldfaced names from Elyria theater circles, all of whom contributed to its success. Besides the Mateers, there was Nelson Beller, a Playhouse board member who went on to found Elyria Summer Theater. Beller was much in demand in Elyria. According to Anderson, Elyria High School’s Gene Dulmage had asked Beller, in 1972, to spend time with the cast of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Beller discussed the musical’s historical context, and guided the players on matters of pronunciation –“what might be called ‘a flavor’ of dialect,” Anderson said.

Beller also advised Anderson (and Polly Fassinger as Golde), on how to “physicalize” their relationship in the play. “The emphasis,” Anderson said, “was on our marriage and interactions and responsibilities to our children and community. We would often work well into the night.”

Like Beller, Richard Ehlke served on the Playhouse board.

“Dick Ehlke did everything,” when it came to his contribution to the Playhouse, Little said in a recent interview.

He was, for example, instrumental in creating the group’s Readers’ Theater. “We traveled around a variety of venues and did readings from our productions,” Little said.

The Playhouse started out in a studio on School Street, on the west side of town, and later purchased the former Mount Zion Church at 532 West River St., remodeling it for theatrical use. The church was small, with room for only 80 seats, but volunteers improved upon it by buying and installing theater seats from a movie house in Lorain.

“They worked so very hard,” said Nancy Dunkle Horvath, an actor with the group. Horvath performed the role of Sandra Markowitz, the social worker, in the Playhouse’s 1964 production of “A Thousand Clowns.”

The front page of The Chronicle for Nov. 3, 1960, featured several photographs and an article about the Playhouse’s inaugural production in the renovated space. Following a “by-invitation-only” opening night, Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” ran for seven performances.

The Playhouse was innovative; it hosted an annual spring banquet with awards for acting, directing and production à la the Academy Awards. There was a junior theater for children ages 8 to 14, and a teen group called Backstage Inc.

By 1967, the Playhouse left the small church and presented one of its last shows, “The Rainmaker,” at Lorain County Community College the following year. Ehlke, who directed, called Horvath with a request.

“He wanted me to take the female lead in ‘The Rainmaker,’ she said. ”But we had just moved into our new house and there were boxes everywhere. Dick said, ‘Those boxes will still be there. Take the part.’ But …it just wasn’t the right time. He gave the part to Joan Crawford.”

No. Not that Joan Crawford.

In any case, Horvath had already enjoyed the experience of a starring role. In what she believes to be the final production staged by the Black River Playhouse’s predecessor, the Elyria Playmakers, in 1957 she portrayed Sabrina in “Sabrina Fair.” Ehlke was the director.

Elyria Playmakers

“Sabrina Fair” was staged at the Eastern Heights Junior High School auditorium.

“The play was very popular. “After the three performances, there were so many who couldn’t get a ticket that we held a repeat performance at Elyria High School,” Horvath said.

She and the other cast and crew members of “Sabrina Fair” were part of an illustrious tradition.

The Elyria Playmakers was formed in the 1920s by graduates of Elyria High School. They began producing one show a season, but eventually they were staging five or six each year. A founder of the Playmakers, Frank Seward, told The Chronicle’s Connie Davis in 1978, “We probably never made more than a hundred dollars a year.” But with money being tight during the Depression, the group offered Elyrians a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment.

From Davis’s article:

Sets and costumes were made or borrowed from many sources. The Graystone Hotel loaned tables and chairs for “Outward Bound.” Costume mistress for many plays was Ella Foley Smith, assisted by some women of First Congregational Church.… Productions were presented at EHS and the old Rialto Theater on Second Street. …Sometimes they were given in a hall above (what was once Bride’s World, at) 114 Middle Avenue. Also used for rehearsals, the hall seated 105 persons.

One 1939 Playmakers production is significant. Its actress had been a Hollywood star.

