Thursday, May 30, 2013

Saline Area Players.... the beginning!

At Cabaret Gala
I recently returned from a delightful afternoon talking with Rose Carol Toth, one of the founding members of Saline Area Players.  This is our 40th year and we’re celebrating with a Gala on June 22 at Liberty School Auditorium, which used to be called the Middle School Little Theatre, and was the first auditorium in which the Players ever performed.  Rose Carol talked about how the group was formed….

It began when a local resident, Betsy Wellwood, had an idea.  She put a small article in the Saline Reporter asking if anyone was interested in starting a local theater group in Saline.  The meeting took place on Monroe street in what had originally been a Catholic Church, but was at that time a UAW hall.  Not sure what it is now.  They met in the basement.  In Rose Carol’s recollection, about 12 people attended that first meeting, most of whom didn’t know each other.  Some of the people she remembers, along with herself, were Ralph Swenarton, Norma Keller, Russell and Marilyn Ellis, Betsy Wellwood, Leroy King, Dottie Barnes, and Christine Horn, whom she describes as young, and the only person there who had ever done or studied theater.  It was from this meeting that they decided to put on the first Saline Area Players show, “Was this Murder?”.  Rose Carol was in it along with many of the founding members of the Players.  I looked at her program of the show, and I was impressed at how well-supported the show was with local businesses.  Rose Carol remembers that her husband, Ted, and Bob Barnes, were some of the first set builders. 
Queen in Once
Upon a Mattress

With that first production, and many of the early ones, she says that people pitched in and did everything.  At that time the theater didn’t have any lights like it does now so they had to make them using large coffee cans.  They also had to figure out a way to hang them.  They moved them in and out of the theater using large crates.  When not in use, they were stored in various garages, including that of the Toth’s.  The biggest storage area, however, as time went on, was over Big Daddy’s (which is where Mangiamo’s is now).  She reports that Big Daddy’s was very generous, letting them store things there on the upper floor for free.  Unfortunately, there was a fire in the building causing damage to Big Daddy’s, and the Players lost much of their stuff.  So other storage areas were found and that may be when the Players moved to the Saline Depot.  For awhile, the depot was used for storage and for rehearsals, but later was turned back to the historical society.  I personally remember being there for auditions in the first SAP show I auditioned for, Carousel. Over the years, SAP has stored things in people’s barns too, including Bill Burnette and the late Dave Strait, to name a few.

Not long after the group got started, they decided to write bylaws.  Although Rose Carol wasn’t the first president, she was when they wrote the bylaws, which she describes as a tedious process.  They used other groups, like Ann Arbor Civic Theater, and CTAM (Community Theater Association of Michigan) for help.  She says that Dottie Barnes, also on the board, did a lot of work on this project.  Rose Carol stayed on the board for years, and if she wasn’t on it, her husband Ted was.  They were never on at the same time since one of the rules was, and still is, that two people from the same family cannot be at the same time.  (In my opinion that was a great rule because you could give a spouse a break but they are still roped in by the one who IS on the board J ). Rose Carol notes that when they did Oklahoma, their first musical, into the beginning of the second year, they generated a lot of interest, and the families came out for that.  She describes it as a “huge community production” and described this as a big boost for the new group.

In the early days, play reading was a group activity.  The chair or co-chair of the committee would find out about plays through hearsay, CTAM, or perhaps research, and they would suggest that the board read them.  Everyone would sit around and read through the plays, taking the different parts.  It was from these readings that the plays were selected.  Then the season was developed and they put out advertisements for directors.  She remembers that Roger Wertenberger from Ann Arbor Civic directed and Jim Posante choreographed South Pacific, a huge musical production for SAP.  They were well known in the community.  At that time, the artistic and the music directors were the only ones paid.  The rest, pretty much like it is now, were volunteers!

Ted Toth
Rose Carol’s husband Ted was one of the main set builders for SAP for years.  Although a pipe fitter for General Motors by trade, he was in the Air National Guard and through that erected buildings and made temporary sites.  He learned a lot about building from that, and also worked a bit with Ann Arbor Civic Theater where he learned about set design and painting.  Rose Carol said that he always carried a small pad of paper and a pencil in his pocket, and every time they traveled, he would sketch things he saw, like buildings, towers, etc. hoping to use some of these drawings in the future on a set.  While visiting her, I had the honor of viewing many of his pieces of art throughout her home.  We were incredibly lucky to have Ted beyind the scenes.  (And, occasionally, we’d be able to get him on stage, but only for a cameo role). 

Currently, one of the best things about being part of the Saline Area Players are the parties.  It is fun to work hard on a production and then get to enjoy everyone at a party.  I didn’t join the group until 1984 but was able to participate in some very late night parties.  But evidently, they weren’t as late as I thought.  According to Rose Carol, the cast would frequently go to Big Daddy’s after a rehearsal.  The grill would close by 1:00 (a.m., that is), so they would make sure they got their orders in by then.  She remembers the occasional person who had to rehearse later shouting out their order as others went out the door.  The restaurant would stay open later, though, and she remembers staying until 2 or 3:00 a.m. until they closed.  She thinks those were on the weekends.  For the cast parties, everybody would come dressed up, in long dresses (the women, that is).  She remembers that the parties went late into the night, sometimes until 6:00 a.m. After the party broke up, the cast would go over to what was the Big Apple at the time (now Saline Inn) and have breakfast.  That was before my time!  She also remembers the annual picnics at the Barnes’ home where they have a pool.  Dottie would make most of the food, often spaghetti with garlic bread and salad.  She says that the parties were so cohesive with no squabbles…just fun, fun, fun!!!

As we talked, I realize that not much has changed.  People come together to create a play and become part of the group.  The people come from all walks of life and often don’t know each other ahead of time.  Families are very much involved and often share the experience.  Publicity, finding an audience, getting enough funding, and keeping up the enthusiasm remain ongoing challenges.  And, certainly, we still like to have parties, but sadly, they don’t go until breakfast anymore. 

Come learn more about the Saline Area Players and celebrate with us at our 40th Anniversary Gala on June 22.