Initially known, if only for a few weeks, as the Community Theater of Chester, the Chester Little Theatre was formally organized on a Monday evening, August 30,1971, at a public meeting at the Chester County War Memorial Building.
That gathering stemmed from an earlier meeting, held July 28, 1971 at the home of Mrs. Anne P. Collins, 132 York Street. Mrs. Collins had invited several interested persons to hear John Bitterman of the South Carolina Arts Commission speak of the benefits of a community theater and how to organize one. In addition to Mrs. Collins, those attending included Mrs. V.P. (Renee) Patterson, Mrs. Robert L. (Jenny) Shannon, Chester County Library Director Glenn Musser and Chester High Band Director Robert Maxwell. The group formed what they called the Community Theater of Chester Committee and named Mrs. Collins as temporary chairman.
In preparation for a public meeting the committee mailed letters soliciting support to more than 400 families in the county and chose a nominating committee to recommend a list of 22 names to appear on the ballot with 11 of those to be elected as charter members of the Board of Directors. Members of the nominating committee, in addition to Mrs. Collins, were Mrs. Aaron (Martha Dove) Dark and Don McKeown. Mrs. Dark was chairman.
A crowd of 115 persons attended the organizational meeting on August 30, 1971, and heard an address by John Bitterman, deputy director of the South Carolina Arts Commission, and remarks by Chester native Terrell Glenn, a Columbia attorney who was chairman of the South Carolina Arts Commission at the time. Herman P. Hamilton of Chester presided.
It was at that meeting the theater was formally organized, the name Chester Little Theatre chosen, and eleven (11) directors elected by secret ballot. Charter members of the Board of Directors were Mary Haas Blackburn, Mrs. Lenore Orr Branham, Mrs. Anne Pickens Collins, Mrs. Sally Banks Meador, Mrs. Renee Patterson, Mrs. Virginia (Jenny) Shannon, Aaron B. (Bud) Dark, Joe Giltner, Herman P. Hamilton, Robert Maxwell and Glenn Musser.
Those directors met of September 1, 1971 at the home of Mrs. Collins to elect officers from among themselves. Charter officers chosen were Aaron B. Dark, president; Renee Patterson, vice president; Jenny Shannon, secretary; and Mary Blackburn, treasurer.
With the assistance of the South Carolina Arts Commission, the board’s first business included establishing the theater’s constitution and by-laws, organizing a membership campaign, and naming a reading committee to select a play for production that fall.
The theater’s first production was “Barefoot In The Park,” a three-act comedy by Neil Simon, that was held December 2-4, 1971, at the Chester County War Memorial Building. The play was directed by Barry Shealy of Columbia, whose services were obtained for a fee through the South Carolina Arts Commission. The cast consisted of Terry Layman, an English teacher at Chester High School, as Paul Bratter; Terry Torbert as Corrie Bratter; Lettie A. Knight, a French teacher at Chester High, as Mrs. Ethel Banks; Evans Vaughn of Great Falls as Velasco; Dick Blackburn as the telephone repairman; and Donnie Murray as the delivery man. For lack of a theater, rehearsals were held at the Memorial Building, Chester Area Vocational School, and even in the Dairy Association office.
Ironically, the opening night of the play was greeted by a winter storm that dumped several inches of snow on the Chester area. Yet, there was a full house, due primarily to a special transportation committee that used four-wheel-drive trucks and Jeeps to transport patrons to and from their homes. Despite the cold, miserable weather outside, the upstairs Memorial Building hall was warm and alive with excitement as local audiences enthusiastically received the theater’s first offering.
The second, and only other play, produced that first fiscal year was “Blythe Spirit, which opened a four-day run on April 12, 1972 at the memorial Building. The play was directed by Gayle Everhart of Columbia, a paid director, and the cast consisted of Fannie Black, Shelia McCraven, Lettie Knight, Louise Haddad, Jenny Shannon, Stanhope Gayle of Richburg, and Tom McKevitt.
First Local Director
It wasn’t until the 1972-73 fiscal year that Chester Little Theatre used its first local volunteer director, not altogether because the theater didn’t have the funds to hire a professional director, but also because it had a member with the guts to give it a try. The director was Terry Moss Torbert and the play was “Come Blow Your Horn.” The cast consisted of Mike Bailey, Dan Stroud, Alice Brown and Dick Pincelli.
The other play produced that season was “My Three Angels.”
