Players of Utica has a genuinely rich and robust history from its beginning as a small social and amusement club (1910–1912) to presenting hundreds of dramas, musicals, comedies, and original plays (1913–present) to more than one million residents of Central New York.
Players of Utica is one of the oldest, continually producing community theatres in the United States and the oldest in New York State. This is a designation we can all be proud of!
Players of Utica has always strived to provide entertainment that is unmatched in quality and value in Central N.Y. With each new season, we bring a mix of performances that range from timeless classics to the bold and inspiring—some never before or since seen in the area.
At 1:30 a.m. on the morning of May 5, 1999, a passerby observed thirty-foot flames shooting up from the building. The fire department could do nothing but protect the neighboring buildings. All that remained was blackened timbers and, ironically, the shell of the steeple we had planned to remove because it was structurally unsound. Everything was lost – furniture, china, flats, costumes, props, piano, stove, computer, and memorabilia – the Players home. That fire remains the largest unsolved arson fire in Oneida County.
Our History was compiled from old records by G. Clayton Farrall and updated in 1999 by Matt Richter and Carol Sours. Updates since then have been made by Vince Scalise.
The history of Players is divided into fairly distinct periods or eras:
1910–1913 – The amusement club organized for an evening of more or less extemporaneous performances, non-professional, and intended only for casual pleasure.
1913–1948 – The period of serious effort to present the dramatic arts as professionally as possible, ending in financial tragedy.
1948–1962 – The establishment of a community theater, culminating in the second financial and organizational catastrophe.
1962–1999 – A new beginning at 19 Oxford Rd, New Hartford, ending when our theater burned to the ground.
1999–Present – A return to our roots in Utica.
Through everything, we have somehow survived to present hundreds of dramas, musicals, and original plays to mostly appreciative audiences. In the process, we have become one of the oldest community theaters in the country.
Era I (1910 – 1913) Back to top of page
Players started out in 1910 as The Amusement Club, and kept that title until 1913. It was exactly what the name implies, a little social organization that met in one or another of the big old Utica homes. Miss Julia H. Cummins, the club’s second president, stated at one time that the performances were very casual. She recalled a musical playlet entitled Miss Matilda’s School, which was an excuse for singing popular songs in juvenile dress. There was a Floradora Sextet of older men and a chorus of pretty debutantes who were advised (because they couldn’t sing) to move their lips silently while the more matronly ladies in the wings attempted to swell the volume of song.
It was difficult to persuade the cast to do any serious rehearsing. In fact, one scholar protested that it would be much funnier if they made things up as they went along.
However, in 1914, the Players produced an evening of plays at the New Century Club on the corner of Genesee and Hopper Streets. One, The Workhouse Ward, was seen by a member of the Schubert management, who was sufficiently impressed to invite the cast to a week’s run in New York City. After that, a deepening interest in stagecraft began to emerge. Internationally known lecturers were invited to appear at Players. Granville Barker, an English playwright, chose as his subject, “The Ideas of the Theater.” Also appearing was Lady Gregory of the Abbey Theater, the author of Players’ first hit, The Workhouse Ward.
Other guests were the Comedy Club from New York City and George Pierce Baker of Harvard, who brought his “47 Workshop.” Walter Hampden was brought in a double bill, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. Gradually, Players began to produce an ambitious schedule of four plays a year. A few of the titles in those days were Her Ladyship’s Jewels, Op’o’me Thumb, and A Little Fowl Play. In 1916, Frank Stirling became Players’ first professional director, and Players moved into its next phase.
Era II (1913 – 1948) Back to top of page
Frank Stirling, after a varied military and dramatic career in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and America, had come to Utica to act with the Shubert Stock Company. He decided to remain in Utica, and, with Walter Rowe, started the Utica School of Dramatic Art. His first connection with Players was to direct Green Stockings. After that, he became the director-manager and directed almost every Players production from 1916 to 1931.
In 1917, America entered World War I, and no one was in the mood for amusement. The staging and property committees were devoting much time to war work. An Allied Fiesta was given at the Tennis Club, which raised a sizable amount of money for the Allied cause. Players bought and supplied an ambulance, which was attached to a French evacuation hospital.
