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For a year or two, back in the late 1960's, members of the Covered Bridge Festival Committee had suggested that an amateur theatrical group be formed in Parke County. The festival was enjoying an amazing success, but evening entertainment was important. On one thing everybody agreed; the entertainment had to be presented by home-talent amateurs to be consistent with Covered Bridge Festival policy. The fact had been amply proven that Parke County had a wealth of amateur talent; the "Saturday Night" shows were excellent but involved casts of fifty to one hundred people and there was no way that those reviews could be offered more often. Too many people were required.
Without the Covered Bridge Festival there would have been no faint hope for a successful civic theater in Parke County. We are an insular rural community and sad to say, residents of rural communities are much less likely to attend an amateur theatrical event than those that live in metropolitan areas. The only exception is a high school class play when a captive audience of doting relatives of cast members will attend and praise the piece generously. Usually for silly reasons such as, "They all knew their parts!" By 1971, the Rockville Chamber of Commerce had purchased the Ritz Theater and was struggling to keep it afloat. Due to television, the mortality rate of small town movie houses was astronomical, though it may be wrong to lay all of the blame on TV. The trend had it's beginning with the rapid development of radio programs combined with the financial pinch of the depression. In those days, movies had it tough and live theater had it even tougher. Some pessimists predicted that within a few years, living theater would exist only in university curricula - along with Latin. Movies, as an entertainment medium, would soon be produced and released solely for television. We know this prediction was not accurate but neither was it totally wrong and today, many theater audiences, especially during the vacation season, consist of people who are away from their homes. This is why the Chamber of Commerce was so anxious to keep the Ritz in operation, at least on weekends. The county was pushing tourist promotion on an increasing scale; not just the ten days of the Covered Bridge Festival and the four days of the Maple Fair. Billie Creek was going to offer vacationing families daytime entertainment and there were several new tourist based enterprises for the daytime enjoyment of Parke County visitors. We had Bill Overmyer's deer park at Gobbler's Knob and Jerry Chaplain was planning the county's first full service canoe rental on Sugar Creek. We had three well marked bicycle routes, three state parks and Rockville Lake would soon be a reality. The Parke County Golf Course was also very popular in those days. Certainly a wealth of varied recreational activity but after dusk, there was nothing but a bowling alley, a Drive-in theater and the Ritz theater. Since those days, we have lost the Drive-in and gained a Skating rink. The Ritz was operating on a weak shoestring; it's furnishings were shabby and it needed countless repairs both major and minor. The stage area had been blocked off by the permanent screen that was installed during the early 1940's. The stage was cluttered with old promotional signs and seat components with the movie sound cabinet sitting dead center facing the house. The screen was perforated so the sound could go right through it . In the early 1930's, the fly loft was removed and most of the old flats were disposed of along with all of the stage braces. By a miracle, some of the handsome woodland scene tormentors were saved. And this was supposed to be the home of a local theatrical group when those suggestions were made in early 1971. Several people who were approached expressed interest but shied away from actual responsibility. The late Austin Knoblitt, as executive secretary of the Chamber of Commerce and also a vital force in Parke County tourist promotion, arranged for a public meeting to be held at the tourist information center on March 15. The meeting was well publicized and was attended by thirty persons. Questionnaires were filled out, coffee and doughnuts served, and a lively evening of discussion made the project seem feasible. A second meeting was set up for March 29. And Parke Players was a reality! No organization should ever depend entirely on one person. In fact, it can't if it is an organization that depends on a large membership for it's "manpower" -as any amateur theatrical group does. But in the case of Parke Players, one person deserves enormous credit -if not the major laurel-and that is Jerry Chaplain. Jerry gave freely of his time, ideas and money as well. Right behind Jerry Chaplain , there appeared another angel (theatrical angels do not always mean cold cash) in the form of Lida Bradburn. Jerry was elected president and Lida secretary in the first elections in 1971. Both proved to be indispensable during those early years as ambitious plans were made. Of course there would be a production in October and another for the Maple Fair; other plays would be scheduled for mid winter and mid summer. Among several other committees, a reading committee was appointed, memberships were sold and a fund drive for sponsors brought in enough for a modest start . Play books were ordered for the reading committee; Terre Haute Community Theater was moving into their newly constructed shop and storage area and offered to give us some of their muslin flats and some other major pieces of scenery. We borrowed a truck from Ferguson's Lumber and brought up a large load of scenery that included the famous French Doors unit that has been seen on many of Parke Players sets. Jerry bought some used stage curtains to replace the gray satin shear proscenium curtains that were there when the Chamber of Commerce bought the theater and some local people gave clothing and a few pieces of furniture . The members of the new organization shared one common condition almost 100 percent; almost nobody had any foundation in fundamental stagecraft . The questionnaires showed that most members had