Finding A Home
At the Second Annual Membership Meeting, held May 15, 1972, it was announced that the theater Board had purchased the Powell Theater building on Wylie Street for the sum of $7,500 from Cherokee Theatres Inc. of Charlotte. The Charlotte movie theater company had originally asked $10,000 but dropped the price to $7,500 after it was learned that the company did not own about one-quarter of the building. The theater Board borrowed $5,000 from a local bank for the down payment and was given five years in which to pay off the $2,500 balance.
To bolster the financially-strapped theater group, Herman P. Hamilton, chairman of the House Committee, recommended that a fund-raising committee be established to raise $15,000 half of which would pay for the building with the rest to be used for much-needed repairs and renovations. The building had long ceased to be a movie theater and all seats in the auditorium had been removed. The building had been leased previously to W.P. (Dub) Johnson, who had just established a sewing operation in the theater auditorium, manufacturing men’s fashion dress shirts and ties.
The Board authorized the purchase of seats for the theater from a movie theater going out of business in Myrtle beach, S.C. They were installed by theater members in July 1972.
Following up on Mr. Hamilton’s recommendation, the theater Board authorized a fund-raising campaign with a goal set for $15,000. The major activity was a 36-hour radio marathon held at the theater in August 1972. This marathon involved local talent, from vocalists, musical bands to gospel groups…anyone who wanted to perform. Radio WGCD broadcast the activities live, continuously from 12 noon Friday through 6 p.m. the following day, with listeners invited to call in pledges or come by the theater to drop off donations. The marathon raised a total of $5,026.00. This fundraiser was chaired by Dick Blackburn.
Also during the summer of 1972, the theater’s Board of Directors authorized the formation of the organization’s Chester Junior Theater and named Mrs. Frank (Juanita) Coogler as coordinator. This began in June with eight weeks of workshops conducted for children, including instruction in music, dance, dramatics, and stagecraft. A total of 35 children participated. At the conclusion of the workshops, the Junior Theater staged its first production, “Greensleeve’s Magic,” an original folk tale by Marion Jonson. The play was staged August 22-24, 1972, with a cast of 25 children. William (Bill) Splawn of Spartanburg, a professional actor-director, was the paid director; Mrs. Renee Patterson was choreographer-producer; Miss Louise Haddad was music director; and Miss Lane Simril the assistant music director. Cast members included Kay Lowe in the lead, Lane Simril, Matt Elliott, Karen Darby, Trina Grant, Susan Maxwell, Lisa Wells, Carol Ann Crain, Will Stone, Mike Wells, Keith Jernigan and Chuck Kilpatrick.
The Chester Junior Theatre presented plays for several years, but when it ceased to exist the Chester Little Theatre staged some children’s productions. The summer children’s play in 1973 was Samuel French’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” which was directed by Porter (Greg) Gregory. “Tom Sawyer” was the play selection in 1974; “Cheaper By The Dozen,” directed by Pat Wylie, was the choice in 1975; “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” directed by Eddie Wright and Mrs. Pat Wylie, was staged in 1976.
The theater, however, has staged a variety of other special, non-season productions over the years, including Christmas Follies in the 1970s, “Showstoppers” as special fundraisers in the 1980s, and at intervals, productions of the Powell Players.
Chester Little Theatre’s history is dotted with a number of successes, but there was a time when the theater almost closed shop. In fact, a front page headline in The Chester Reporteron June 11, 1979, read: “Fate Of Theater To Be Decided Tonight.”
That newspaper story, along with minutes from Board meetings, showed a theater operation struggling to survive. Using a letter from President pat Wylie to theater members, the newspaper article quoted Mrs. Wylie as saying that the 1978-79 fiscal year had been seen from the outset as crucial to the theater’s very existence.
“We felt it was crucial for us to generate some enthusiasm and interest in our activities, or sit back and watch out past efforts fade into history,” she said.
Pointing out that the 1978-79 fiscal year saw only one play produced, and efforts to cast two others fail, Mrs. Wylie said, “The past two years have seen a gradual decline in support for theater in Chester, from both membership and the community, Although attendance at plays has been good, there has been a gradual decline in people willing to take part in staging plays as actors and backstage workers. The single play staged this year was done only with the personal participation by a majority of board members.”
Getting a Fresh Start
At the public meeting, a group of 50 theater members and supporters turned out and voted to set June 21, 1979 as the date for the Annual Meeting; to fill five vacancies on the 12-member board; and change the theater By-Laws. It was pointed out that the basic problem was getting actors for plays, and that the theater’s finances were strapped by having to forfeit $516.00 in royalties already paid for “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” when the production couldn’t be cast. The show started with 10 of 16 roles cast, but some actors dropped out. During the meeting, the theater’s entire Board of Directors resigned as a group in a move to reorganize.
