By Warren Andreas
In 1967, a small group of people was convinced that Winfield had the potential for a theatre group and lo and behold, Winfield Community Theatre (WCT) was born. It was not an easy delivery.
WCT was organized at the encouragement of a young mother, Carolyn Harrison. She wanted an arena in which she, and others like her, might be able to expend their energies and talent in amateur theatrical productions for the community. An article in the Wichita Eagle, at that time, stated that "she pounded the pavements seeking support for her idea." Carolyn was quoted as saying "my two-year-old and I went all over Winfield talking to people, and we just happened to get the right people together. I am a college graduate trained in voice and I wanted a place to sing, and that's why I thought a community theatre might be a good idea. I knew there were many others in this area who had music or drama training who would enjoy using their talents."
Meetings in May, July, and August led to the election, by more than 50 persons, of a Board of Directors consisting of 12 persons. Their names and occupations were:
|Marquerite Flick||HS English Teacher|
|Teresa Hassard||HS Music Teacher|
|Leoti Newland||Violin Teacher|
|Helen Scott||Former Drama Coach, SC|
|Norman Callison||Drama Coach, SC|
|Dr. Don Gibson||Physician|
|Bruce Rogers||HS Vocal Music Teacher|
|Yvonne Eckert||HS Art Teacher|
At the August meeting, the first play, Guys and Dolls, was chosen and Bruce Rogers agreed to be the director.
The first problem was to find a home for the theatre. Many places were examined by a search committee. The cattle sale barn at the Cowley County Fairgrounds seemed to be the best possibility with its thrust stage and arena seating. "It stuck everyone's fancy" as Carolyn put it. The barn was idle except for 11 days a year when it was used by the Cowley County Fair. The barn was owned by the City, which after seeing some beautiful drawings by Yvonne Eckert, gave permission for the first show.
The Barn could be described as follows: It had rows of risers going from the floor up to the second story upon which prospective livestock buyers and sellers could sit. The cattle and other live stock would be shuffled in through the north entrance and the auction would take place. Afterwards, the animals would be directed out the south door. Interestingly enough, during every flood, the water would travel in and out the same way. After the water had receded, the members of the theatre group would then, with the assistance of the Winfield Fire Department, use a fire hose to wash the water and silt and mud from the north door to the south door.
Converting a livestock sale arena into a theatre was a hugh operation. There was no stage curtain so over 200 yards of fabric were purchased and laid on a long table and sewn together by several women with sewing machines. Flats were built and costumes were sewn, not purchased, because there was no money to do so. Auditions were held in the Chamber of Commerce building, now a City parking lot west of the Medley USD 465 building.
Guys and Dolls opened at the Barn on October 18, 1967, and played four nights to standing-room-only crowds, many of whom sat in their overcoats and wore gloves because the heat, if any, was negligible. Many of the actresses had to make costume changes outside behind the Barn in the cold, fall air. If there was time, several of the men held tarps and plastic and led the dancers to a horse trailer to change.
After the successful first production of Guys and Dolls, another Eagle writer stated:
Winfield's wood and burlap community theatre is a made-over barn, but its backers couldn't care
less. Built as a sales arena at the City Fairgrounds, the somewhat less than new building presents enough lighting and
technical problems to make a stage hand cry - and a director quit!
But the small stage area extending up to the front row, allowed audience rapport that could never be achieved in a larger building. In broad daylight, the theatre looked like what it is - a drafty barn, and lined with burlap to hide its more obvious faults - but at night with stage lighting it really sparkles. To community theatre members, the round-top barn flanked by wings, has a lot of atmosphere. They feel they are lucky to have it.
This story also quoted Carolyn. "It was pretty crude for our first production," she recalled. "There were no seats in it so we had to rent 150 stadium seats from Wichita State University."
Bleachers were also set up for additional seating. The curtain was rigged on a crude pulley system and was lowered and raised by boys in the balcony. The primitive lighting system consisted mainly of tim cans, foil, and extension cords. When the fire marshal saw our arrangement, he said it would be last time, and said that WCT had to install permanent seats. During the whole run of Guys and Dolls, he kept a fire truck there.
The fact that Guys and Dolls was an ambitious undertaking for the new group didn't bother them. Carolyn said, "We knew we wanted something that was showy, that would provide a recreational experience for everyone and that would use a lot of talent. Bruce Rogers and his wife, Veda, were the core people. Both were musicians, and both knew all facets of theatre. Before coming to Winfield, they had lived in Junction City, Kansas, and worked in a little theatre there.
The WCT Board had no funds. How was the first show financed? Each of the 12 members of the Board of Directors made a loan to the theatre of $20. It was learned that funds from several defunct organizations, such as a civic music group, and a Children's Theatre Organization, as well as the Winfield Recreation Commission, might be available. The governing bodies of these groups decided to combine their resources to help finance a community theatre. The combination of all of these funds and the loans from the Board, made a grand total of approximately $500. This was enough to pay the royalties for the first production and to begin buying some equipment. The organization was incorporated in the fall of 1967 and was officially and actively underway. The directors were repaid in November after the first show finished its run.
After the success of Guys and Dolls, one former Winfielder wrote to Carolyn, "I would have given you 1000 to one odds against your project so I am really impressed with your success."
After Guys and Dolls, the Board purchased and installed 170 wooden hardback permanent seats from the Harper, Kansas, United Methodist Church. A solution to the need for more comfortable seats was found when the Board later learned that a junior high school in Topeka, Kansas, was going to be demolished on a Monday. On the preceding Saturday, willing Board members with their tools and pickup trucks traveled to Topeka and dismantled upholstered seats from this school. 206 seats were purchased and were installed in the Barn. These were the same seats that were in use until the Barn was no longer able to be used after the 1998 flood.
The cost of set, royalties for plays, equipment and lighting, all renovations, improvements to the Barn and all expenses were financed through the years by the sale of tickets, memberships, and contributions.
The acoustics in the Barn were excellent, but major drawbacks included a lack of a backstage area, adequate wiring for theatre lighting, and inadequate heating. The lack of backstage space meant that when a musical was presented with an orchestra, the musicians had to be seated on the second story. The orchestra director faced to the south to direct the orchestra, but in order to keep track of the activity on stage, the director had to turn around or at least turn his neck around to face north and f downward to the stage.
At the first annual membership meeting in January 1968, the Board of Directors announced the selection of a director and a play for the second production in March. Since there was no heat at the Barn, it was decided that the second production would be held at the Helen Graham scott Theatre at Southwestern College (SC). In order to obtain the use of the facility, all of the seats had to be re-upholstered. The members of the cast and others, in addition to rehearsal, building sets, etc., had that job to do also. This second show, You Can't Take It With You was again sold out for all four nights.
It was during this play, that the "Hambone Award of the Winfield Community Theatre" was born. There was a character in the show by the name of Boris Kohlenkov, a Russian, who was played by Warren Andreas. Wayne Cherveny and his wife ,Jane, who was the assistant director, had an idea. The director of the play wanted Kohlenkov to bare his chest and flex his muscles in one of the scenes. Warren was reluctant to do so because the amount of hair on his chest and the size of his muscles were not as great as others. He was finally persuaded to do so. Such actions drew great applause, and, of course, a few guffaws too. At the cast party following the conclusion of the last show, Wayne and Jane decided than an award was in order for Warren as the biggest ham in the show. A real boiled and golden gilded hambone was presented to Boris for having the guts to pull off his shirt. The Hambone Award was born to honor a truly hammy performance. It has been awarded for every show since that time except for children's shows, holiday productions, or plays prepared for and presented at an annual meeting of FACT.
FACT stands for the Festival of American Community Theatres. In 1976, after only nine years, WCT was listed as one of the five leading theatres in Kansas out of 45 community theatres. The other four were in Wichita, Salina, Topeka, and Junction City. WCT won the state competition several times which entitled them to move into regional competition which was a group of several states. Between 1972 and 1987, WCT had entries for 7 years.
The Board of Directors decided that if the Barn were available and if the City would help to remedy certain deficiencies, the Board would sign a 10 year lease. WCT would have full use of the Barn except for the period used by the Cowley County Fair each year. The WCT Board and the City eventually reached agreement. In later years, leases were also signed by WCT with the Walnut Valley Association.
When representatives of the WCT appeared before the Winfield City Commission regarding the Barn, the City Manger stated that the Fair Association had considered tearing down the Barn since it was only used 11 days out of the year and required a great deal of maintenance. One of the representatives of WCT is reported in the Winfield Courier to have made the following tongue-in-cheep plea to the City Commission: "We base our appeal mainly on the fact that this sturdy hall build for hog sales lends itself very readily to the selling of ham by actors and actresses."
