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Backwards & Forwards in Las Vegas Theatre History, part 2: A 'wasteland' flowers

Updated: Jan 16, 2022

“You may not be on the train when it reaches the top but, remember: you helped push it up the hill.” - Terrence McKerrs, director and wise man

For many years Las Vegas received the dubious distinction of being called a cultural wasteland. It wasn’t really true, of course. Theatre, opera, ballet, and symphony - heck, even a chamber orchestra - could be enjoyed…if one had the patience in those days before the internet to seek them out.

The Boulder First Nighters had been producing plays long before anyone else got into the game, even prior to UNLV. I attended one production presented in the Boulder City High School Auditorium and was surprised to see so few patrons. I guess people didn’t want to drive into Boulder City for an evening’s entertainment. Sometime in the mid-80s, after more than 40 years, the First Nighters faded. They enjoyed a very brief resurgence when Desi Arnaz, Jr. produced a few things in the 90s.

Here in the Valley, there were two buildings, Frazier Hall and Grant Hall, on campus of the Division of Humanities. That would be UNLV today. Those two lone structures housed the classrooms and faculty for the entire curriculum when Paul Harris joined the staff in 1959, with a BA in Journalism from the U of Colorado and an MA in Drama from Stanford. With funds from an extra-curricular program established by Dr. Lauren Brink, who’d hired him, Paul Harris used an empty room in Grant Hall for a production of “Antigone.” Nuns from local parishes packed the performances and things rolled along, eventually pulling in audiences and attracting students who wanted a degree program.

In 1960, even while pursuing his doctorate at Stanford, Harris prodded for exponential growth. He brought on Fred Olson as Technical Director and Dr. Jerry Crawford, as a drama professor. They presented four productions a year, two per semester; plays by Brecht, Shaw, Shakespeare, and Euripides; playwrights a community theater wouldn’t touch. Dr. Harris continued his work and built the UNLV-DTA literally from nothing. So, if you didn’t before, now you know why there is a well-deserved Paul Harris Theatre on the UNLV campus.

Over the years, using a mixture of students and people from the community, the theatre program grew. People like Joe Aldridge and Ellis Price Jones, a locally celebrated set and costume designer, came on as faculty. Across from Hamm Concert Hall, The Judy Bayley Theatre was built and opened—state of the art, from top to bottom; really, the first fully functioning venue in the community with fly tower and trap space. At one point in the mid- to late 1970s the decision was made to use nothing but students for productions. After all, they were paying tuition to learn and garner experience that would enable them to graduate, go out into the world, and make a living in theatre. Shouldn’t they be plucking the cherries? That move triggered something. For the next several years, a mini-explosion took place.

Joan Snyder, a financial contributor to the DTA program and often used in roles, convinced her husband, Jerry, he should plan for a theatre venue in a strip mall he was developing just south of the UNLV campus. Thus, The Meadows Playhouse was born in the corner space with lobby, dressing rooms, restrooms, and seating for 250. Joan took on a full staff, working as Artistic Director until she hired Judy Brenner; Kem Schnieder as Managing director; Bill Burson as Technical Director; and Nancy Godfrey as Lighting Designer; the company used a combination of community and professional actors, and crew. Offering just the type of fare audiences wanted, ticket sales were brisk. And they were picky. I went in one night shortly after arriving in town. A rehearsal for “A Christmas Carol” was in progress and I waited patiently for a break. Having both volunteer and professional experience, and three major productions of that very show under my belt, I wanted to get involved. “We don’t take just anyone off the street,” was the response as they unceremoniously ushered me out the door.

About the same time the Snyders were planning and opening their theatre, a handful of UNLV-DTA students were about to graduate, and the opportunity to do the types of plays they loved would disappear. Marguerite Gowan Hall, James Hansen, and Jerry Cleary made up the heart and soul, and spine of Theatre Exposed (TX). With the help and forte of a handful of talented actors, they espoused the works of Mamet, Becket, and the like, and did superb work in what had become known as Grant Hall Little Theatre on the UNLV campus. They brought excellent productions of Shakespeare to Super Summer Theatre. Often labeled as “avant garde” (a label Marguerite hated) they filled a niche with works no other company wanted to tackle.

