Movies took over many of the theatres where road companies had performed live drama, so a group of Omahans joined others across America in the Little Theatre movement. Architect Alan McDonald found time while designing the Joslyn Museum to serve as president of the new Community Playhouse and declare its purpose: “To raise the drama from a purely amusement enterprise into an educational, cultural force.” The Playhouse promised a season of good plays at a reasonable price plus the chance to participate on and off stage.
A vaudeville show in March 1925 at the new Technical High School auditorium raised funds, but the first “real” play under director Greg Foley opened in April. The Enchanted Cottage starred Dodie Brando, a year after the birth of son Marlon. The cast included Jayne Fonda whose brother Henry was then studying journalism in Minneapolis. Produced on the non-sloped floor of the Mary Cooper Dance Studio near 40th and Farnam, the Pinero drama was accompanied by dancing and musical acts. After two days there, it traveled for a one-nighter in Fremont.
Foley needed a juvenile lead for You and I to open the first six-play season (1925-26), so Mrs. Brando called her friend Herberta Fonda and recruited her 20-year-old son, Henry. His debut came the same week in October that conductor Sandor Harmati arrived to guide the new Omaha Symphony Orchestra.
A second season found Fonda as Merton of the Movies and Mrs. Brando as O’Neill’s Anna Christie and Shaw’s Pygmalion, but the third year saw that dance studio converted for chicken dinners. After moving shows to Benson High, the Playhouse board led by Genevieve Guiou and McDonald began to build on Sarah Joslyn’s cow pasture at 40th and Davenport. Only 28 days after groundbreaking, the “temporary” theatre opened on Oct. 30, 1928. First-nighters waited a half hour while seats were bolted down and debris swept out, then watched Rudyard Norton in Aren’t We All. Children’s plays and puppet shows were soon added.
Newcomer Bernie Szold directed that opening and before leaving in 1935 was credited nationally for the Playhouse culturally coming of age. A football all-American and flamboyant figure in an opera cape, Szold introduced 13-year-old Dorothy McGuire to the stage and brought guest star Henry Fonda back to co-star with her in A Kiss for Cinderella. Other Szold highlights: his title role in O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape and bringing his friend, Iowa artist Grant Wood, to design scenery for an original play, Brigham Young. Last-minute Mormon pressure led to divorcing 14 of Young’s 17 wives from the cast.
Now a film star, Henry Fonda bought new seats for the theatre, easing the role of his father as house manager. Szold’s successor, Edward Steinmetz, Jr., was followed by Gordon Giffen, who brought the first musicals to the Playhouse. The 100th production in 1939 was a musical version of the old melodrama, Our American Cousin. Earlier, the only songs aired between acts and were not integral to the plays. Giffen then tackled Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers in 1940 and came closer to the modern musical with Knickerbocker Holiday in 1941. Julie Wilson, who sang in its chorus, became Manhattan’s favorite cabaret singer. This period also saw future mayor and U.S. Congressman Glenn Cunningham on the Playhouse stage. The Tired Old Horse in a children’s play was tall Letitia Baldrige, who gained fame as an author and aide to Jackie Kennedy. One of the first Fonda-McGuire acting awards went to a teenage Lenka Peterson, who enjoyed a long stage, film and television career.
The outbreak of World War II brought the arrival of director Kendrick Wilson, then his departure for military service, and his return for a creative tenure that continued until 1967. If the Playhouse had barely survived in 1928 when it briefly found itself with neither a theatre nor a director, the war left it short of funds, audience and male players. Treasurer Clarence Teal led the effort to keep it solvent and male-heavy plays were changed to such dramas as The Women by Clare Booth Luce.
Growing attendance and record runs marked the late 1940s, and in the 1950s, Teal headed a new building committee. It promised relief from that “temporary” theatre, which sent actors shivering into the cold when exits left them on the wrong side of the stage. Until the 1950s, much scenic design work was done by such volunteers as Emmy Gifford, who doubled as costume designer. The first full-time designer was soon followed by Royal Eckert, who stayed for more than a decade. Fundraising for the new building at 69th and Cass brought Fonda, McGuire and a young Jane Fonda to Omaha for a benefit performance of Country Girl. The musical Say, Darling opened the new facility in 1959. Before later expansion, it was confined to the auditorium and the space in front, behind and below. A live television show hosted by Elaine Jabenis welcomed first-nighters to the new Playhouse.
Commentary by Eleanor Jones – November 2008
Experimental, avant garde and controversial plays had been performed outside the regular Playhouse season as early as the 1930s, but the new space and the hiring of an associate director permitted the addition of the Studio Theatre. It became a fixture in the 1960s with such works as Sartre’s No Exit or the plays of Tennessee Williams performed in the basement rehearsal hall. The Studio series would evolve into the Fonda-McGuire program performed in the Howard Drew space after the Playhouse was expanded in 1986. The main stage offered the first full Shakespearean production, Julius Caesar, in 1961 and season-opening musicals became crowd-pleasers. Two young actors, Peter Fonda and Terry Kiser, went from the Playhouse to national prominence in the 1960s.
Two short-term directors followed Wilson’s farewell in 1967, as did a planned merger, then a split from the Junior Theatre, which in various forms had been under the Playhouse guidance since the late 1920s. Along came a sizable, charming Southerner, Charles Jones, as the new director, accompanied by scenic designer James Othuse. They arrived in the summer of 1974, followed by a record blizzard and a tornado in 1975. The latter raised the Playhouse roof and brought renovations. The first Jones-Othuse show, The Music Man, gave a hint of their high standards for big productions. By 1976, Jones had created his version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and launched the Nebraska Theatre Caravan, the professional touring wing of Omaha Community Playhouse. In 1978, A Christmas Carol began to tour the nation. And the Playhouse, already well-recognized beyond its borders, was well on its way toward recognition as America’s leading community theatre. A costume designer had been added to the staff in the late 1960s, and other creative and technical specialists followed, with Jones hiring Joanne Cady as choreographer soon after his arrival.
