Seven Decades of Quality Theater

by Julia Lavarnway

Elmira Little Theatre, Inc. has been serving communities in the Southern Tier since 1944. It all began with a dedicated group of people who loved live theater. Thanks to the efforts of Mrs. Eleanor McKinnon Emery, who personally telephoned prospective members, the original group of 30 theater lovers met at the Steele Memorial Library, and each donated one dollar to officially conclude ELT's first membership campaign. According to Marion K. Stocker of the Elmira Star-Gazette, in the spring and summer of 1944, they held 'Servicemen's Canteens" in the loft of the barn belonging to Dr. Joseph Lewis at 218 West Church Street, now the back parking lot of Langdon Plaza. However, this came to an untimely end due the the "summer of polio" epidemic that discouraged large public gatherings.

The Man Who Came to Dinner  was the first formal presentation of the group. It opened in Cowles Hall on the Elmira College campus in December of 1944. George Mellor directed a cast including Roger McGrath, Robert Bolger, Barbara Hardin, Mary Stewart Pollock, and Edith Lee. Also involved in technical support were Mabel Leupelt, Gertrude Hoffman, Edna Klungle, Barger Crusade, Eila Anderson Crusade, Richard Emery, Alec Falck, Ernfred Anderson, and Dean Taylor.

ELT also presented, in December of that year, the first in a series of outdoor Christmas pageants, held between Cowles Hall and the pond over a period of at least ten years on a regular basis. Edna Klungle directed most of those Christmas pageants. In 1948, ELT jointly presented a pageant with the participation of the Elmira Civic Chorus, conducted by Guy Frasier Harrison.

The second   production of the group, Ladies in Retirement, was the only show in which Mrs. Emery had a speaking role. She continued to work for the organization for many years, going to shows when she could and working behind the scene, but raising three children took precedence for her. Thus was born the traditional ELT season of Fall to Spring.

Papers to incorporate Elmira Little Theatre were filed on March 14, 1945. They were signed by Richard P. Emery, Barger Crusade, Lucy Hill Brodie, Eleanor M. Emery, Ernfred Anderson, and Frances A. Brayton. Also in 1945, a small basement in the Steele Memorial Library was rented part-time as a workshop for ELT. A stage was built at a cost of $175 at one end and was contributed to the library as a "civic good deed."

ELT continued with its civic participation by presenting a pageant to spur the War Memorial Drive and then by helping to launch the Community Chest fund-raising campaign by presenting two one-act plays written by ELT's own Elizabeth Rodewald. After the flood of May 1946, ELT changed its show You Can't Take It With You into a flood-relief fundraiser for the Volunteers of America and donated $3,620 to the effort.

In 1964, ELT received a commemorative plaque from the city of Elmira upon the occasion of its centennial celebration "in grateful appreciation" for community involvement. Over its first two decades, ELT moved around quite a bit. They leased the Federation Building in 1947 for five years.

A call for volunteers went out to refurbish the building. Artists painted five murals, and many people helped to wash and paint the walls, generally clean the place and to extend the proscenium by four feet. The lighting and sound systems were also renovated. (That building later became the Jewish Community Center and then was replaced by the Steele Memorial Library's new quarters.) They stayed there until 1958, when they looked into using the barn at Strathmont which could seat about 200 people in a semi-circle arrangement. However, they ended up in September of that year at Thurston School Auditorium on 11th and Scottwood in Elmira Heights which had a seating capacity of 600.

Then in October of 1958, they leased a home at 415 William Street, the old Gerity Homestead, for rehearsals, classrooms and scenery construction, and storage as well as an apartment for Paul Talley, ELT's professional director.

In September of 1962, LeRoy and Josef Stein donated space over the Elmira Greeting Card Co. at 501 Clinton Street for the new ELT home. Plays were still presented at the Thurston School, at the Mark Twain Hotel, at Elmira College Theater, and at Grace Episcopal Church. Then, on November 12, 1964, the Star-Gazette reported that ELT had placed an acceptable offer on the former Southport Volunteer Fire Department Building on the corner of Laurel Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The offer was reported to be "under $25,000." The Elmira Junior League donated $2000 toward the purchase, and the rest was covered by a mortgage signed by ten people at the Chemung Canal Bank. One of those people was Dr. David Kaplan. Elmira Little Theatre finally had a permanent home.