The theater was reorganized with Bob Dawson as president for the 1979-80 fiscal year.
At the Annual Meeting on June 21, 1979, Bob Dawson, in his production committee report, said the theater had planned to stage the musical “Lil Abner,” but a financial dispute with the publisher, Musical Theatre International of New York, had forced the Board to choose another publisher. The only play produced that year was “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,” which had a three-night run in February and drew good crowds. The play was directed by Patsy G. Frazer. In April, he said the theater failed its attempt to cast “The Fastastiks,” a musical with a cast of only eight.
Adding to the theater’s misery were finances, or the lack of them. As of May 1979, the General Fund had dwindled to $8.50, with outstanding bills totaling $100.00. The theater’s Building Fund contained $150.00, but a mortgage payment of $399.99 was due on July 1. Compounding the problem was the fact that the theater Board’s membership, as well as committee assignments, were experiencing a number of turnovers, due to resignations, and some of the vacancies were not filled.
A Turning Point
An equally distressing blow to the theater organization came in 1979 in the death of charter member, past president and long-time supporter Lettie A. Knight. She had been a mainstay of the theatre for years, as a director, actor, Board member, producer, and committee worker. In tribute to her, the first play of 1979-80 season, “Oklahoma,” was dedicated to her memory. That play, held Nov. 15-18, was such a success that the Chester Little Theatre added 137 new members, generated $2, 027.73 for its General Fund and bolstered its Building Fund to $648.44. It provided a turning point, of sorts, even though the theater’s attempt at casting “California Suite” in April 1980 failed. With only one production that year, the Board of Directors voted to extend both membership dues and program advertising contracts through the Fall of 1980. They later voted to extend both through May 1981.
Later that fiscal year, on July 1, 1980 the theater finally became debt free when it made its final mortgage payment on the building.
With the start of the 1980-81 season, the theater’s future began to look brighter. Laura Jean Leigh was president and the theater staged some successful, profitable shows, which included “South Pacific” in October 1980, and, as the 10thanniversary dinner-theater play, “Barefoot In The Park.”
The theatre has been climbing slowly but steadily ever since, adding new members and fresh faces to the casts and crews, developing a “working board” relationship, and undertaking a number of projects to improve productions as well as theater facilities.
The greatest challenge in the theatre, perhaps, has come within the past four years, when the theatre pumped up its capital improvements program to upgrade the long-patched facility on Wylie Street. Roofing and wiring repairs, new lighting equipment, stage improvements, a new heating and air conditioning system, exterior and interior renovations and a number of other improvements have been made to upgrade the building. As this is being written (May 30, 1990), the auditorium has just been painted, the ceiling repaired and painted, and the old concrete floor covered with carpet. New custom designed chairs, 221 in all, were installed on May 14-15, becoming the first completely new chairs ever owned by the Chester Little Theatre. These chairs, costing $22,100 were financed through a “Your Personal Touch” public subscription campaign, chaired by Dick Blair. As of this writing, a total of 210 chairs have been donated at $100.00 apiece by supporters. In addition to Dick Blair, Lewis Ryan had a major role in the success of the seat and overall capital improvements program for the theatre.
It has been under the leadership of three consecutive presidents that the Chester Little Theatre facility has undergone the most major renovations in its history. Those presidents were Lewis Ryan 1986-87 and 1987-88, Chuck Holladay in 1988-89 Van Lingle in 1989-90. These improvements, along with solid play selections, have contributed significantly to raising public confidence in, and support for, the community theater.
The past 12 years have been good for the theater facility with many improvements made. One of the most unusual came in 2001 when the Board of Directors commissioned Fred McCall to paint a mural on the alley side of the building. When completed, McCall had painted several murals the length of the building with most of those being scenes taken from different plays presented over the years. The project was undertaken to not only make the alley access to the theater more attractive but to give the city a visual reminder of CLT’s role over its first 30 years.
Also, during the Annual Business Meeting of the 2001-02 season, members approved a Board recommendation that the auditorium be permanently named the Dick Blair/Lewis Ryan Auditorium in honor of their years of varied service. This honor applies to the current location and to any other auditorium that may be established and used by the Chester Little Theatre in the future.
As this history is being written, business manager Dick Blair and the board are negotiating with owners of Chester Cinema I & II at Cestrian Square, corner of Columbia and Church Streets, Chester, to acquire that property as the future home of the Chester Little Theatre. However, such a major undertaking of actually relocating there would first have to be voted on by the board to begin the renovation and moving process.