taken part in high school class plays - and not much else. Jim Jerome had some professional radio announcing behind him; Rita Hinwood had done some shows in college and claimed some directing experience; Juliet Snowden had studied both playacting and drama in college and had eight or ten years experience with civic theaters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Batavia, Illinois both acting and directing. But for the most part, the members literally did not know stage right from left. It was agreed that the Covered Bridge Festival production should be a genuine old fashioned melodrama. The piece chosen was "Ten Nights In A Barroom" with Rita Hinwood directing. Performances were given on both Saturday nights plus Wednesday and Thursday night . For the benefit of home folks too busy to attend during the festival it was decided to add another performance on the following Tuesday. A few liberties were taken with the script - such as the introduction of Hinwood's Basset Hound. The hound was led on stage through the house by Jim Barnes and noisily slurped "beer" from a spittoon upon his arrival. ED Note: (the dog , not Jim) the stage apron was not built until the mid seventies. The above action involved going through the west stairway from the house. The second was to add a pit piano. The script was written before pit piano scores were written into story lines and is the only authentic temperance play that Parke Players has done to date. Bill Ott had moved back to Rockville in September of 1971 after living in Chesterton Indiana since the mid 1930's. While not totally enthusiastic at first, he agreed to "help out". He continued to "help out" both in the pit and on stage as long as he was physically able. The 1975 production of "Love Rides The Rails" was Bill's last melodrama production. ED Note : Bill Ott was Juliet Snowden's older brother (1903 - 1976 ) and played piano professionally in the Chicago area through out the swing era. Parke Players maiden effort was a complete success and we went on to the 1972 Maple Fair production of Woody Allen's hit play "Don't Drink The Water". Parke Players understood that they were limited to a narrow choice of subject matter. This was not governed by their own limitations ( which they may or may not have recognized ) so much as the ineluctable fact that small town rural audiences simply will not attend any play that is not comedy, farce or mystery. There is plenty of good material in these categories and the group agreed they did not want to waste time on trash. There were many technical problems involved with staging "Don't Drink The Water" on a stage so shallow but they were surmounted. Juliet Snowden directed, Gene Schrader supervised the construction of the elaborate set and Peggy Moore was in charge of properties and effects. Parke Players had proved itself versatile; with an authentic melodrama and a sophisticated modern comedy to it's credit . The group - and probably the Chamber of Commerce, felt some complacence. Another technical handicap had to be admitted; drawing room comedies would have to be limited to one set. Lack of backstage space, lack of stage equipment and lack of staging experience made the proviso sensible, though by the time Harvey was produced, the company had gained enough skill to handle the nesting of a very shallow set within the major set swiftly. After "Don't Drink The Water" in February 1972, Neil Simon's Broadway hit "Barefoot In The Park" was presented in June, 1972. A good comedy, well cast and well played on a good set. The set that will be the worst challenge that Parke Players will ever meet. (ED Note : A major overstatement) Although "Because Their Heart's Were Pure" comes a close second. What more could a community ask? Top flight writing by America's leading comedy playwright, competently performed and well staged. This writer attended the professional production at Clowes Hall in Indianapolis and found Parke Players production modestly comparable. Admission prices were nominal, considering royalty fees for good plays. It was not well attended. It had been decided that Rita Hinwood should direct October productions - which should remain melodramas in keeping with the homespun atmosphere the county needed for the Covered Bridge Festival mystique. Juliet Snowden would direct the Maple Fair plays which would be Broadway "sit-coms" and the winter and summer productions would be directed by others. For some reason, long since forgotten, Rita withdrew as director of the 1972 melodrama, Deadwood Dick, after conducting auditions and finding cast & crew. Juliet Snowden agreed to pinch hit but insisted on changing some areas of the book.. The major change involved the saloon piano player; from an uninteresting female character named Piano Annie, the role became Pyana Pete - a drunken virtuoso (played by Bill Ott) who added a lot of pizzazz to the show. "Ten Nights" had given five performances. Deadwood Dick was extended to eight - including two Saturday matinees. Parke Players was solvent and the Chamber was on a much less shaky financial footing with it's white elephant. The Players lost no time in planning practical improvements at the Ritz, costs being shared with the Chamber. New carpeting for the house came first; later came a handsome and costly proscenium curtain of heavy fireproof material. It was never discussed, but the fact was that stage shows had been illegal at the Ritz ever since the flies had been torn down and the old asbestos drop disposed of. In movie houses, fires primarily start in the projection booth - an area easily contained. In legitimate theaters, fires usually start backstage - thus the fire curtain. Bud Washburn, who still managed the theater when Parke Players was formed, was super sensitive about smoking. Bud was astonished when a director told him, "If we have a backstage fire it won't be from cigarettes - it will be the inadequate wiring." Bud never did know that just prior to one of the "Bandwagon Tour of Parke County" shows, (October -1969 & 1970) the backstage area had blacked out, makeup was put on by flashlight and if Don Smith had not been in the audience and capable of locating the