In 1973, the first time TownSquare Players, Inc. performed “Harvey,” tickets cost just $1.75 for students, $2 for adults and $2.50 for reserved seating. This November, TownSquare Players will perform “Harvey” for the third time in the group’s 40 years in Woodstock, and although the price of tickets has gone up, the passion of new and longtime members makes each production an unforgettable experience.
Founding members, Gloria Carr, Bob Carr and Karen Wells, look back fondly on the formative days of TownSquare Players.
“I think it was the Woodstock Fine Arts Association that put the ad in the paper because they wanted to get a theater group started,” said Bob. “We all met at that first meeting to discuss what to do. And, we had a contest to figure out what we’d call it. Karen won.”
“I named the group,” Karen said proudly. “I won a tape recorder.”
“No, No, A Million Times, No” was the groups first production in June 1968. The following October, they performed “You Can’t Take It With You.” Once the group got going, there was no stopping them.
TownSquare Players managed to perform with small budgets and the hard work of dedicated members. The dilapidated Woodstock Opera House provided a free venue for the group, but they were responsible for the upkeep of the neglected auditorium.
“We literally had to tack the carpet down to the floor every performance because it was so frayed,” said Bob, laughing. “And, we picked up dead pigeons.”
“And, if it rained outside, it rained inside,” added Karen. “If it rained, we had buckets here and there on stage.”
The TownSquare Players assumed various roles on and off stage to make each production a hit. Every group member was, and still is, crucial to a production’s success.
“I remember painting sets until the curtain opened,” said Bob. “I mean, actually being on set, in costume, with the paintbrush, finishing the skyline. The curtain would go up, and I’d just go off into the wings.”
Despite all the careful preparation that went into the early productions, there was a lackluster response from the community. Crowds were hard to come by in the group’s formative years.
“It was hard getting people in because of how decrepit the place was,” said Gloria. “We’d have friends come in and relatives. Some of our friends were pretty spooked by the place. They’d sit on the fire escape.”
“The drapes were literally crumbling off the windows,” said Karen.
“They were rotten,” said Bob.
“The steam radiators never worked right,” Karen added. “People would be sitting in their gloves, boots and hats freezing.”
“They were dedicated followers,” laughed Gloria.
“We did a show for just three people once,” said Bob. “Our director, Don Barden, said, ‘These people have paid for this. They deserve a show just as if the house was packed.’”
The seats may not have been filled, but the building was far from empty. The Woodstock Opera House was a unique, multi-functional space in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The fire department was situated downstairs, the city council met in what is now the green room and even the library was there at one time.
“The fire alarm would go off frequently because they didn’t have pagers or scanners,” said Karen. “We’d be performing on stage and the alarm would just go off. We’d freeze and wait for it to end, then go on.”
TownSquare Players was the first group to perform after the opera house was remodeled in 1977. Bob and Karen hosted the review, “Musical Memories.”
“That was a very proud moment,” said Karen.
“Before the restoration, it was a really spooky place,” said Gloria. “So you can understand all the ghost legends. There were a lot of things that would happen that would make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.”
“I was working there one night,” said Bob. “I was alone in the building at about one in the morning. I heard this noise in the balcony and I was outta there. Things did happen. There was no doubt about it.”
“Do you remember that stain on the wall of the lady’s face during ‘Follies,’” asked Regina Belt, director of this year’s production of “Harvey.” “You’d be coming up the stairs and there would be this stain on the wall. They said it was Elvira [the opera house’s alleged resident ghost]. Eva Bornstein brought in Jeane Dixon, the famous psychic, and she said that not only is that ghost real, but there is a ghost on stage named Tommy from vaudeville who is tap dancing.”
“I almost got killed there one night,” said Bob. “It was this close. I was talking on stage and someone was working up in the flies. They lost a pipe and it came down and hit me right on the shoulder. So close to my head.”
“You would have been a ghost at the opera house,” said Karen.
Though spook stories abound, the Woodstock Opera House is a fine landmark and great resource for the community.
“The Opera House is a great place to see a show,” said Paul Lockwood, current president of TownSquare Players. “For people who have not been there—you’re missing out.”
“Orson Wells described it as an intimate candy box of a theater,” Regina added.
Playing Well With Others
TownSquare Players continues to lure amateur performers and others with a passion to keep community theater going. Paul joined the group soon after moving to Woodstock in 2001.
“My first TSP show was ‘The Foreigner,’” said Paul. “’The Foreigner’ is a very funny show. You wouldn’t think a show that involved the KKK would be a laugh riot, but it was. It was a good cast.”
Paul remembers his scariest moment on the stage during this performance—while interrogating the star of the show, he completely forgot his lines.
“Thank goodness for Chris Kurzer,” he said. “He came up with some dialogue that got me back into where I was going. It was the scariest moment.”
“That’s why it requires so much teamwork,” said Gloria. “You have to be there for the other person.”
“And, you have to be actively listening to one another,” added Regina.
The family nature of the company is something that makes each production special and, for many of the participants, the reason they continue participating.
“You don’t know your neighbors as well as these people you’re working with,” said Gloria.
“The people you share your dressing room with—you know their intimate secrets,” said Regina.
TownSquare Players meet four nights a week for three hours or more during rehearsals. Many have day jobs and families to care for.
“You just do it,” said Gloria. “You make a commitment…a very big commitment.”
“One of the reasons I moved to Woodstock was that they had two theater groups,” said Paul, referring to TownSquare Players and the Woodstock Musical Theatre Company. “There’s nothing like being out there and taking on some completely different persona and selling it.”
“There’s nothing like that applause,” added Karen.
Woodstock residents aren’t the only ones reaping the benefits of TownSquare Players.
“We have some people come from suburbs of the city to audition here,” said Lou Czarny, the group’s immediate past president. “That’s the kind of commitment that some people are willing to make. It’s a job, but if you didn’t love doing it, you wouldn’t do it.”
This love of theater is what keeps the TownSquare Players on stage, but it also takes the audience to make their productions a reality.
“Community theater needs support, otherwise it wouldn’t be here,” said Gloria. “People need to come out and support us, so we can be here another 40 years.”
Luckily, the TownSquare Players show no signs of stopping.
“We’re all going to haunt the Opera House when we’re gone,” said Karen. “My chair is there—C5 is my chair. It’s got my name on it. So, when I go my chair is gonna go ‘wooo-wooo.’”