Bonham's Broadway Scene
Bonham Daily Favorite, April 9, 1995
Almost from their first announcement of the construction of a new movie house in Bonham, Robb and Rowley stressed that in addition to the motion pictures of the highest caliber, the American Theater would from time to time present programs of great cultural influence to the audiences of Bonham and Fannin County. In addition to musical entertainments patrons of the theater could also expect to see dramatic and comedic productions from nationally important touring companies.
Probably in 1921 the two men could not have foreseen that their initial announcement was presaging the arrival, in Bonham, of a cultural phenomena just then beginning to sweep the country. By the time the American Theater had its grand opening in October, community theater groups were beginning to spring up from coast to coast in small and large towns of America.
It did not take long for this activity to take root in Bonham. Almost three years to the day after the opening of the American, the curtain on the stage of the movie house rose to the excited whispers of a sell-out audience at the first production of The Pied Piper Players of Bonham, Texas.
The little theater movement by this time was firmly planted in hundreds of towns like Bonham. Perhaps to a society used to frowning on professional "theatrical people," except when viewed from afar, the community theater was something of a puzzle. Why did small town America so wholeheartedly embrace the movement? The answer is simple.
Community theater offered everyone in the community something in which to take part. Certainly every community had its share of frustrated actors who were delighted at the opportunity to perform in an acceptable milieu when the thought of a professional acting career was totally foreign to their psyche. The shy, timid seamstress could glory in her theatrical creations for the stars of the local production. The journeyman electrician found a creative outlet by which he could explore the possibility of creating a mood rather than just illuminating a stage presentation.
Those of a more intellectual bent could serve on the play reading and selection committees with the resulting discussion, examination, and interpretation of the available dramatic literature. Musicians could contribute the necessary underscoring and scene setting accompaniment to each production much as the house pianist accompanied the silent actions then seen on the silver screen.
And perhaps most importantly those in the community with the experience and talent for arranging performers across the footlights, channeling their entrances and exits, could direct the production and accept the plaudits of audience, cast, and crew for their exceptional skill in bringing to life the words labored over by the author.
Two of the more popular and successful playwrights of the 1920's were George Kaufman and Marc Connelly. Their forte was light romantic comedy and every production of theirs which appeared on Broadway was an almost instant hit. It was these Broadway presentations which fueled the commuity fires of dramaturgy and presented exactly the right touch which local audiences came to expect from their theatrical friends.
Wisely the Pied Piper Players chose for their first production the Kaufman and Connelly opus "To The Ladies." The Bonham production was directed by Mrs. O.L. Counch and opened on the stage of the American Theater October 18, 1924. Appearing in the cast were C.H. and Bess VanZandt, Helen Evans Burow, Lee Myers, Leslie Earl (George) Leatherwood, Alban McRae, Clark McBrayer, Dr. H.R. Scates, A.P. Bolding, Una Myers, Ovid Spotts, Monroe Orendoff, Grover Scates, and Laudys L. Anthony.
This first production was not produced on the scale as later productions were. Since the setting of the play did not require any period costuming, clothing for the actors was furnished by Max Hermer's Style Shop and H.L. Rodger's Mens Store. Halsell and Caldwell provided the stage setting, with furniture appointments to create the living room setting of the play.
The production also introduced to the Bonham audience a most talented team who designed and produced the scenic background for the production. Local sign painter Rabb Taylor and noted Bonham artist and art teacher Miss Charlie Phillips provided the first of several professional settings for the Players productions. Raleigh Ryon was also credited with enhancing the productions settings with some masterful stage lighting.
Incidentally the Broadway production of only two years before starred Helen Hayes and Otto Kruger.
Sadly no photographs of this maiden production seem to exist. Whether a photographic record of the play was actually made or not is uncertain. Nor is there known to be a copy of the printed program for the evening. In addition to the businesses already mentioned it would be interesting to see what sort of community support was given to this very new enterprise for the Bonham arts.
The collected memories of those who were a part of the Pied Piper Players indicate that this wonderful era in the history of Bonham was looked on warmly by the participants and the observers alike. We are told that from the first the community embraced the organization and its purposes.
It was not long before many local organizations discovered that one of the more successful and popular methods of fund raising for their groups was through a production of the Pied Piper Players. Some of the clubs who were able to contribute to charitable and community services were the Fireman's Club, The Civitan Club, The Fannin Country Club, and the Current Literature Club.
The Current Literature Club used several productions to help fund the fledgling Bonham Public Library. Monies raised from this activity insured that Bonham would finally have a library facility for use by the community.
The Players did not limit themselves to the standard three act comedy, but over the years presented a series of one act plays, special seasonal performances which were more pageant/exhibition productions.
The first officers of the Pied Piper Players were Mrs. C.H. VanZandt, President with Mrs. Ray Peeler, Sr., Raleigh Ryon , Rabb Taylor, Ovid Spotts, Basil Gibson, and Mrs. Balch Moore serving on the Board of Directors.
Next week we shall take a look at some of the other productions of the company over its ten plus year history.
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas