This article was printed in the May/June 2015 edition of Omaha Magazine.
Fonda…Brando…McGuire. The roster of famous actors who have graced the stage at the Omaha Community Playhouse during its 90-year run reads like a Hollywood Who’s Who.
But for Playhouse board president Tim Schmad, it’s the unsung heroes—volunteers who have never been in the theater’s spotlight—that have built OCP into “the New York Yankees of community theater.”
“The word ‘community’ is in our name for a reason,” Schmad says. “This is about the ushers, the set builders, makeup artists, actors, corporate sponsors, our great audiences, the 98% of the people who make live theater happen here are volunteers.
“Above everything else, we are a community theater.”
There’s Florence Young, who performed in the Playhouse’s first production in 1924, and was still selling memberships well into her ‘90s. Elaine Jabenis was active at the theater for over 50 years and was 80 when she retired.
Ed Owen started the Playhouse’s foundation, and his wife Dee still answers the phone and serves on the board after 40 years. A 20-year stage manager still makes things click backstage. Some ushers have put in more than 25 years leading patrons to their seats. One scenic designer who has been in the mix for 40 years once got snowed in at the Playhouse, and survived three days on prop food.
In all, it takes about 1,000 volunteers a year to make the Playhouse sing. Omaha-area audiences have made OCP America’s largest community theatre in attendance, staff size, and budget.
“It’s obvious,” says OCP Board Trustee Lloyd Meyer, “this theater means so much to so many people.”
Omaha will get a chance to relive history and show its appreciation this summer when the Omaha Community Playhouse celebrates its 90th birthday. The Playhouse’s Act II guild is planning a free county-fair-vibe event on June 27 with Broadway Bingo, jugglers, magicians, and live music by OCP staple Billy McGuigan (perhaps best known for his annual Yesterday and Today Beatles show).
Nearby in Dundee, ice cream shop eCreamery is even creating a featured 90th birthday flavor that will be determined by a community-based contest—with Sea Salt Curtain Call, Henry’s Fondant Birthday Cake, and Drama Queen as the possible winners.
“We think multiple generations will come out to celebrate what they love most about the Playhouse,” says Act II board member Trish Liakos.
Since the day Dodie Brando (yes, the mother of that other Brando) enlisted a family named Fonda to join her in OCP’s first season, Omahans have gravitated to New York-caliber live theater with Midwestern roots.
Henry Fonda loved the Playhouse so much that he brought his young daughter, Jane, to Omaha for a performance. All the Fondas have been here to help raise funds for the Playhouse, and Henry is prominently featured in Warren Franke’s recently-published history of the institution, The Omaha Community Playhouse Story: A Theatre’s Historic Triumph.
“We sent a draft copy to Henry Fonda’s widow [Shirlee],” Schmad says. “She loved it.”
Omaha’s love affair with the Playhouse can be traced to winning and sometimes daring productions over the years—including one mainstay that extols holiday crowds with the familiar “God bless us, every one!” Long-time Playhouse director Charles Jones put his spin on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1976, and a Playhouse star was born. Dick Boyd gave life to Scrooge and never missed a performance in 30 years.
Among other productions, OCP’s touring company, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan, has performed A Christmas Carol in 49 states, four Canadian provinces, and 160 Nebraska communities—seen by audiences of more than three million people. Boyd retired from the stage at age 83, and received national media attention when he walked away with his well-worn top hat.
“I think that’s the only prop we’ve ever given an actor to keep,” Meyers says. “He deserved it.”
OCP has taken its share of risks through the years with such critically acclaimed productions as Hair, August: Osage County, and others. In 2001, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife featured a cursing grandmother that cost the Playhouse 1,000 members.
For Evil Dead, organizers designed a “Splatter Zone” where theatergoers were splattered with fake blood. Those choice tickets were the first to sell out. One production prompted a ban by a local priest for all Catholics. “We’re pretty sure some still snuck in,” Schmad says.
Through it all, Omahans have embraced OCP’s give-back nature toward its hometown. The Playhouse sponsors programs that reach out to middle school students, and ties play themes to workshops on real-life social issues.
In partnership with Metro Community College, the Theatre Technology Apprenticeship Program helps participants pursue technical careers in the entertainment industry. Alternative Programming brings local playwright works to the stage. Special events and Broadway karaoke nights bring even more locals to the country’s leading community theater.
“We have a great thing going, and we have for 90 years,” Schmad says. “We just want more people to experience it.”