July 12--DECATUR -- Since its first season in 1964, Decatur's Theatre 7 has put on more than 150 productions all over the city, with nearly 1,000 combined shows.The community theater group was the city's first, growing out of the 1960s' "Town and Gown" theater program at Millikin University. It was during one of these shows that the seeds for half a century of community theater were sown.
"I came to Decatur in March of 1962, and that fall Dr. Jere C. Mickel was staging 'Romeo and Juliet' at Millikin," said Orv Graham, a founding Theatre 7 member and former board president. "I met several townspeople there during that show who became Theatre 7's founding members. After rehearsals, we would all go out together, and someone said, 'I wish Dr. Mickel would do some more commercial stuff. How about some Neil Simon; let's have fun!' But the program was mostly the classics, so someone suggested, why don't we start our own group? And that's how Theatre 7 was born."
The group has had its ups and downs, having been embraced by the community with sellouts in the 1970s before suffering periods of famine. But it has never stopped, thanks to the strength of its volunteers, who provided their own funding in the beginning to give the organization the necessary capital to start putting on large-scale shows.
"We didn't have any money in the beginning," Graham recalled. "We needed cash to pay fees for rights and rentals, all kinds of things. So I suggested we do a 'mellerdrammer' called 'Dirty Work at the Crossroads.' We made sets and bushes out of cardboard and did it at an old bar, Bagley's Tavern. It was a big hit, and raised enough money to start planning more major productions."
The first official Theatre 7 production was 1964's "Light Up the Sky," hosted in the organization's first home for shows, the auditorium of Eisenhower High School. Those were heady, chaotic days for the organization, as the volunteers found themselves blown away by the acceptance from audiences. Founding members such as Eileen Ruski remember the early shows as hectic but fun.
"We couldn't afford a building or anything, but the shows were doing really well," she said. "I was acting and working backstage in almost everything. I know I was in the first 'Guys and Dolls' show that we did, and I remember that because I had blue underwear on and when the lights shown on me they showed right through. It was a crazy situation."
The group's founding members soon were joined by other longtime names such as Jody Beyers, Marjorie Sangster, Joe and Sam Straka, Anne Thompson, Bill and Barbara Keagle, Peter Churukian and countless others. Everyone contributed in his own way, from regular actors to skilled artists and builders such as Mark Britton, who did "tons" of set construction for years, similar to the way Steve Trout does today. The organization even brought paid, professional directors on staff from 1969 to 1974, first with Jack Eddleman and then Anne Thompson's eventual husband Bob. Audiences were plentiful in this period, resulting in impressive feats such as selling out the Kirkland Fine Arts Center for "The Sound of Music" in 1973 and "Fiddler on the Roof" in 1974.
"I came in during the later 1970s, right about the time that we started losing money, and it seemed we lost our luster a bit," said Churukian, a historian of sorts for the group. "Attendance was dropping, and we had to adapt. We started straightening and reusing nails then, and learned to be truly frugal for the first time."
The organization's shows eventually moved to the Decatur Civic Center, which resulted in tremendous success for a period in the 1980s, when Churukian said season ticket sales quadrupled. Eventually however, audiences declined again. Since then, the organization has performed a reduced slate of shows for each full production. Other programs that once exposed younger audiences to Theatre 7 also came to an end, including the high school courses that first led younger actors such as Decatur's Jayson Albright to the organization.
"Shirley Kistler from Eisenhower would always bring her English and drama classes in to the final dress rehearsals, and we'd perform as if it was the real show for them," Churukian said. "The students would write reviews and give them back to us, which were fun to read. I wish they still did it."
However, the organization is by no means giving up on local theater today. As it heads into its 50th anniversary season, current president Dreux Lewandowski and the organization's volunteers are planning a bevy of events to celebrate the milestone and reintroduce the program to local residents, with an eye toward younger volunteers. They'll start with an increased presence at August's Decatur Celebration, with activities ranging from gold-painted public pianos on the festival grounds to planted "improvisation mobs" that will interact with the public. The ultimate goal, said Lewandowski, is to show that the organization is interested in new ideas.
"We need to bring in new, younger people into the full variety of roles we have here, from behind the scenes to on-stage and promotions," he said. "Some of the more senior members will have to take them under their wings, show them the ropes and let them steer the ship. I'd give anything to see some 30- or 40-somethings come in and bring proposals to do new types of shows and maybe do things in ways that are more economical or efficient. That would be a good start for our next 50 years."
For the more senior members, though, the good memories of their time with Theatre 7 will never fade. Gather enough of them in one room, and the stories begin to flow, reminiscences of shows that went both wonderfully well and dreadfully wrong. Many such tales have never seen the light of day.
"I remember the first time we did 'Rumors' in 1993, at the final Sunday matinee performance, one of the first-timers playing a main character just didn't show up," recalled Scott Rueter, the show's director. "Five minutes before curtain, we went to Janet Patterson, who was playing a minor part, and bumped her up to the main one, then taped copies of the script inside a prop newspaper for her to read. I don't think the audience even knew. That had to be one of the bravest things we've ever had an actress do."
Jody Beyers, on the other hand, has always been known as one of Theatre 7's most dedicated volunteers. Ever since she first played a nun in "The Sound of Music" in 1973, she's helped with shows in any way she could and enjoyed nearly every moment of it.
"There are so many memories, I could go on for days," she said. "It has been an education you can't get in a book. We want to see more audience members because we know we do good stuff, but the organization will continue, no matter what."
Orv Graham hasn't directly participated in Theatre 7 in more than 40 years, but he, too, says he'll never forget what it was like.
"I remember the excitement of the curtain going up and the audience cheering or laughing," he said. "It was a big part of my life. I remember the feeling it gave you when you did a good job, when the audience was mesmerized. That was an amazing feeling."
(c)2013 the Herald & Review (Decatur, Ill.)
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