In the early days, money was so tight that in order to build sets, leftover scrap material from the last show was used in the set for the current show. All bent nails from an earlier set were straightened and used again rather than buy new ones.
In 132 shows, in over 37, the only payments to a director have been a small honorarium to a college student who directed a summer children's production and a payment to a Broadway director for the joint production of WCT with Southwestern College and St. John's College for Camelot. Every actor, actress, and person connected in any way with the production of a play in over 37 years had been an unpaid volunteer!
The Board felt that a children's program must begin right away to ensure the future of the organization so WCT's third show and the first children's show, The Wizard of Oz, was performed on June 26, 27, 28, and 29, 1968. There were 140 children between the ages of 5 and 17 involved in the production. Nearly 300 costumes were made for the show by the children and their mothers. There was also a 25 piece orchestra. The production consisted of 22 scenes and musical numbers. By the time of this show, more sophisticated lights and curtain system had been installed, and the audience was seated in permanent theatre seats. A total of 12 children's shows have been presented. The Wizard of Oz was typical of the dedication of parents and children through the years.
For many years, record of each play were kept to show the number of cast members and crew and the number of hours spent in each area. Many persons are amazed at the amount of work involved in the production of a play and the number of volunteers involved. Those persons consist of one or more directors, cast members, persons involved with the sets, costumes, lighting, sound, properties, make-up, publicity, programs, concessions, and other backstage jobs. In a musical play, there are a musical director, choreographer, and members of an orchestra. In Hello Dolly for example, 159 persons spent over 3000 hours in the production of the show. Even in a non-musical such as Picnic, 71 persons spent 553 hours in the production. We mustn't forget the friends of WCT who have made a gift of money or a loan of furniture or other items or other assistance so that a play can be presented.
Almost all plays from 1968-1998 were staged in the Barn. As a lack of heating, flood damage or threatened flood damage, several productions were held at Winfield High School, Richardson Auditorium, and Helen Graham Scott Theatre at Southwestern College.
In the newly remodeled Meyer Hall, the WCT Theatre and its facilities are located on the 2nd floor, 3rd floor and other areas. Meyer Hall could accommodate 227 patrons; the Barn accommodated 202 patrons. Every show played for either three, four, or five nights. Many shows sold out. A very conservative estimate for the number of persons attending each show would be 100 which means that approximately 1550 seats were sold each year for Winfield Community Theatre productions.
WCT's rise from humble beginnings is set out in this article from the Courier on July 12, 1969:
Nearly two years ago, a group of Winfield people announced that they were forming
a Little Theatre group. The announcement was greeted with plenty of apathy and knowing grins
by the cynical, who could foresee one or two amateurish "flops" followed by a gradual
loss of interest, and the return to routine.
Such was not to be the case, however-directors of high professional caliber who would accept nothing short of perfection drove their devoted amateur thespians to a truly remarkable state of readiness for opening night.
Tireless behind-the-scenes work by volunteer artists, carpenters, electricians, musicians, and costumers brought magical changes in an old livestock display building at the Winfield fairgrounds, and the first show, Guys and Dolls, opened to a sold-out house.
By the time of the early summer student production of the Wizard of Oz, more sophisticated lights and curtain system had been installed and the audience was seated in permanent theatre seats, Arsenic and Old Lace and The Music Man followed. For each show a little more was done to improve the efficiency and appearance of the Barn. Heating was finally installed for the one-man show, Mark Twain, in January, 1969.
Following his praise for Guys and Dolls, C Henry Nathan, a long-time theatre critic for the Eagle, made the following comments about the early days of the Winfield Community Theatre:
From every logical point of view, it is not only not feasible, it is not possible, so
they do it. Winfield Community Theatre presented Meredith Wilson's Music Man at the
Barn for a five-night sold-out run, but only the Winfield group would consider doing a 16 scene show on a
stage that is all of eight feet deep from back wall to curtain line in an arena where cattle used
to be sold.
Now the Winfield theatre directors, actors, singers, dancers and crews "sell" capacity audiences for such shows as Guys and Dolls, Arsenic and Old Lace, and the current Music Man.
This is involvement with a capital "WE." Some 250 residents have joined together during the first year and are doing first rate theatre.
