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Rochester Civic Theatre has had a colorful 60 years

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Any community that has started a theater company from the ground up knows what it takes.

"We begged, went door-to-door to the Rochester businesses asking for donations, we started with practically nothing, and look at Rochester Civic Theatre today," said Marilyn Breinholt, early volunteer.

Apparently many folks felt it was a good idea. The group didn’t have to start in a barn loft or school house. The group called "The Log Cabin Players" was fortunate to use the Izaak Walton Cabin overlooking Silver Lake. And that first play, "Light Up The Sky" by Moss Hart, ran a week in September 1951 and netted $175. Yes, everyone was thrilled.

Those Log Cabin Players wanted a top notch theater so vigorously they each kicked in $10 just to get started. That first season saw two more productions — "Blithe Spirit" on Dec. 4, 1951, and "Two Blind Mice" on March 21, 1952, at the St. Mary’s Auditorium, which today is history. And the group’s official name is now Rochester Civic Theatre.

A decade later found an exciting time in a new location. We well remember the building just off Broadway on Seventh Street Northwest. If I remember correctly, it seems Williams Printing was below and all theater guests climbed the stairs. "Things were crowded," said Marilyn as she recalled "just one bathroom for the whole place."

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Interior decorator Glenn Miller, now 87, remembers dancing to the great musical "Brigadoon" in 1952. Neighbor Fred Helmholz was also an early RCT supporter. And we saw some tremendous productions on that Seventh Street upstairs stage: "Antigone" in 1953 and "The Glass Menagerie" in 1954. Some of you remember 1955 when you saw "My 3 Angels," "Bell, Book and Candle" in 1956, John Henderson starring in "Thieves Carnival" in 1957, "The Desk Set" in 1959 and the once popular TV series "Bus Stop" in 1960.

The once-fledgling "Log Cabin Players" have turned the corner, and after a dozen years, ground was broken in 1963 at today’s East Center Street and Civic Center Drive location. Just prior to that, RCT’s 50th production had occurred at the Seventh Street theater. That was "Under Milkwood" March 8-16 in 1963.

I wish I had space to give credit to all the names who have "owned" a piece of RCT. From small bit parts to major roles to choirs; from gunshots to robberies and murders to comedies and love triangles — you name it. You know who you are and all deserve loving credit for making Rochester Civic Theatre "come alive" and prosper in our community.

Marilyn Breinholt told me the first volunteers paid 25 cents each for all the seats in the old Empress Theatre. Today’s seats are pretty darn nice. There’s an excellent sound and lighting system and a "green" room that probably is not quite as large as some would like it. There’s a wonderful lobby with space for grand opening festivities, and that means food. And there have been a myriad of celebrations in that lobby over the past nearly 50 years.

Looking back at the list of early RCT people, the names include Richard and Nancy Winkle, John and Nadine Henderson, Marie and Shirley Barry and Liz Lambert (I still remember her in "Mrs. Robinson"). Others were Johnny Berkman, an engineer at Mayo Clinic for the heart bypass machine, John Towey and Barbara Mock.

Marilyn told me the group hired Jim Cavanaugh right in her living room as a new artistic and executive director. He took the productions through the next decade and more including "The Skin of Our Teeth," "Arsenic and Old Lace," "Guys and Dolls," "The Seven Year Itch," "The Diary of Anne Frank," "The Mad Woman of Chaillot," "Macbeth," "My Fair Lady" and "Romeo and Juliet" in a brisk line of performances. That first year's three-play season has turned into eight major productions annually today. Gregory Stavrou, a lovable and funny guy, has been the executive director for the past four years. Greg Miller is the artistic director.

Rochester Civic Theatre is for everybody, family, young people and grandparents. You’ll find tears for some productions and nonstop laughter for others. It’s the theater's 60th year, and many are giving $60 just to keep good old RCT rolling along. And I personally say congratulations, as I’ve seen this theater grow up since struggling up those stairs in that little theater just off Broadway on Seventh Street Northwest.

Next week: A look at this year’s educational Oakwood Cemetery Walk on Sept. 24.

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