During the years of 1919–1929, Players found itself emerging from a small social group into a citywide organization. Plays such as If I Were King, and Seven Keys to Baldpate were being presented in the New Century Club, the Hotel Utica, the Gaiety Theater, the Lake Placid Club, and, for many years, at the Utica Country Day School. The names of casts and crews are familiar in the area today: Weaver, Worden, Kellogg, Matt, Knower, Kernan, Munson, Morehead, and Bagg all appear on the old programs.
In 1923, Players assumed responsibility for a home of its own. It was a small barn on Mandeville Street to be known as the Workshop (now Kelly O’Neill’s Tavern). A stage was built, a new heating plant installed, and Players found itself with a complete little theater seating about 200, which had both charm and atmosphere.
By 1929, however, Players had outgrown this small home. Major productions were given at the Country Day School, and the casts were obliged, after weeks of rehearsal on the small Workshop stage, to accustom themselves in one dress rehearsal to a much larger stage. Under the leadership of George Sicard, active members gave funds to form a holding company. The New Hartford Movie Theater was purchased and remodeled into a little theatre with 500 seats, an orchestra pit, a giant switchboard, and a fly gallery 30 feet high, which enabled rapid and efficient set changes.
This enterprise was carried out in the nick of time. Players’ first production in their new home, Monsieur Beaucaire, coincided with a melodrama on Wall Street, known as “The Crash of 1929.” During the early depression years, Players managed to hang on to its theater. The early 1930s saw major productions such as Holiday and Seventh Heaven with new director, Phil Sheffield, who was appointed permanent director in 1939 and served for the next 20 years. This was the time when Players had its own orchestra, under the direction of Dr. Philip L. Turner. Sweethearts, The Red Mill, and Naughty Marietta all featured as many as 24 instrumentalists.
The years of World War II were incredibly difficult. Despite the heroic efforts of a dwindling group, Players lost its home in 1943. They had built lavish sets at great expense. That, and the costs of maintaining a large theatre, proved too much to handle. The classic theatrical villain—the local banker—foreclosed on the New Hartford theatre.
Players carted away to a warehouse in North Utica everything that wasn’t nailed down (and some things that were). The group took over cramped quarters in a rented store on Park Avenue, to act as a workshop and rehearsal hall. It was a struggle to extricate scenery from the warehouse, move it to the studio to recondition it, and finally to erect it at St. Francis de Sales for productions. The Players survived a flood in which almost half the scenery, props, costumes, and equipment in storage were ruined.
In 1948, Players was able to rent the theater they had once owned. Since it was again being used as a movie theater, it was only available for three days for each production. Casts rehearsed at the Y.M.C.A., sets were built in barns and garages, and at midnight on Wednesday, the stage crew moved in and worked all night and most of the following day to set up so that the cast could have one rehearsal on stage. After the show on Friday, Players had to strike the set and make the theater ready for Saturday’s movie. Through all this, Players maintained a record of uninterrupted productions. Finally, this dogged devotion was rewarded. In 1950, the Paris Cinema once again became available, and Players was able to rent it with the option to buy.
Era III (1948 – 1962) Back to top of page
Thus began a new era for Players. We incorporated as a non-profit organization, and the whole community was invited to participate in play viewing, acting, or backstage work. It was during this period that Players produced outstanding productions including Stalag 17, Showboat, South Pacific, Oklahoma, Detective Story, and Death of a Salesman. Also active were the Junior Players, who did two plays a year, and the Strolling Players, who traveled to meetings of community organizations like Rotary and Kiwanis. The Experimental Theater presented serious drama, classics, and original plays.
Not to become too complacent, the group suffered a nasty blow when the heating plant gave out in mid-winter. We had rented the theatre at a cost of $250 a month and agreed to do the care and maintenance of the building. Pleas for assistance were made at each performance, and members made candy to be sold along with soft drinks in the aisles during intermissions. These efforts, coupled with contributions made by many loyal members, enabled Players to pass this crisis.
Next, the roof leaked, and half the theatre had to be closed because rain poured down on the seats. The place was becoming dingy and we could not afford to pay the cost of repairs. Membership and participation started to shrink.
Philip Sheffield retired in 1959 and a new director-manager was hired at a much larger salary. Richard Miller was a great director who for a couple of years was able to keep Players on its feet. At this point, the owner of the theater decided to sell it. We knew we could not afford to make the needed repairs and improvements, so once again we retreated and left our home. We lost the services of Dick Miller and were about $18,000 in debt. Membership shrunk to under 100, and something great had to be done—or Players would be no more.