Rudolph Valentino’s Leading Lady

Silent film star Lila Lee was born in New Jersey in 1901. Her obituary in The New York Times reported that a vaudevillian discovered her after spotting her at her father’s hotel; he promptly put her on the circuit with the childhood stage name “Cuddles.” Lee toured the country and, when she was 13, she was discovered again. A producer gave her a screen test. A star was born.

In one of her films, in the early 1920s, Lee appeared opposite Rudolph Valentino in “Blood and Sand.” She also performed in many plays in New York and in summer stock. And, of course, one play in Elyria.

But why Elyria? What was the connection?

Cue the family.

Lila’s sister Pauline, called Peg, was married to Leonard “Leo” Tufford of Elyria. They had two children; Peg named her daughter Lila Lee, in honor of her sister.

Lila Lee often visited Elyria. After her divorce from her first husband, James “Jimmy” Kirkwood, their son, James Jr., lived with his Aunt Peg and Uncle Leo. Young Jimmy went to Elyria High School, graduating in 1942. He would go on to great theatrical acclaim.

In 1939, while in Elyria, Lee joined the cast of a Playmakers production of “Night of January 16th,” a courtroom drama written by Ayn Rand. (The 1941 film version of Rand’s play starred Robert Preston, who would later become forever known as “the music man.”)

The Elyria production was directed by Frank Seward. Ed Champion, a Playmakers founder, played the part of the district attorney. But Lee was the star of the 19-member cast. She portrayed Karen Andre, a woman on trial for murder. The production was staged at the Lorain County Courthouse.

Chronicle writer Connie Davis set the scene for her 1978 readers:

Seating was limited in the courtroom, so window sills were sold, too. They were only 18 inches wide, but two small skinny persons could be squeezed in. The play’s jury was filled by audience volunteers, “we could then resell their seats.”

Rand’s script was written with two alternate endings, guilty or not guilty. Based on evidence given during the trial, the latter was the typical conclusion. To change things up a bit, the jury in the Playmakers production was asked ahead of time to announce a guilty verdict during one performance. Wearing a costume provided by The Style Center, defendant Lee was reported to have fainted gracefully upon the announcement of the verdict.

The Elyria Playmakers flourished until the war, when 27 of its members went into the armed services. The group’s first post-war offering was “The Man Who Came to Dinner” in 1946. Among its many productions were “Blithe Spirit,” “Harvey” and “A Doll’s House.”

By “Sabrina Fair,” however, the Playmakers were played out.

“Like any other organization, there’s a nucleus of people who do all the sets, all the directing, all the acting, and they were getting older and they couldn’t do it anymore,” Horvath said.

The group disbanded, and the Black River Playhouse emerged to fill the void.

The Elyria-and-“A Chorus Line”-Connection

Lee died in 1973, so she did not live to see the phenomenal success of her son, Jimmy. A novelist and former actor, James Kirkwood Jr. wrote, with Nicholas Dante, the book for one of the most successful musicals of all time: “A Chorus Line.” The playwrights received the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the show won nine Tony Awards, including one for Kirkwood and Dante for Best Book of a Musical.

An apocryphal story went around Elyria in the 1970s about the “Chorus Line” auditions. A bright young actress auditioning for the musical addressed the principal decision-makers at New York’s Public Theater by purportedly introducing herself from the stage as “Crissy Wilczak from Elyria, Ohio.”

“God bless you for not saying Cleveland,” James Kirkwood shouted from the clutch seated in the audience. “I’m from Elyria, and I’m going to give you another chance.”

Except…“That’s not how it happened,” Wilczak said.

From My Fair Lady to NYC

After her star turn as Eliza in EC’s production of “My Fair Lady,” directed by Sister Mary Joan Marie, Wilczak attended Lorain County Community College. She performed there in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” among other shows, all under the direction of Roy Berko.

The drama professor was instrumental in Wilczak’s professional development.

“He organized a New York City trip for a group of us,” she said in an interview. “And he made sure I got a front-row seat to “Hair.’’ His machinations worked.