Super Summer Theatre (SST) began at Spring Mountain Ranch. The initial money, stamina, and just plain old “get it done” attitude of the founding members made them an instant success. As I remember, Judy Sylvain, Ann Brew, and Alice Rissman were the public face and core of the organization. With the blessings of the State Park System, they readied the area with power. Concrete blocks held up a 20’x40’ stage; blankets strung around bushes were the dressing rooms. The productions were mounted by local talent while SST provided the money and front-of-house staff.

Around the same time TX was germinating, the City of Las Vegas agreed to sponsor the Rainbow Company, headed up by Jody Johnston, daughter of the stalwart and beloved comedienne Totie Fields. With the assistance of Brian Strom, David Sankeur, and Karen McKinney, using the two stages at Reed Whipple Community Center and the Charleston Heights Arts Center, the company focused on children’s shows. A training ground and the only organization to do so, it exposed kids (up to age 18) to every facet of production, from props and costumes to acting. Auditioning and winning a coveted place in the troupe, they were expected to work in some capacity on each play. Their parents often provided labor and money, because City budgets didn’t provide for everything which was needed.

The following year, Jack Nickelson and Jack Bell met. Nickelson had the experience, Bell had the drive and some extra cash to fund the fledgling. They took over an established non-profit charter called Big Four Educational Film Theatre Foundation, and began business as Las Vegas Little Theatre. In a tiny rented storefront on Spring Mountain Road (where the Fashion Show Mall is now) they walled off for a lobby, office, a small backstage area, built risers and bought 48 chairs. The remaining area became the stage with a support pole down center. Nickelson directed and taught classes; Bell soaked up everything he could. A core group of talent formed around the two; sisters Erin and Mary Breen acted, directed, handled Box Office, and Martin Crawford—a high school student at the time—built a light board and acted as all-around Technical Director. When Nick, as everyone called him, suffered a fatal heart attack, Jack Bell kept the place going with regular seasons. It wasn’t only his sweat and talent he contributed. Bell took out car title loans and second mortgages.

During all that, Robert Dunkerly had been building a respected theatre program of his own at the Community College-Cheyenne Campus with Cindy Frey as Designer and Technical Director.

Theatre Arts Society, Inc (TASI) was conceived and operated by Mary Knight, already in her 70s when I met her. Mary loved the theatre. TASI never presented an actual season that I can recall. Knight rented the facilities at Reed Whipple and Charleston Heights Arts Center, used strictly community actors and paid directors, and funded the productions out of her own pocket. My main exposure was acting in a production of “The Front Page.” That she and her husband owned and operated a printing company helped financially.

I have no real information on the Musical Theatre of North Las Vegas. I only recall meeting people who had performed for them a few times when I cast them in “The Robber Bridegroom” at SST.

Horizons Unlimited was the brain child of Kathryn Sandy O’Brien and her husband Timothy O’Brien. They paid everyone who worked on the plays, be they actors or crew, and made it through three productions before realizing it couldn’t sustain itself.

Sustaining an ongoing effort was tough, especially for those non-educational organizations. There were a handful of patrons who would write checks. People like Dorothy Schwartz, Bernice and Virlis Fischer, Robert and Gwynneth Weiss, among others, didn’t discriminate, and gladly helped out with yearly donations and even tossed in extra when it was needed.

Selling tickets, asking for donations to support the cause (sometimes even when non-profit status was non-existent), opening a show with wet paint still on the set…. Whether it was a vocation or avocation, to stick with it one had to have an unconditional love for the work, and perhaps somewhat of a sado-masochistic personality.

Still…what did that wise man say?

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