problem, that performance would have been canceled. New lighting was to follow. Trying to keep with the four show season, "The Odd Couple " was offered in early December 1972. Not one of Neil Simon's truly superlative comedies, the Parke Players production was well done but was woefully under attended as were most mid season shows in the early days. Has anyone ever figured a halfway serious breakdown of the man hours demanded by the production of a three act play with, say a cast of five? Plus a director? Assuming four weeks of rehearsals for three hours per night for four nights per week will add up to 288 man hours. Then figure in the combined hours of the crew, set builders and decorators along with the time it takes to run down or create props and costumes as well as create and order the printed material. Depending on a number of variables, these hours run well over 1000. . .all donated. To be sure, if the script is badly done or a poor choice, a million hours would not improve it. Anyway, Parke Players had to face facts. It didn't make sense to work likes dogs on plays that lost money. In 1973, Judy Snowden suggested old time Tent Shows be part of Billie Creek Village's Fourth of July weekend. They would be short melodramas: two or three to be alternated during the afternoons. This was a pet project of hers as being typical of the turn of the century period when barnstorming troupes prowled the country. She wrote and directed two: "Laurabelle the Lovely Laundress" and "The Madwoman of Malden Hall". For seven years Tent Shows provided summer activity for Parke Players and an attraction for B.V.C. When Billie Creek Village changed policy for their July 4th activities, Tent Shows were scheduled during Steam Harvest Days. Other original scripts written by Juliet Snowden for these shows were: "The Saloon Keepers Daughter", "The Orphan's Locket", "Trouble In The Hills", "Lay That Pistol Down Ma'am", "Sitting Steer's Last Stand", "The Maiden's Secret" and "Cider and Moonshine". Surprisingly, The Tent Shows did more to establish Parke Players in the community - and even elsewhere - than their more ambitious productions. For obvious reasons, Parke Players couldn't trot out entertainment to all and sundry but some exceptions were made and a few shows were taken on the road to audiences at the Fountain Park Chautauqua at Remington, Turkey Run State Park, Catherine Hamilton, the Water Wheel Inn and the Putnamville State Farm. Tent Show performances were also offered to the Wally Byam Airstream Caravan in 1974 at the 4-H building as well as at our own tent theater set up at the 1975 Parke County Fair. "Laurabelle The Lovely Laundress " and "Lay That Pistol Down Ma'am" were presented each evening of the county fair in very much the same way they were at Billie Creek Village. As usual, the local attendance was less than stellar and the fair shows were never done again. Some mention should be made of the building that has been Parke Players' home. After the "old" opera house was sold to the Masonic Lodge in 1907, the town was without a theater for a few years. Then a couple of public - spirited men subscribed funds to build a "new" opera house. A competent architect was hired and the contract was awarded to a local builder, Edward Jerome . The building was completed and officially occupied in October 1912. It would surely have been a source of pride if Ed Jerome could have known how many thousands of visitors his grandson would delight by performing on that stage in future Octobers. But, that was 1912 and grandson Jim didn't make his entrance on the stage called "life" until 1925. It might also be noted that the first production on stage at the Ritz was "Polly Of The Circus". The stage area then was sufficient to accommodate a "rozzin back" galloping in a circle. After the drastic alterations were made, the stage and backstage area were so reduced that now it would be difficult to accommodate a galloping Billy goat. The structural changes were made in the early 1930's when the building was sold to the Carey - Alexander theater chain- a west central Indiana motion picture exhibitor. They also changed the name to the Ritz. During the mid - 1970's, after Parke Players had to retreat from their original plans, the Chamber of Commerce tried another tactic to bring legitimate theater to Rockville. Community Theater of Terre Haute provided an excellent production of "I Do! I Do!", followed by a series of proven classics to Rockville: "A Street Car Named Desire", "The Misanthrope", "The Importance Of Being Ernest" and "A Thousand Clowns". All four were beautifully staged and superbly acted but the attendance for all of them was characteristically weak. The theater troupes from University of Evansville and Ball State also produced shows during that period. Thus we have had a rundown of our eleven years existence. Even though the early aspirations of Parke Players to have a four show season proved to be impractical, we shall surely continue to provide good theater in the spring and to "chew the scenery" in the autumn. ED Note : Mrs. Snowden wrote this account of the first eleven years of Parke Players existence in the winter of 1983 and presented here is about seventy percent of the original text. The last paragraph expresses a small degree of disappointment that Parke Players was unable to sustain public support for the original goal of a four show season. She would undoubtedly be pleased with the recent upturn in the fortunes our little company as well as the popularity it now enjoys. Though "Judy" didn't foresee the need for Parke Players to have to purchase the theater, she would have most certainly been in favor of it under the circumstances. In 1998, volunteerism was an endangered pastime compared to Parke Players' early days as described here. People have less free time than they did in the 1970's and they also have more demand on what free time they do have. Bring a friend to the next audition.
Juliet Snowden was a founding organizer of the Parke County Covered Bridge Festival and active motivator for the organization of Parke Players. Juliet was named after her grandmother, Ladies Home Journalist and author Juliet V. Strauss.