aimee suzanne kruse-ross | gbct | sept. 2016
In October of 1967, Pierquet's Television and Appliances, located on Willow Street was selling its Motorola floor model transistor color television sets for less than $399. It's also at that time, Oct. 26th to be precise, that Green Bay Community Theater first performed Neil Simon's “The Odd Couple,â€ before area audiences.
The production was a resounding success.
Local news sources touted the show; reporting record-capacity crowds had packed the new playhouse during that opening run. To meet demand, two additional performances were scheduled and Green Bay – at least for a time – had ditched their television sets in favor of live theater.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of Green Bay Community Theater. Since its inception in 1936, the theater has produced more than 300 plays. Its home since 1966 has been the Robert Lee Brault Playhouse, a then century-old church.
Green Bay Community Theater's history has modest origins. And no one knows that history better than Sylvia Pratt, the theater's board president. Pratt became involved with the theater that very first showing of “The Odd Coupleâ€ back in 1967. She has since been a long-time volunteer and a consummate theater activist.
“Before the village of Fort Howard and the village of Green Bay merged into one, this area was known as the village of Fort Howard. It (the church) was started by seven families who wanted a Baptist church,â€ says Pratt of the 20' x 40' church that would eventually become the Robert Lee Brault Playhouse.
Built in 1854, the church was originally located on Dousman Street two blocks over from its current location on Chestnut Avenue. The congregation on Chestnut worshipped for many years without a minister. Over the years, their congregation grew, a minister was procured, and the congregation began to make additions to its tiny church, eventually outgrowing it, they left and the building was put up for sale.
Meanwhile, Green Bay's theater troupe – then 30 years old – is without a permanent home. It holds many of its performances in high school auditoriums and at times, outdoors at Pamperin Park Lodge when one of its members, Robert Lee Brault, drives past the church and sees an opportunity.
With the idea of turning the little church into a playhouse, Brault convinced a very divided board of directors to purchase the building in 1966, but it would take a year of construction and modifications to convert the church into a usable theater.
“Originally, there was no lobby,â€ says Pratt. “So the theater expanded the area to include that.â€
Other changes included turning the choir loft into a technical booth, a task that was easier said than done. “That was a problem for years,â€ says Pratt. “The technical people couldn't talk during a show because it wasn't glassed in until a number of years later and the audience below could hear them.â€ Today, the booth is glassed in; making it more comfortable for the crew to continue its work while the audience below can enjoy the play undisturbed.
Brault, a well-known interior designer of the day, was keen to retain most of the original integrity of the building, thus numerous stained glass and clerestory windows were left in the original transept. In keeping with the gothic style architecture, Brault continued that motif throughout the building. Later, Brault sourced and brought in unique corbels that outline the vaulted ceilings. Each depicts an individual face carved from what appears to be ebony and no two are alike.
Additionally, the theater still retains many of the church's original pews, but many were removed after just one season of use. As Pratt explains, “They were too narrow and too small because they were built to fit people in 1890s, and they just didn't work for the sizes that we are today.â€
After all these additions and subtractions, the current theater now houses an acoustically perfect 193-seat theater with a 30' x 24' open-end stage. Today, hidden beneath the additions sits the original 20' x 40' church, which now serves as the theater's dressing room.
At the heart of the theater's successful decades-long run is its volunteers, which provide 99 percent of the labor during the season. From actors and crew, to ushers and office assistants, the day-to-day operations were just as dependent on volunteer energy from the community then, as they are today.
Indeed, while perusing the theater's historical files it is evident that people from all walks of life came together to pool their energies into the theater, while perhaps welcoming a respite from the demands of their daily schedules. Such was the case with the former box office manager's son.
“He would usher for us all season,â€ Pratt recalls fondly. “He was in fourth grade. And it was so funny to see this tiny young man with red hair leading people to their seats, answering their questions! He was so professional and people took him very seriously. He ushered well into high school and now he's a Georgia state trooper!â€
The same enthusiasm may be said about today's volunteers. “Sylvia Pratt is probably our longest running volunteer,â€ says Denise Markowski, marketing director for GBCT. “She's the board president and she has worked for the theater ever since she joined it. In addition, she was a costumer and ran the lighting crew for many years.â€
How many years has Pratt devoted to community theater? “More than 40,â€ admits Pratt with a smile. But that's not enough theater to satisfy her. Pratt spends a great deal of time both reading plays and travelling to performances outside of the Robert Lee Brault Playhouse.
“She is the ultimate volunteer,â€ says Markowski. “She did win the WPS volunteer award this year in the arts category.â€
When asked what it was about the theater that keeps her so interested and engaged, Pratt answered with laughter, “I don't know! I guess it's addictive! I got hooked when I was a sophomore in college. My roommate was an actress. I was in the college of journalism and she was in the college of speech, which also included theater at that time. One night, she convinced me to usher.â€
Pratt would go on to earn her degree in theater while spending the remainder of her sophomore year ushering.
At its core, the programming of GBCT provides a variety of theater experiences that will appeal to an audience of all walks of life.
“We have a variety of subscribers here,â€ says Markowski. “We have those who've seen shows on Broadway, we have the novice who just wants to come and enjoy a show without any expectations, but then we also have people who go on vacation and travel the world and actually look for plays on their travels. It makes the theater richer from our standpoint, to have this mix of people and tastes.â€
Today, you won't find Pierquet's Television and Appliance store, or even Willow Street for that matter. In 2015, Robert Lee Brault passed away peacefully in his sleep, but his legacy survives – continuing to this day with each new production and each new season that takes place in his namesake playhouse.
The theater will open its 80th season on Sept. 15 with “'Til Beth Do Us Part,â€ directed by Gene Guenther.
“This production has a really great cast,â€ says Markowski. “There are some brand new actors to GBCT in the show and that keeps it interesting. This show is a farce, and those are always kind of fun and lively!â€
The show runs Sept. 15 — 17 and 21 — 25. Also featured during its 80th season is “A little Murder Never Hurt Anybody,â€ “Jenny's House of Joyâ€ and “Miracle on South Division Streetâ€ appearing respectively in November, February and April.
For tickets call (920) 435-6300 or visit GBCommunityTheater.com online.
To buy tickets in person, visit the theater box office open 9 a.m. — 1 p.m., Mon. — Fri. inside the Robert Lee Brault Playhouse, 122 N. Chestnut Ave, Green Bay.
For volunteer opportunities call (920) 435-6300.