From LCCC, Wilzak went to Kent State University and majored in theater. She moved to New York in the early 1970s and, after a few New Jersey dinner theater productions, caught her first big break, winning an audition to appear in the original Broadway cast of the musical “Seesaw.” It was her first Actor’s Equity production. Billed Christine Wilzak, she dropped the “c” from her last name.

The book for “Seesaw” was written by Michael Bennett. During previews, the producers changed directors and the lead actress, bringing in Bennett to direct and actress Michele Lee to star. “Michael brought in all of his own dancers and fired just about everybody in the show except for me,” Wilzak said. She was with the show for its entire run, and when it went on tour with Lucie Arnaz as the lead, Wilzak went with it as her understudy.

Bennett had taken a liking to Wilzak.

“He thought I could move, even though I wasn’t a ‘dancer-dancer.’” She had never taken formal lessons. Her teacher, she said, was Dick Clark and his television show “American Bandstand” was her studio.

Bennett’s assistant, Baayork Lee, called to tell Wilzak about a new show that his team was putting on. “You have to audition for it, but we want you to be in it,” Lee told her. For the audition Crissy sang a bluesy song from “Girl Crazy,” “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!”

She got the part of Vicki, one of the many dancers ultimately cut from the audition during the opening number “Gee, I Hope I Get It.” The song established at the start how high the stakes are for those in a chorus line.

Wilzak also understudied several parts in “A Chorus Line,” including that of Val, who sang “Dance Ten, Looks Three.” She performed with the cast on the Tony Awards broadcast, and was with the show for three years.

Wilzak said that she was not aware that she was about to become part of a cultural phenomenon. With 6,137 performances, “A Chorus Line” was the longest-running production in Broadway history until “Cats” pounced to take the lead in 1997.

“At first it was just an exciting, brand new production to be involved in, (but) it didn’t take too long before it seemed that “A Chorus Line” was on the tip of everybody’s tongue,” she said. “It was early on and it was a rumbling drumbeat through the town: ‘A Chorus Line. A Chorus Line.’ Wait until you see this show.”

Wilzak enjoyed other successes, after “A Chorus Line,” including the role of Ginger Brooks in Broadway’s “The 1940’s Radio Hour.”

“There were casting directors from Hollywood at the show one night,” she said. “The next thing you know I had a contract with ABC.”

And just like that, Wilzak landed in another cultural touchstone: ABC’s hit comedy “Mork & Mindy.” She joined the show for its third season as Mindy’s friend Glenda Faye Comstock, a young widow.

With a five-year marriage coming to an end, she felt ready, finally, to get back to New York; she missed Broadway. But by then musical theater had changed — the hot tickets were shows such as “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”

“They were looking for operatic voices,” she said. “I didn’t have a voice like that. I was a ‘belter.’”

It was time to move on. She moved back home to Elyria in 1999 to be close to her family.

A Music Man

Despite Anderson’s inauspicious debut with the Black River Playhouse, when he had to be pushed from behind onto the stage, he was hooked on theater. Anderson went to Baldwin-Wallace College (now University), graduating in 1976. He was soon was making the rounds of auditions and callbacks so typical of an actor’s life.

In 1998 came the callback that would change his life. Not only does he remember the date he made his Broadway debut, he remembers the time: a 2 p.m. matinee on Aug. 8, 1998, in a show that helped usher in a new style of musical theater: an Andrew Lloyd Webber juggernaut called “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Anderson already had been associated with the show. He first auditioned for it 10 years earlier, was cast as Monsieur Reyer, and debuted at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles with the original Phantom, Michael Crawford. He remained with the L.A. production until it closed in 1993.

In all, Anderson would be employed by “Phantom” for 18 years, including for the second and third national touring companies. Three years after his Broadway debut, he joined the show’s third national tour as André and was on stage for the closing night of that tour, Oct. 31, 2010.

Anderson still lives the life of a working, traveling actor based in New York City. When I first interviewed him, in 2017, he was in Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania, performing the role that made his name in Elyria: Sancho Panza. Earlier this month, he spoke to me by phone from East Haddam, Connecticut, where he was rehearsing a musical at The Goodspeed. The show? “The Music Man.”