No "star system" here. Everybody gets into the action. The result is a show that is infectious in enthusiasm. I've seen Music Man on Broadway, in Chicago, Wichita and the Hollywood screen but this is the first time I have experienced and shared the worries, excitement, and thrills of the River City townspeople and I loved every moment.
May director, Bruce Rogers, accept accolades for this entire cast, orchestra and crews for a job believably and beautifully done.
Similarly, a story in the Eagle dates October 6, 1968, was entitled, "76 Trombones Rattle Fair Barn Rafters." The writer compared the condition of the Barn one year earlier for Guys and Dolls with its present condition as follows:
For Guys and Dolls a four-man combo served as orchestra. High school students, stationed in the balcony, pulled ropes to raise and lower the curtain and rented stadium seats provided little comfort for the theatre audience. Today, the theatre boasts over 200 permanent seats, a theatrical curtain on a pulley system and a 25-piece orchestra.
Another article in the Eagle was a review by Shirley Mann, an alumnae of the Pasadena Playhouse School Theatre of Arts, and a member of Broadway musical touring shows. She was "tremendously impresses" with the authentic manner and style of the Winfield Community Theatre. She stated that the costuming, choreography, makeup, music, and acting was "extremely well done." She emphasized the applause must also be given to those who attend to the props, scene shifting, and the "well-managed concession stand." Everyone really had to care to produce a successful production.
She also complimented the persons behind the scenes. She stated, "this is what separated Winfield from other cities its size - or even twice its size. This is why Winfield has been successful in creating a modern miracle. I don't know if people really what a modern miracle they have. I hope that they treat it with lots of loving care."
The members of WCT, have treated this "modern miracle" with loving care for 37 years and will continue to do so.
By June of 1979, WCT had presented 51 plays in the Barn. After the flood of June 10, 1979, the structural damage to the Barn was worse than ever before. The continued use of the Barn for theatre productions was impossible without extensive repairs. A town meeting was held on November 8, 1979. The editor of the Courier stated: "it is obvious that this important part of our community life will be lost or severely handicapped unless steps are taken to assure its continued operation. The Community Theatre is one of those thing that we tend to take for granted but would sorely miss if it is unable to continue."
Two main ideas were voiced at the meeting. One was that the theatre should bring the Barn to the state of repair and condition before the June, 1979, flood at an estimated cost of $26,000. The work should begin toward raising money for the construction of a new multipurpose community center, in which the theatre could perform. That building was estimated to cost several hundred thousand dollars. The second idea was that the Barn should be brought up to fire and flood protection standards so that it could be "used indefinitely" at a cost of $65,000. Insurance proceeds in the amount of $12,500 were available for part of the cost.
It was decided that the theatre should immediately begin a fund drive hoping to raise, within one year, enough money so that productions could be presented in the Barn. Judy Gibson, WCT President Judy Gentry, Chairwoman of the drive, were quoted on November 29, 1979, in the Courier, "We feel that if the community will get behind our effort, we can prevent the Barn from going the way of the railroad station, the opera house and other area landmarks that have been lost." During this one-year period of time, plays would be presented at the Winfield High School. Comments, both the and during the next year, were to the effect there is nothing like the Barn and no other facility would be adequate. By January of 1980, WCT had raised $24,000 and the first phase of repairs and construction was completed by March of 1980.
It was also hoped that changes in the Walnut River route north of Winfield, the Winfield City Lake, and proposed dams south of Augusta would prevent future flooding. Unfortunately, time shows that none of the improvements that were undertaken eliminated the flooding problem.
Throughout the years, the Barn was periodically bothered by flooding of the Walnut River. According to the records of the City of Winfield, there were 10 floods between April 19, 1970 and November 2, 1998. All of them had some effect on the Barn. There were many "scares of floods" which caused activity by WCT. When members of the WCT Board and others would learn about a threatened flood, they would immediately go to the Barn to move clothing, props, sets, and the first three rows of seats to the second story. After the flood or threat of flood and the cleanup was over, the items were returned to the original location. One of the hardest problems was moving the old upright piano that weighed approximately 400 pounds from the first story up 15 steps to the second story.
The water during the 1998 flood was a record eight feet high inside the Barn. During the 1995 flood, the water was approximately five feet high. These two floods were the worst of any flood in Winfield since 1928. It was determined that the Barn could no longer be insured. The proceeds from FEMA for the 1998 flood damage paid for part of the renovation of Meyer Hall, which is now the new Winfield Community Theatre.