Around the mid 1970's, the board began to discuss adding a small theater onto the building, and architectural plans were actually drawn up. However, in 1977, when the renovated Keeney Theatre was reopening as the Clemens Center, Arnold Breman along with Dr. David Kaplan and George Zurenda, convinced ELT to join the center as its resident theater company. The first ELT show produced at the newly opened Clemens Center for the Performing Arts was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1978. There have been an average of four shows there every season since. The group was overjoyed when Mandeville Hall opened in 1987 and promptly moved all smaller shows in there. The first show there wasMary, Mary directed by Tom McGrath in March of 1988. So, instead of building its own theater, ELT did expand its facilities in the mid-eighties to include an adjacent pole barn where all our sets are now built and materials for set construction are stored.

Elmira Little Theatre was designed to be a community participation organization. With only a few exceptions, all of the participants in each show are volunteers. All of the members of the board of governors are volunteers. People act, direct, sing, dance, design, build, paint, sew, and move sets about out of their own wish to participate in live theater. Each person's contribution is vital to the whole production and organization. The board of governors consists of thirteen men and women from the community who are willing to serve Elmira Little Theatre for three years, meeting once a month to maintain the financial stability of the organization and to seek out plays and directors to make up each season.

ELT has produced all kinds of entertainments over the years. From Servicemen's Canteens to musical reviews, from comedy to drama, from tragedy to farce, the subject has always been the human condition. Many play selections have covered the social and political climate of the times. You Can't Take It With You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, which was produced in 1947, 1957, and again in 2004, deals with the importance of financial success versus personal fulfillment. Watch on the Rhine and Stalag 17 dealt with war and its effects on people. ELT even recruited former Stalag 17 prisoners of war Manly S. Blackman, Harvey S. Houston, Thomas P. Hanrahan, and R. Keith Matanle to help promote the show. They had an open house at the ELT building where the men spoke and displayed memorabilia from the war.

In 1969, in combined effort with the Elmira Neighborhood Ministry, ELT formed the "Black and White Teen Theater" whose goal was not only theatrical, but also the improvement of race relations. ELT produced James Baldwin's Blues for Mr. Charlie in March of 1970, co-directed by Arthur Wellington and Faye Epstein. It starred Robin Johnson from Corning Glass Works. He played the black militant, Richard, who goes back south only to be killed by a white store owner named Lyle Britten, played by Michael McNaney. The Star-Gazette headline was "This is not The Sound of Music." It won an award from the NAACP "for introducing the black experience in drama form, thus extending the cultural values of the community theater to all Elmira citizens". The award was accepted by Dr. David Kaplan at the annual NAACP Awards Banquet in October of 1970.

ELT has also presented shows that deal with the lives of the physically challenged. In the late seventies, they produced Helen Keller's story, The Miracle Worker. Later, in 1992, they produced Children of a Lesser God, and the cast contained both hearing and hearing impaired actors.

Many people have devoted decades of service to Elmira Little Theatre, and many people's lives have been affected by this organization. One example is Faye Epstein who wore many hats for ELT: actress, director, treasurer, props, set construction, publicity and many more over a period of some twenty years. After she died, ELT created an award in her name to be given to a graduating senior of a local high school who was going on to study theater arts in college. David Stearns was the first recipient in 1977. He returned to the area and became an active participant in the organization.

Edna Klungle was a valued part of ELT from the very beginning. She produced most of the Christmas Pageants for the first ten years and then went on to direct many musicals such as Camelot in 1982 andAnnie Get Your Gun in 1984.

Jay Broad, who was hired to be ELT's official director in the mid-sixties, went on to direct Theatre Atlanta where they produced a play called Red, White and Maddox that achieved enough fame to move to Broadway in January of 1969.

Dr. David Kaplan brought many challenging plays to the theater group. He worked on the Black and White Teen Theater, he directed Children of a Lesser God and he directed the first amateur theater production of Amadeus to be on stage in New York State, to mention only a few of his many contributions to Elmira Little Theatre.

There have been so many people over six decades that all cannot be mentioned here, but they have enabled this community to participate in all aspects of live theater. They have insured that Elmira Little Theatre continued to offer this experience to all who were willing to dedicate their time to the production of live theater. Fortunately, there are and hopefully will be more people to keep up the tradition.

Elmira Little Theatre has brought together all sorts of people from many communities in New York and Pennsylvania. These people work together for a short but intense period of time, and many become friends or partners for life. These actors and technical people come from all walks of life, some with no theater experience and some with professional backgrounds in the performing arts. They are housewives and husbands, doctors and lawyers, carpenters and plumbers, teachers and ministers, but what they all share is a love of live theater and the camaraderie of the stage. There is nothing more wonderful or more terrifying than to stand backstage on opening night, waiting for the play to begin. Nothing can reproduce that feeling, combining terror with hope and apprehension with excitement, when the lights go down, the audience hushes and the magic begins.