Era IV (1962 – 1999) Back to top of page
George Harrer, Tony Farrall, and other dedicated members decided that something sensational had to happen if Players were to survive. With benefit activities, financial drives, and door-to-door solicitations, they managed to raise enough money to get started again. In 1962, Players made their move. They rented, with the option to buy, the venerable Methodist church at 19 Oxford Road, New Hartford.
There had been a church on this site since 1840. The first small church had been converted to a dwelling. In 1879, a charming larger church was built, and in 1918, a rambling addition was added to provide Sunday school classrooms. At last Players had adequate space for performance, rehearsal, storage of flats, costumes and props, a workshop, a kitchen, a dining room, restrooms, and dressing rooms.
Now came tasks like building the stage, putting in a new boiler, repairing the roof, and adding electrical work for stage lights. This was a heavy outlay for a nearly bankrupt organization, so much of the work was done by the Players themselves. One group traveled to the site of the World’s Fair to pick up used lighting equipment. Another took a trailer to Brooklyn to retrieve second-hand seats. Pelnik’s also was a source of comfortable seats, which accounts for the fact that some seats were blue and some were red. The Avon and Utica theaters gave rigging for the curtain, pulleys, and ropes. A capital improvement committee was established to continue work on the old building.
Good plays were essential to survival. In the absence of a professional director-manager, volunteer directors stepped into the breach. Some of the plays presented during this period were Kiss Me Kate, Separate Tables, Camelot, The Odd Couple, and The Lion in Winter. With good reviews, the loyal support of the playgoers, hard work, and careful financial management, Players began to climb out of the hole.
At last, in 1975, a grand mortgage-burning ceremony was held. Jonas Kover wrote in the Daily Press of a “merry event,” adding, “Following the cheers and whistles, someone asked if marshmallows were brought along for the occasion. It wasn’t marshmallows, but memories that surrounded the event. The walls were covered with photographs from more than 60 years.”
A guest director commented, “These people may marvel at the professional who acts for a living, while the professionals were astounded that people would work an eight-hour day, then devote time to putting on a production.”
Why do they do it? Some of the reasons are the joy of artistic creativity, the friendships formed, and the teamwork, similar to an athletic team which trains hard for a sports event that will test its mettle. And surely, some of the fun arises from the silly mishaps that can occur on stage and cause hysterical laughter for years thereafter. (Though stark panic at the time they occur.)
- In Separate Tables, an actor skipped eight pages of dialog, leaving his fellow actors trying to fit in the necessary information that had been omitted.
- In Dial M for Murder, Jacque Frazier opened a door to exit and found the doorknob coming off in her hand. She merely handed it to Ralph Allinger, the other actor, said airily, “Goodbye!” and left him holding it. Her reasoning was that he would need the knob to make his own exit later.
- In Teahouse of the August Moon, an actor missed his cue, leaving veteran actors Richard Miller and Jane Metzger onstage with nothing to say. Their characters spoke only Japanese. They repeated their lines, louder. Then, in desperation, they made up some pidgin-Japanese. This play must have been star-crossed. The cast included two live goats, which apparently suffered from stage fright. Every time they came onstage, they relieved themselves, to the growing amusement of the audience.
- In Madwoman of Chaillot, a delicate fantasy set in Paris, the audience applauded an especially fine speech. Suddenly, they were startled to see an unidentified man in a red flannel shirt run on stage. He was a stagehand who mistook the applause for the end of the scene.
- In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Win Haslam stood up and her skirt slithered down around her ankles. With perfect aplomb, she stepped behind the couch, gathered up her skirt, and while holding it on with one hand, played the rest of the scene. The audience loved it.
Ah, the excitement of live theater. You just don’t get that on TV. And when, as usually happens, all goes well and the audience believes and is attuned to what’s happening on stage, electricity oscillates between audience and performers.
The years at 19 Oxford Road were good ones. The plays ranged from dark tragedies to sophisticated comedies, from thoughtful drama to musicals, and from controversial plays to children’s theater. Some of the plays produced during this era were Ann of a Thousand Days, Fiorello, The Glass Menagerie, Laura, Sly Fox, and Blood Brothers. Opening night dinners were put on to increase attendance, and to provide an entire evening of fun for subscribers. Meet-the-cast parties rounded out the occasion.