Floods were not the only problems confronting the WCT over the years. In March 1985, finding directors for plays was difficult. The Board, at that time, considered closing, but was able to find sufficient directors as well as actors and actresses to continue the theatre.
On February 20, 1989, the following headline appeared on a Courier story: "Community Theatre Group May Disband." The president and the Board again discusses the possibility of disbanding because of several major problems and complaints:
Fortunately, at the end of that meeting, the Board voted to continue as a theatre group; seven new persons volunteered to fill positions on the 12-member Board. WCT moved on.
The problem reared its ugly head again four years later in February of 1993. A headline in the Courier stated, "Community Theatre Suffering Shortage of Volunteers." The President of the Board was quoted, "We have great community support. We have good back-up help. We just lave alack of a good cadre of young people-and old people- for that matter. It's not any one single factor; it is a variety of factors, including more women in the work force, which means fewer people willing to spend the time needed to out on a production. One of the biggest difficulties was finding an adequate number of men."
He also pointed out that there are more acting groups in the area that there were when Winfield Community Theatre was first formed. Not only do Southwestern College and Cowley College have fine theatre seasons, but other nearby cities also have community productions also from time to time.
Plays with smaller casts and plays with children, along with other productions, helped the theatre "play on" successfully until the disastrous flood of 1998. After much discussion among representatives of the City and others on a special committee, and WCT members, the City decided to raze the barn in 2000. Soon the Barn was gone! It was a sad time.
Plays were presented at the Winfield High School and Southwestern College in 1999, 2001 and 2002; there were no plays in 2000. During this period of time, the City and the Board of Directors of WCT negotiated an agreement whereby WCT was able to lease Meyer Hall on the former ST. John's Campus. FEMA proceeds from the 1998 flood were used to pay for part of the renovation work. At this time WCT launched a financial campaign to pay for its portion of the cost. An initial check for $25,000 was presented to the City on December 31, 2002. The balance was due to the City on 12/31/2004. The WCT made arrangements to pay the balance owing the City on or before that date.
The New Winfield Community Theatre in Meyer Hall opened the 2003-2004 season with a successful production of Fiddler on the Roof. Other plays were successfully presented in 2003 and 2004 and a full season scheduled for the balance of the 2004-2005 season.
As stated in the beginning of this history, the birth of Winfield Community Theatre was not an easy delivery. Subsequent years have shown that its teenage years and early adult life have resulted in some problems. Nevertheless, the present members of WCT, as did the founders in 1967 and the members in 1985, 1989, and 1993 firmly believe that "the show must go on" and "there's no business like show business." We are convinced that the "modern miracle" of the Winfield Community Theatre will continue in its new home for years to come.
And so it might be said: In the beginning, a Spirit moved throughout the community, and there issued forth a call: "Let there be a theatre." And there was a Barn and the Barn became the theatre, and it was good. Eventually, the rains came and the floods came, and the Barn was destroyed, but the Spirit continued to move throughout the community. There issued forth a new call: "Let there be a new theatre and there was a hall named Meyer, which has become the new Winfield Community Theatre" -and it is good.
|Wichita Eagle||June 23, 1968|
February 20, 1989
|Winfield Daily Courier||July 12, 1969|
November 29, 1979
October 11, 1985
|David Andreas||Colleen Andreas|
|Warren Andreas||Arlen Anglemyer|
|J.J. Banks||Norma Bossi|
|Roxy Callison||Janet Calvin|
|Wayne Cherveny||Jane Cherveny|
|Worrall Clift||John Dalton|
|Dan Daniel||Ann Durban|
|Judy Gentry||Don Gibson|
|Judy Gibson||Ned Graham|
|Carolyn Harrison||Bob Hartung|
|Cheryl Lyn Higgins||Mary Jarvis|
|Larry Junker||Jane Lamb|
|George Lancaster||Julia Lambert|
|Mitzi Maynard||Matt McCune|
|Trish McIntire||Roger Moon|
|Loyette Olson||April Patton|
|Nancy Priest||Eleanor Richardson|
|Bruce Rogers||Veda Rogers|
|Greg Thompson||Russ Tomevi|
|Cyndee Harris Unger||Rene Webb|
|Betty Wilson||Don Wilson|
Other helpful sources for this paper include photgraph collections; a list of plays from 1967 to 2005, which includes years produced, directors, and Hambone Awards; City of Winfield records; and WCT archives.