Our history occurs in two different eras, with two very distinct and dedicated groups of people. Our first era begins just after the Great Depression and runs until just before the end of the Second War to End All Wars.
This first troupe of thespians actually started in 1932 at the old Odeon Theater on Second Avenue downtown. If they weren’t performing at the Odeon then they were at the Marshalltown High School auditorium, now known as Miller Middle School. Their very first production was THE QUEEN’S HUSBAND and starred local favorites, including Carol Dodd Hollingsworth, Ed Wright, Evelyn Bowman Kennehan, and Alice Van Law Blue. According to historians, this first group of thespians also had a summer theatre that played at the Iowa Soldiers Home chapel. A program from that era is shown to the left, from a 1940 production of FAMILY PORTRAIT by Lenore Coffee and William Joyce Cowen. The photo is from an unknown production of that era, as well.
(Click on the images to enlarge them.)
Although the plays were well attended and they provided a means for the townsfolk to escape their troubles of the time for a few hours, the real draw was the Community Theatre’s 20-piece orchestra. The orchestra played before every performance and at each intermission, adding to the much needed entertainment. The plays and music offered a respite from this time of material shortages and high unemployment.
During this era, one of the more serious items the theatre had to face was a heating fuel shortage. Not directly, (keep in mind at this time they used “borrowed” venues), but rather at one of their productions. The best remembered was at the high school. The School District could not afford to heat the high school auditorium during non-school hours, so when school was out, so was the heat. It is told that the auditorium would get so cold in the winter that theatre patrons could see their breath! The actors solved their problem by offering an optional admission price at the high school to be a bucket of coal. This brought in enough fuel to keep everyone warm for the performance and may have even helped a few students stay warm the next day.
The Theatre was truly a business of the time. With a yearly budget of less than a thousand dollars and membership dues of $1.00 per person, they were able to do a lot with a little. It was summed up nicely on every program for every play. “It is first, last, and foremost – OUR Community Theatre.”
“Our Community Theatre-born of the desire for expression In the realm of the theatre- it seeks to embrace the endeavors of all its members according to their individual interests.
Its purpose is to foster the arts of writing, acting, designing, music and dancing as they are found in the theatre.
It dedicates itself as a medium through which the people of this community may find the opportunity for participation in the artistic achievements for which it is striving.
It is a community enterprise. It was conceived by, and is dedicated to, our interest in the combined arts of the theatre. It will live only as long as our interest in these things endures. It is first, last, and foremost – OUR Community Theatre.”
The first theatre group provided entertainment for about 12 years until the Second World War started to rob the theatre of its critical resources; the actors. The draft was taking the men away from the Community Theatre and putting them into a much larger theatre; the global theatre of war. Without the men to fill the parts, and with the war effort growing, the theatre made the tough decision to shut down for awhile.
For 18 years, the Marshalltown Community Theatre lay dormant. Resting. Waiting for the right moment and the right people to bring it out of hibernation. Early in 1962, a lady named Fern Stephenson walked into Home Furniture, a local furniture store. She started talking to Sandy Schlesinger, one of the owners, while looking for some furnishings. As she walked around the showroom, Fern noticed the play bills hanging on the walls and commented, “I wonder why Marshalltown doesn’t have a theatre.” That comment was firmly planted in Sandy’s mind, gnawing at him as he wondered who else would be interested in a local theatre troupe. He submitted an article to the local newspaper inviting anyone interested in theatre to attend a meeting and discuss what needed to be done to restart a theatre group in Marshalltown. Twelve people showed up and in September, 1962 the Marshalltown Community Theatre was born again.
Still without a permanent home, the troupe staged their first production in the newly-built Fisher Community Center Auditorium. They opened with the comedy, THE PLEASURE OF HIS COMPANY, directed by Mrs. Ann Keyser and starring Barry Norris, JoAnne Shaffer, Roger Lakely, Dale Smith, and Pixie Lage. As with every show, there is as much going on behind the scenes as on the stage and this show was no exception. Helping the actors with their stage debut was the backstage crew of Dean Elder Sr., Harriett Elder, Carol Dodd, and, as was often the case, Martha-Ellen Tye.
(Used by permission from the Marshalltown Times-Republican)
The new troupe opened to a less than half-filled house the first night, but those in attendance spread the word. As the Community Theatre performed other favorites of the era, including THE CRUCIBLE and THE GLASS MENAGERIE, attendance grew. As attendance grew, so did the confidence of the troupe.
After two seasons of shows, the players felt they were ready for a musical. So in 1964, with more confidence than you could imagine, they decided to produce their first musical. Did they choose a simple musical to start with? Not this group! They swung hard on this production and hit a home run. They performed the musical extravaganza SOUTH PACIFIC in the Lennox Auditorium, to a sold-out audience for every performance.
The theatre troupe continued to play and flourish in several “borrowed” facilities. Then, in 1967, the Marshalltown School District voters vetoed a referendum for a new auditorium for the High School. This was all the incentive Martha-Ellen Tye needed to take her design for a Playhouse from the architect’s drawing board to the contractor’s hands.
The new Martha-Ellen Tye Playhouse was inaugurated on May 9, 1969 and not only served the Community Theatre but also the High School and Community College. As each school was able to build or acquire their own facilities, they moved out of the Martha-Ellen Tye Playhouse. Now the Marshalltown Community Theatre is the sole proprietor of the Playhouse, using it exclusively for their productions. When not being used for an MCT production, the Playhouse has been used by the community for special events, birthdays, dance recitals, and more.
The inauguration of the new Martha-Ellen Tye Playhouse was a black tie affair, attended by many, including members of the community and past friends who were now living in Hollywood and New York. At $15 per person for the entire night, the event was quick to be sold-out and lasted most of the night. The entertainment included the play YOU KNOW I CAN’T HEAR YOU WHEN THE WATER’S RUNNING, songs by Nadine Conner of the Metropolitan Opera, music and skits by the Marshalltown High School, and speeches by Jean Seberg and many others.
By the end of the entertainment at 11:30 p.m., the evening was only getting started. Everyone in attendance took part in an elaborate reception at the Fisher Community Center, using every room the Center had.
The Marshalltown Community Theatre continues today in the Martha-Ellen Tye Playhouse, but changes have occurred. The backstage area was expanded when the wall between the Playhouse and the Community Center Auditorium was moved back. In 1997, the original lighting system was replaced with a new, computer controlled system, and then in 1999, the original sound system was updated.
Although faced with a variety of obstacles through the years, the Marshalltown Community Theatre has been a springboard to stardom for several successful local actors. Jean Seberg, (Saint Joan, Lilith, The Mouse That Roared, Airport), Jan Eddy (Fire Down Below, Ellen, Seinfeld, and Walker, Texas Ranger), and Matt Hinerfeld refined their skills on our stage. Mary Beth (Supinger) Hurt, (Interiors, The World According To Garp, Autumn In New York), and Toby Huss (Down Periscope, Carnivàle,Rescue Dawn) were born and raised in Marshalltown, but never actually performed in an MCT production.
The success of the theatre goes well beyond a small group of people who have worked hard to keep this theatre alive, or even its prime benefactor, Martha-Ellen Tye. The success of the theatre can be attributed to the people of Marshalltown and the surrounding communities. Their support has helped make the Marshalltown Community Theatre one of the most successful in the state of Iowa. It is first, last, and foremost OUR COMMUNITY THEATRE!