July 21--Much like the young Elsa Emerson bursting with blond ambition, many actors have honed their chops on the stages of Door County's theaters. Nine-year-old Elsa, Emma Straub's star in "Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures," gets her first taste of the limelight as a flower girl in a stage wedding, and a star is born.
Straub grounds her novel, a selection of the State Journal book club, at the fictional Cherry County Playhouse, a converted barn in northern Door County. Elsa Emerson's family runs the summer theater, which caters to tourists visiting from Chicago and Milwaukee who perch on wooden benches to watch actors young and old play out scripted dramas under the stars.
The tradition of live theater in Door County is not a work of fiction; today, visitors can buy tickets for ambitious musicals, original works with a Wisconsin bent, even Shakespeare, all of which can be enjoyed while watching the sun dip below the trees.
"People will say it's a magical experience," said Jeff Herbst, artistic director of American Folklore Theatre, which is set in a little neck of the woods in Peninsula State Park near Fish Creek.
Theatergoers stroll a path surrounded by pine trees to the open-air theater, where they're entertained as the sun sets and the moon rises over the back of the stage. And even though Herbst admits that the mosquitoes have been rather friendly this season, the user-friendly facility supplies plenty of insect repellent.
Emma Straub's Cherry County Playhouse may look the most like today's Peninsula Players Theatre, America's oldest professional resident summer theater. The company is marking its 78th season , offering shows like the musical "Sundays in the Park with George."
Greg Vinkler, artistic director at Peninsula Players Theatre, calls the musical, which opens this week, "a big one." He was reached by phone during rehearsals for the show, which he's directing. The cast of 15 had just finished blocking the most complicated musical number, a 12-minute show-stopper.
Vinkler said theatergoers have been coming to watch Peninsula Players year in and year out because of the mix of plays they offer, and for the experience of enjoying theater in the woods.
"If someone came to see the whole season, they would go from one very different world to another, show to show," Vinkler said.
Visitors are treated to talented actors that are as at home in the woods as on Broadway. Vinkler himself has a Broadway show on his resume; he played Doc in the revival of "West Side Story" in 2009.
Other talent that has graced the stage in Door County includes Harvey Korman of "The Carol Burnett Show" fame, who earned his equity card with Peninsula Players, according to Audra Baakari Boyle, the theater's business manager.
Baakari Boyle also lists some other famous Peninsula Player alums:
--Julie Bishop got her start with the Players around 1939 and went on to a career in Hollywood, appearing in more than 80 films, including "The Sands of Iwo Jima" opposite John Wayne.
--Sam Wanamaker, a prolific actor who was also responsible for rebuilding the Globe Theater in London, had his first paying job at the Players.
--Jean Sincere, a character actor who enjoyed a long career up until her death in April, returned year after year to the Players. She's known to audiences today as the voice of Mrs. Hogenson in the Pixar movie "The Incredibles," and she played the librarian on the Fox show "Glee."
--Ralph Waite, the father on "The Waltons," acted with the Players in 1963.
--Players alum Rudy Bond, a classmate of Marlon Brando's at the Actor's Studio, played Steve Hubbel in "A Streetcar Named Desire."
--Rene Auberjonois, who won a Tony for his role opposite Katherine Hepburn in the musical "Coco" but who might be recognizable to today's audiences as Odo on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," acted with the Players in 1962.
The actors who come through Peninsula Players live out their summers much like the fictional residents of the Cherry County Playhouse. The artists live on the 16-acre campus on the shore of Green Bay.
"We have a lodge with a full-time kitchen staff, which provides three meals a day," Vinkler said. "The rehearsal hall is here, the scene shop, the theater, the offices, the costume shop, the box office and all the housing are right here."
The theater also boasts a beer garden among the cedar trees, where visitors can enjoy refreshments while the sun puts on its own show each evening.
"For a lot of people who come to Door County, coming to Peninsula Players has always been part of the experience," Vinkler said. "A lot of people who come up here as tourists who may have not seen theater elsewhere do that here because it's part of the Door County experience."
Loyal visitors return year after year, said American Folklore Theatre's Jeff Herbst.
"I will have people stop me and say, 'I came here when I was a little kid, and now I'm bringing my children.' There's an unbelievable loyalty amongst our audience."
Herbst, a Madisonian, started visiting Door County when he was a child as well.
"I think when people go to a place like Door County, it's an escape," he said. "They're looking for something that will entertain and enrich their lives, something that's also a good family experience."
And with outdoor theater, tourists can enjoy scenery crafted both by professional artists and Mother Nature.
"It feels like you're communing with nature at the same time that you're being entertained," Herbst said. "You're getting a lot of value for your buck."
(c)2013 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)
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