40 Years of Columbus Children's Theatre . . .
The Little Theater That Could
By Karen Edwards
Down the street from Columbus' North Market, not far from the palatial theaters that host slick Broadway shows, beats the heart of a theater company that has been entertaining audiences, large and small, for four decades.
Columbus Children's Theatre (CCT), which began its life as the Columbus Junior Theater of the Arts (CJT), observes its 40th anniversary this year. With a new managing director on the job, a more active board, and the experienced hand of executive/artistic director William Gold-smith still at the helm, CCT's future has never looked bigger, brighter, or more full of promise.
That CCT continues to thrive today is no twist of fate. Instead, it is a tribute to those whose dedication and hard work have shaped the theater and helped it evolve into the company it has become.
Evelyn "Sis" Bloom is up to her elbows in filth. The Broad Street storefront that will be home to the children's theater she has dreamed of for months has sat under years of grime and neglect and is now resisting all efforts to scrub it clean. It's not that Bloom isn't trying. She and a band of volunteer women have been scrubbing for hours. But the time has come to throw in the towel and call for reinforcements. A phone call is made. A troop of professional office cleaners arrives, and soon, the small space is shining.
"We applauded the cleaners as they worked," the now 86-year-old Bloom recalls with a laugh. "We were an appreciative audience."
Bloom started CJT on a challenge &endash; a gauntlet thrown down by her son Gary who had fallen in love with children's theaters in Milwaukee and Detroit &endash; places the Blooms had lived before moving to Columbus. Disappointed to learn there was nothing comparable in town, he told his mother she should start a children's theater.
"So I did," says Bloom.
As a promotions manager, Bloom knew how to get the ball rolling. She contacted every woman in town who had anything to do with TV, radio, or theater, and asked them to be teachers, then turned to long-time friend Edie Mae Herrel to help with fund raising. The task proved more daunting than either woman could imagine.
"Everywhere we went, all we heard was 'can't,' 'won't,' and 'impossible,'" says Bloom. "Everyone thought we were dreamers. But we worked our tails off, and we made it happen."
When CJT opened the doors on its spic-and-span studio in 1963, 55 children were waiting in line to enroll. To borrow a description from a well-known children's story, CJT had become the little theater that could.
"We weren't trying to be a professional theater company," says Bloom. "We were educating children about the theater."
Donna Doone crosses the street, a band of costumed children right behind her. This is CJT's creative dramatics class and the students are on their way to a park to share what they've learned over the past six weeks. The parents have already gathered there, homemade tickets in hand, ready for the show to begin. The children launch into the opening song from "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." The audience grows as passersby, intrigued by the music, dance, and costumes, stop to watch. By the time the children reach the play's end, 50 to 60 people applaud the hard-working performers.
"That was a magical time," says Doone. It was the mid-'70s. CJT was located on W. Main Street, across from what is now Bicentennial Park. "Since our classes were at the end of spring, we took advantage
of the park setting," says Doone. Theater alfresco - before Actor's Theater at Schiller Park was even a twinkle in the eye.
Donna Doone was hired in 1971, by then-executive director Lloyd Lewis, as a dance and drama instructor for CJT. Not that anyone in CJT ever stayed in one role. "I remember two nights when I helped lay down a new tile floor in the theater," she says. In the theater, everyone pitches in when work needs doing, and, at times, they even improvise. Doone's background in special-needs education, for example, motivated her to bring a group of severely mentally retarded children from the Columbus State Institute to classes at CJT one year. "The children blended together beautifully," says Doone.
Theater has a way of doing that. Blending diverse groups. Making magic. Doone talks about the Hagu stick that is passed around at the end of each of her classes. The child holds it and recites something about the class they liked. "The comments must be positive," says Doone. "I call it a magic stick."
One day, a child challenged that. "It just looks like a stick painted gold," said the child. "No, it has magic in it," Doone insisted. "Come hold it. See if you can feel the magic." The child approached and took the stick in his hand. He walked away a believer. "When you want to believe, it doesn't take much convincing," says Doone.
Carol Brand is sitting in the audience of a CCT production of "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever." She directed this production, so she is all too aware that something has gone wrong. Very wrong.
A young girl in a pivotal role is due to make her entrance. Only she doesn't appear. Brand sends a runner to find out why. "She hit her head," the runner tells Brand. "Is she all right?" Brand asks. At that moment, however, another young girl walks out on stage, speaking the injured girl's lines. Later, the injured girl, now recovered, steps into the role of her stand-in.
"Children are amazing," says Brand, who has been with CCT since 1977, as teacher, director, and actress. "They know each other's lines by the time the show starts."
Brand arrived at CCT when it was still CJT, and Jeanne Ann Wolfe-Weaver was in charge.
"We taught creative dramatics, primar-ily to young children, grades K through eight," she says. Creative dramatics, Brand explains, is a teaching tool that allows children to access their inner creativity.
"It lets them experience what it's like to be someone else," she says.
Education is still a sizeable component of CCT. A touring troupe, initiated by Wolfe-Weaver, still goes on the road each year to bring children's theater to schools across central Ohio, and the Child Writing Project continues virtually unchanged from the format created by Helen Fashbaugh, Wolfe-Weaver's successor. Under this project, 10-year-old children are invited to write a play and submit it for possible production by the touring troupe.