Scrooge became an annual tradition and has been directed by Peter Loftus every year since. With a chorus of children, a beautiful set, and whole families becoming involved, Scrooge became an incubator of new talent for Players. The cast grew to 165 and Scrooge moved to the Stanley Theater, with an occasional performance at the Capitol Theater in Rome.
Another incubator of talent was youth theater, taught by several Players at different times. The board established awards for especially dedicated young performers. A drama contest for high school students, named in memory of Harrison Cline, was held each year. A junior member was invited to serve on the board each year.
In 1973, a second, smaller stage was built downstairs. The purpose of this Pub was to provide another venue for experimental theater, children’s shows, and musicals such as Star Treatment, written by Dan Fusillo. This space was named the Glenn Flagg Pub, in memory of Glenn and Carolyn Flagg, who had worked on every aspect of the theatre, from acting to taking out the trash.
In 1998, Players undertook a major renewal of the theatre. They installed a handicap-accessible bathroom just off the Pub and built a covered ramp with new, wide doors leading into the theatre. This meant that the Pub, at least, was accessible to everyone. A team from a nearby state prison was brought in to spruce up the outside of the theatre with cream paint trimmed in dark green. Patrons coming in for the first show of the season pronounced the new look “beautiful.” The president’s office was improved with new (second hand) furniture and a computer. Plans were underway to build a ramp inside, so the dining room would be accessible. The colors were selected for painting the kitchen and dining room.
But it was not to be. At 1:30 in the morning of May 5, 1999, a passerby observed 30-foot flames shooting up from the building. The fire department could do nothing but protect the adjoining buildings. The siding on the funeral parlor next door was deformed and melted from the heat. All that remained were blackened timbers and, ironically, the shell of the steeple we had planned to remove because it was structurally unsound. Everything was lost—furniture, china, flats, costumes, props, piano, stove, computer, memorabilia… our home.
But truly not everything was lost. This was a sad event, but not a complete tragedy. There was no one in the building, and the Players of Utica still had each other. The community rallied to our support. The show that was supposed to open the very next day was hastily reconstituted with costumes loaned by the Ilion Little Theatre and performing space made available by Spring Farm Cares. Moon Over Buffalo opened the weekend following the fire. It was a funny show that received standing ovations, partly in recognition of Players’ spirit, which still remains.
ERA V (1999 – Present) Back to top of page
On October 31, 2003, Players of Utica held a much-anticipated groundbreaking ceremony on the site of our new theatre complex located on the corner of State and Mandeville Streets in Utica. We raised more than $1.2 million towards a goal of $1.6 million to complete the theatre. Fundraising events and capital campaigns continue until the theatre is complete. The new 200-seat theatre also houses a “black box” experimental theatre, dressing rooms, workshop, storage space, his and her lavatories, and a spacious lobby.
The project has enjoyed the enthusiastic support of the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (former Congressman Sherwood Boehlert and former Congressman Michael Arcuri), The City of Utica (former Mayor Tim Julian and Former Mayor David Roefaro), New York State Assembly (former Assemblywoman Roanne Destito) , Growest, The Community Foundation, M-W-P-A-I, Cnycac, The Broadway Theater League, Spring Farm Cares, Freidel-Williams-Coriale-Edmunds Funeral Home, ECR International/Utica Boilers, Ilion Little Theatre, Deiorio’s Frozen Dough Co., Utica National, Gannett Foundation, UFCW Local 1, The Bank of Utica, M. Proctor Theatre Guild of Grace Church, Four Seasons Landscape Management, PJ Green, Northeast Excavating, Serianni Signs, the Scalise family, and the many private donors that have provided more than $800,000 toward construction costs.
To date, Players of Utica has invested nearly $1.2 million in the construction of the new theater on State Street. We received our Certificate of Occupancy from the City of Utica on October 24, 2009 for the smaller of two theaters in the building and continue to use that area as our main production space. Eventually, this space will be the black-box theater. Until then, we come up with creative ways to use the space and present productions, large and small, that have helped us to continue to entertain and engage the community.
In 2013, we revisited our building plans and raised enough funds to move ahead with the lobby of the theater. Several changes to the space, including lavatories, box office, concession stand, and chandeliers, have been made to make the public’s experience with us a much more comfortable and enjoyable one.
In 2018, four new theater doors were added to the lobby to create a wonderful entrance to what will be our main stage theater.
As always, a tax-deductible donation to the Players of Utica Building Fund is greatly appreciated.