The renovation led by Margre Durham after the tornado was followed by a six-million-dollar expansion in the mid-1980s with Barbara Ford heading a campaign that doubled space at the Playhouse. Additions allowed the Studio Theatre to move out of the basement and become the Fonda-McGuire series, replaced the old entry area with the glass-fronted Owen Lobby and created the Hitchcock Rehearsal Hall. Early in the Jones era, season memberships doubled from 4,000 to 8,000 and passed 10,000 in the mid-80s. Nearly 20,000 attended a 1988 production of South Pacific and more than 18,000 packed the 1991 performances of the annual A Christmas Carol. Three Caravan companies took the Dickens-Jones collaboration on Midwest, East Coast and West Coast tours. The once music-deprived Playhouse now offered both fall and spring musicals on the main stage, others in the smaller space. The Robber Bridegroom in 1979, followed by The 1940s Radio Hour and Quilters, performed in Europe. Sculptures of Don Quixote and other figures by artist Milton Heinrichs enlivened the exterior of the Playhouse.
Before Jones stepped down in 1997, the Playhouse was widely recognized as America’s top community theatre as measured by attendance, staff size and budget. “Charles took a medium-flight theatre and made it No. 1 in the nation,” one outside observer noted, citing both size and quality of productions. Other theatres produced his A Christmas Carol, and he adapted Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and My Antonia for the Playhouse. As season membership peaked at more than 12,000, My Antonia and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor® Dream Coat set attendance records for drama and musical in 1994. Growth brought a managing director to run the operation and two former Caravan performers, Carl Beck and Susie Baer Collins, as associate directors. Beck became artistic director on the retirement of Jones and continued its distinctive status. In response to the Playhouse’s growth in artistic excellence and subscriptions, the building itself adapted, and the black box theatre underwent a $1 million renovation funded by Omaha businessman Howard Drew, thus being renamed the Howard Drew Theatre.
The Omaha Community Playhouse exited one millennium and entered the next with its 75th season. As the world experienced this millennial change, the Playhouse was experiencing a change of its own in leadership. Former Managing Director Duwain Hunt left the Playhouse and was replaced by Tim Schmad as president. Schmad hailed from the Aksarben world — a place of culture and philanthropy. Personnel wasn’t the only thing that changed in the Playhouse in the new millennium. The Nebraska Theatre Caravan — the Playhouse’s touring wing — cut productions to two tours of A Christmas Carol. In the 2000s, the Playhouse continued to put on top-rated shows. The musical Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story earned over $200,000 in 2002, setting a revenue record for productions other than A Christmas Carol. 2004/05 brought two milestones: the Playhouse’s 30th season of Charles Jones’ adaptation of A Christmas Carol and the retirement of Dick Boyd, the 83-year-old actor who played Scrooge for 30 years without missing a performance. His retirement from the stage garnered national media recognition. As the first decade of the 2000s came to a close, the treasured mainstage theatre underwent a much-needed renovation and was named for the generous supporters who made it possible, becoming the Howard and Rhonda Hawks Mainstage Theatre.
The second decade of the new millennium brought changes in programming, touring and leadership. In the fall of 2012, OCP introduced edgier content in the Howard Drew Theatre with the “Find Your Stage” branding campaign. It kicked off with the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama August: Osage County. The show brought in the second highest revenue numbers the Howard Drew had seen in the regular season, only being surpassed by the musical Quilters in 2009. Another record-breaking show came one year later on the Hawks Mainstage. After 25 years of waiting for the available rights, OCP received the opportunity to stage Les Misérables. More than 350 people auditioned for the production resulting in an all-star cast led by New York equity actor, Timothy Shew, as Jean Valjean. The show was critically acclaimed and set a new Box Office record, earning the most revenue in OCP history outside of A Christmas Carol. It also swept the Theatre Arts Guild Awards winning 13 awards. Just a few months later, a newly revitalized Nebraska Theatre Caravan launched a national tour of a steampunk-inspired version of The Fantasticks. This was the first show, other than A Christmas Carol, that the Caravan had toured since The Spitfire Grill in 2005. In the spring of 2014, beloved artistic director Carl Beck and associate artistic director Susan Baer Collins retired, ending a 30-year era. They were succeeded by New Yorker Hilary Adams who was selected by the Board of Trustees as the new artistic director after a national search. However, in December 2015, the Board of Trustees voted to relieve Adams of her duties. After a nationwide search, during which Susan Baer Collins returned to the Playhouse as interim artistic director, Kimberly Faith Hickman, a director and choreographer from New York City, started as the full-time artistic director in June 2016. In fall of 2020, Hickman announced her plans to step away from her role at OCP and served through December 2020. Susan Baer Collins was welcomed back in January 2021 and will once again serve as the interim artistic director until a permanent replacement is hired.
In June 2016, Tim Schmad, longtime president of the Playhouse, announced his retirement as of January 31, 2017. After a national search, Omahan and former Playhouse Marketing and Public Relations Director Katie Broman was hired as the Playhouse’s new executive director. Broman returned to the Playhouse in January 2017 and has served as a tremendous leader for the organization ever since.
Celebrate the 90th season of the Omaha Community Playhouse with The Omaha Community Playhouse Story, a history book by local author Warren Francke telling the 90-year history of Omaha’s theatre.
Visit the OCP Box Office to pick up your copy!
For more information call 402-553-0800.
Regular Price: $27 | Subscriber Price: $20
Electronic copies also available on Amazon.