Brand cut her directorial teeth on the Child Writing Project. "The plays are a challenge to direct," she admits. "You have to be creative in staging some of the stories." Sometimes, a song is added, sometimes a rap poem. "But each piece is honored, just as we honor each child whose play we perform," says Brand.
Carol Milligan is waiting in the wings at an inner-city elementary school. She is a "trouper" &endash; one of the touring actors who visits schools throughout central Ohio - and, today, the company is performing the "Emperor and the Nightingale." Carol peeks around the curtain. The emperor has stepped on stage - dressed in a rich, embroidered robe. The children gasp. For most of them, this is their first exposure to live theater, and they are completely enthralled by the story, the set, the actorsÉand now, by a long gold gown.
"Performing as a trouper was incredible," says Milligan. "I loved every minute of it. I would look out at the audience and see those faces, absorbed in the performance, hear their laughter. They never once questioned that two women were playing princes. They just accepted it. There is something magical about live theater."
Milligan started her work as a trouper when the touring company was still under the auspices of the Columbus Junior League. "I joined in 1976, as a member of the touring puppet show, and was a member of the troupe for years," she says. "It was a lot of fun, but also a lot of work."
Even now, the CCT touring company will perform two or three times a day - hauling sets, costumes, props, and makeup into the school, then tearing down, packing up, and starting all over again somewhere else. Still, Milligan says she wouldn't trade the work or the experience. "The hugs were worth it," she says.
Although her trouping days are over for CCT, Milligan remains on the company's board of directors, and of course she finds time to attend CCT productions.
"I remember once, when my son was performing, I was at the theater early. I read my program, and then, I started looking around. My eyes went up to the ceiling, and I saw that the lights had been outfitted with disposable aluminum cooking pans. Talk about the need to be creative back then!" she says. "All I can say is &endash; look what a long way we've come!"
CCT Executive Director William Goldsmith has slipped away from his desk and over to the theater where a rehearsal for "Into the Woods" is taking place. Goldsmith is directing the produc-tion. "Josh, stand still!" Goldsmith chides the teen-aged boy who is dancing across the stage. Josh is Josh Radnor, the now-adult actor who appeared on Broadway in "The Graduate," and briefly as one of the leads in ABC-TV's "The Court." For Goldsmith, the rehearsal is going smoothly - if only Josh would stop jitterbugging across the stage.
"He was always dancing or moving about," recalls Goldsmith. "I had to teach him how to hold his position on stage."
CCT has spawned an incredible array of professional actors. Even Bloom recalls shrieking in a movie theater once when she saw one of her previous students on the silver screen. Valerie Accetta, who appeared in the touring company of State Fair, is one of CCT's success stories.
So are Josh Radnor, and Jessica Grove, who appeared in the touring company of The Wizard of Oz and is currently on Broadway in Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Credit Goldsmith with giving these youngsters a theater to perform in, and a chance to feel comfortable before a paying audience
Before Goldsmith arrived in 1989, CJT, as it was still known, had a deficit budget, and the board was looking at closing its doors. Goldsmith made the theater fiscally sound, in part by fund-raising and grant-writing, in part by increasing the theater's visibility in the community.
"We were a theater company, but we weren't putting on any plays," says Goldsmith. He devised a performance series that has grown from four shows a year to 10- including a world premiere, Anne of Green Gables, which will debut this month (Sept. 25-Oct. 12). Goldsmith is excited about the production. "The score is beautiful -it's so rich," he says.
It was also Goldsmith who changed the name to Columbus Children's Theatre. That was 1998. "There were no other children's theaters in the country going by the name 'junior theater'," says Goldsmith. And it was confusing. Who is a junior theater for? The board agreed to the name change as soon as Goldsmith suggested it.
Goldsmith also engineered CCT's purchase of its present location (the space once occupied by CATCO) as well as participation in an international youth theater exchange, and trips to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.
"Bill has really driven the theater into a more professional status," says Carol Brand, "and he has increased the quality of the productions substantially."
So what's next for the Little Theater That Could? Goldsmith has goals. He wants CCT to have a national reputation. He wants to pay a living wage to all actors who work for them; to diminish his role as executive director and take on a larger role as artistic director; to continue to increase the theater's visibility in the community. And eventually, he wants to move CCT to an even larger theater.
No matter how large it grows or how many years it celebrates, however, one thing is certain. CCT's focus will remain where it always has &endash; on the children who come through its doors to play, to act, to learn É to grow.
Sis Bloom is sitting at one of the early shows performed by the children of CJT. With her is a woman, a friend, who has brought her daughter. The little girl is shy. She keeps her head down, and doesn't talk. "She's like this all the time," Sis's friend confides. "I'm worried." Sis pats her friend's hand. The lights go down, the curtain goes up, the play begins. The little girl is enthralled, especially with one of the show's characters. Before her mother or Sis knows what is happening, the little girl slips out of her seat and steps onto the stage. There is a moment's hesitation, then the little girl begins to sing. The actor playing her favorite character sings along. Sis looks over at the girl's mother. Incredulity crosses her friend's face. The woman breaks into a smile - and then tears begin to roll down her cheeks.
PHOTOS / JACK HUTTON C. 1965
Learning the art of make-up, Ray Clingman receives pointers from Evelyn "Sis" Bloom, director of the Columbus Junior Theater, while
Dana Warner, left, helps and Aileen Corbett, right, observes.