What Became of Marian Paroo?

In 1966, Elyria High School and Elyria Catholic High School embarked on something daring: For the first time, both schools staged world-class musical theater productions. EHS presented “Brigadoon,” and Elyria Catholic produced “The Music Man,” prompting a May 24, 1966, Chronicle editorial applauding both schools.

In her Chronicle review of “The Music Man,” Grace Tulk wrote:

The standing ovation with great spontaneous applause given the entire case of Willson’s “The Music Man” at Elyria District Catholic High School last night spoke louder than words the deserved tribute for the school’s first musical. If the school was ever to present this show, this was the year to do it because available for the lead role was Joseph Bonczek, senior, a young man with the right type voice and plenty of personality to carry the part off well.…In her first major role, Marilyn (Firment) did an excellent job and her lovely soprano voice was a joy to hear.…“The Music Man” provided an evening of top entertainment for the opening night audience which filled the auditorium.

Bonczek died in 2009, and attempts to reach his wife were unsuccessful.

However, co-star Marilyn Firment Detmer updated me on her career since her remarkable home town stage debut.

After graduating from EC, she studied at Baldwin Wallace for two years as a music major, intending to minor in music education.

“I was spending too much time in the theater though,” she said. “I needed to think about what I really wanted to do.”

The oldest girl in a family of eight children, Detmer returned home to the nest on West 11th Street to formulate her future plans. After working a summer job at the Fisher Body plant, she decided that the best path to her dreams was to major in musical theater at the Boston Conservatory.

“To pay my way I was a singing waitress,” she said.

In 1974 she moved with her college sweetheart to New York City and was cast in a national touring production of “No, No Nanette.” She understudied Nanette (playing the role in Texas) and was in the chorus. The tour included two Ohio stops, Akron and Toledo.

How did growing up in Elyria and going to school at Elyria Catholic contribute to who she became as a woman and an actor?

“Elyria in the 1950s and 1960s was a good town to grow up in. Church and education were of great importance.…and there was a feeling of optimism. It was a time when my dad, who was a policeman and worked as a roofer in the off-time, could raise a family of eight children and see that they each got the opportunity to go to college without going into massive debt.…I loved exploring Cascade Park and the Black River at the end of our street and the cider and donuts after the Halloween parade downtown.

“I got a good education at Elyria Catholic with some inspiring teachers,” she continued. “I graduated with a love of literature and music.…I definitely was a small-town girl, wholesome, uncomplicated and close to my family.”

Marilyn’s small-town values nearly got in the way of her career.

“I almost turned down an off-Broadway show, The Gilded Cage, because rehearsals would interfere with my going home for Christmas,” she wrote. “Luckily the choreographer talked some sense into me, and it was one of my favorite theatrical experiences.”

She lived in Manhattan for 35 years, working off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, in commercials and movies, and doing countless odd jobs—“mostly as a caterer or as an administrative or personal assistant. Because of my piano lessons and Elyria Catholic typing class, I was a wiz.”

She met her current husband on a theater tour in 1976, and they live north of Saratoga Springs, not far from Yaddo, the artists’ retreat. She occasionally acts for local community theaters.

“The last musical role I sang was Aunt March in ‘Little Women,’” which was produced by the NSC (“Not So Common”) Players in Clifton Park, New York.

Anderson, Firment Detmer and Wilczak, with the “c” in her last name returned to its rightful place, all followed the dreams they began to dream in Elyria.

“I’m proud of myself and of what I accomplished,” said Wilczak said. “My dad gave me $200 to help me move to New York. If I really knew what was ahead of me, I might have gotten scared and turned around. But I’m so glad I didn’t.”

Marci Rich won a 2018 Excellence in Journalism Award from the Press Club of Cleveland for her local history series, “Look Back, Elyria.” A book based on the series, “Looking Back at Elyria: A Midwest City at Midcentury,” is forthcoming this year from The History Press.