100 Years of Encores

Douglas TowneDecember 26, 2019
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The Phoenix Theatre Company celebrates its 100th anniversary as Arizona’s oldest arts organization with an enticing 2020 program.

The Phoenix Theatre Company has thrived for a century thanks in part to its talented ensembles whose creativity knows no bounds. “The battery packs for the mics used in every show are covered with non-lubricated condoms to protect the electronics from sweaty actors,” Cathy Dresbach says. The actress says that during the 2016 run of Twist Your Dickens, the cast made Christmas wreaths out of the remnants as gifts for their stage managers. “Can’t find those on Amazon!”

Such inspired acts are all in a day’s work. This playhouse, after all, helped launch the careers of luminaries as dissimilar as Steven Spielberg and L. Ron Hubbard. But while TPTC is celebrating its centennial season as Arizona’s oldest arts organization, its success was hardly a fait accompli. The theater’s 100 years have been a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs, beginning with its hardscrabble roots in a venue built for animals, not actors.

TPTC was launched in 1920 as a performing troupe called the Phoenix Players, founded by Harvard Drama School alumnus Harry Behn, drama school owner Katherine Wisner McCluskey, and Maie Bartlett Heard, wife of The Arizona Republic publisher Dwight B. Heard. When the name changed to Phoenix Little Theatre in 1924, Heard offered the couple’s barn at Central Avenue and McDowell Road as a playhouse.

Steven Spielberg, age 16, under the marquee of his first professional film shown at Phoenix Little Theatre, 1964; Photo courtesy the Phoenix Theatre Company
Steven Spielberg, age 16, under the marquee of his first professional film shown at Phoenix Little Theatre, 1964; Photo courtesy the Phoenix Theatre Company

Theater patrons were undeterred by the primitive conditions. “Attendees brought blankets in the winter and fans in the summer, and even though the theater installed a swamp cooler, it was so loud it could only run during intermission. The old backless wooden benches were replaced with folding chairs…” wrote Tim Oldenick and Christine Uithoven in The Phoenix Little Theatre: 65 Years of Memories.

Performances in what was dubbed the Old Coach House ranged from Shakespeare to vaudeville. The theater thrived during the Roaring ’20s, struggled through the Great Depression, and presented productions that featured predominantly female casts during World War II because of a shortage of male thespians. The outdated venue limped along despite the Phoenix fire marshal’s safety concerns. In 1952, theater director Steve Shadegg led the movement to build a new playhouse at the site, which continues in operation today, adjacent to Phoenix Art Museum.

One of the first productions in the modern theater was I Remember Mama, in which William Linsenmeyer, then 13 years old, was on the playbill as a bellhop. “I had three words in the play, ‘Mrs. Moorhead? Telegram,’ and I nailed them every night,” he recalls with a laugh. “The experience was thrilling; Steve Shadegg was a kind person and well-received by the cast.”

The theater became a stage for a controversial religion when L. Ron Hubbard moved to Phoenix in 1952. Hubbard gave more than 600 Scientology lectures over the next three years, many at TPTC.

In 1964, TPTC unknowingly made cinema history with a screening of Firelight, Steven Spielberg’s first feature-length movie, and the forerunner to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg, then an Arcadia High School student, worked part-time at TPTC and used the theater’s props in his film. An audience of 500 viewed the rare sci-fi movie, the only copy of which later disappeared.

The theater dropped “Little” from its name to become Phoenix Theatre in 1981. But financial problems lie ahead. “By the late 1990s, the theater was so far in the hole, it came very close to closing,” says Jill Garcia, TPTC’s unofficial “Jill-of-all-trades.” The organization had “$5,000 in the bank, and was $500,000 in debt. There were only seven employees, and no one in town would give TPTC a line of credit,” Garcia says. She believes the theater, which was rebranded as TPTC in 2019, is vibrant today thanks primarily to one individual. “The dedication and passion of artistic director Michael Barnard revitalized the theater when he took over in 1999… [He] managed to obtain a line of credit for the company; and the show opened on time – ironically, it was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

Rather than competing with fellow playhouses, TPTC views the success of other local theater companies as the mark of a thriving city. “National statistics prove that the more arts organizations that exist in any city, the more patron involvement overall,” Barnard says.

https://www.phoenixmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/PHM0120HI02.jpg
Top: A production of Mousetrap, 1959; Bottom: Eric Karson and Lynda Day George in Robin Hood, 1960; Photos courtesy the Phoenix Theatre Company
Top: A production of Mousetrap, 1959; Bottom: Eric Karson and Lynda Day George in Robin Hood, 1960; Photos courtesy the Phoenix Theatre Company

TPTC has, however, focused on earned revenue, especially after the 2018 economic crisis. “They implemented nationally recognized sales strategies, opened a self-managed bar and bistro within their space, acquired an apartment building to both offset cost of actor/artist housing and provide an income with rented studios, and established a formal partnership with ASU within their Music Theatre department,” Garcia says. “This kept TPTC growing and expanding while many other companies were cutting back – even closing.”

With this momentum, TPTC’s dream at the advent of its second century is to create an arts powerhouse. There are plans to expand its children’s theater camps, launch nationwide training for its Partners That Heal program for hospitalized children, build on its immersive collaboration with ASU and up its stage presence. “As one of the nation’s most prestigious and oldest regional theater companies, TPTC is uniquely positioned to transform this city into a place for pre-Broadway new work development,” says managing director Vincent VanVleet.

Even after a century, TPTC retains the ability to astound, both on and off the stage. “I was standing naked backstage being fitted for my custom red leather G-string, with a male costume designer kneeling in front of me getting it just right,” actor Brian Runbeck says of his 2008 role in The Full Monty. “The wardrobe supervisor’s husband showed up unexpectedly with bagels. Not a word was spoken, but that was clearly the last thing he expected to see. He quietly set the bagels down and left.”

Such is the dedication of TPTC’s casts, who are willing to – almost – bare all for their playhouse.

theater patrons in the Old Coach House, 1940; Photo courtesy the Phoenix Theatre Company
theater patrons in the Old Coach House, 1940; Photo courtesy the Phoenix Theatre Company
Coming Attractions

“The Phoenix Theatre Company’s 100th season does what theater does best: inspire empathy in the way only live performance can,” producing artistic director Michael Barnard says. “Our centennial is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to complete our vision of building a pipeline for new plays while producing classic and contemporary shows.”

The Sound of Music

Through December 29 
The true-life story of Maria Von Trapp, who chooses love and courage in the face of fear and oppression in this Rodgers and Hammerstein epic. “This beloved classic was instrumental in reviving our theater more than 30 years ago.”

Million Dollar Quartet

Through February 16 
Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded together at Sun Record Studio in Memphis in 1956. “Audiences will experience the electricity and intimacy of a live show that can only be found on our stage, with a rare behind-the-music glimpse into one of the finest rock recordings ever made.”

Americano!

January 29 – February 23
“The world premiere of Americano! is the culmination of years of work turning the true Arizona story of Antonio Valdovinos into a Broadway-ready musical.” This story follows a child of immigrants who discovers his undocumented status when he tries to enlist in the Marines.

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