Prepared by Bay City Players Organization(April 2003)
At one time, live theater was the only show in town down so to speak. The advent of motion pictures changed that dramatically and dynamically for audiences. Only a few local theatrical troupes survived the challenge of this exciting new technology -- Hollywood movies captured the imagination and fancy of theater patrons who were dazzled by a novelty that soon dominated theaters everywhere. The Bay City Players theatrical group is one of the few that survived. Thanks to a commitment that has spanned generations of players and audiences, live performances continue to be a unique experience in our community. -- As the old expression goes, "Without further ado, let the show begin!"
The Bay City Players theatrical group evolved from several other organizations. The Bay City Art Club was formed in 1899 as a study club, devoting itself to the study of analogies between the arts, with its first presentation aptly titled, "Prehistoric Art." In 1901, another group was formed, the Thursday Morning Musicale. This group had a small membership of about seven musically-minded people. These groups continued to grow and prosper separately, with the Bay City Art Club being first to host speakers and conduct lectures open to the public. But mostly, these groups gathered in parlors of the members' homes to discussed literature and art.
In 1911 the group was joined by Mrs. J. D. (Emily) Grinnell, the woman who is credited in programs to this day with starting the Bay City Players. The organization is the oldest community theater group in Michigan and one of the oldest in the country.
On March 19, 1917, the Bay City Art Club presented its first play entitled, "An Afternoon of Interpretation." This consisted of two plays, Yeats' "The Twelve Pound Note" Synge's "Riders to the Sea." Unfortunately, World War I began and the Bay City Art Club suspended its meetings for the duration of the war. The group did not perform another play until 1921. However, the Thursday Morning Musicale was so small, it continued to meet in member's homes, throughout the war. Because the group was made up of "performers," speakers were not necessary to provide entertainment.
In 1922, Mrs. N. R. Wentworth suggested that the two groups merge and a new group was born, the Musicale-Art Club. This group was broken into three areas: art, music and drama. To please all of its members, it was suggested that two plays be put on each season, one musical and one straight play. In 1924, the trial marriage of the two groups was considered a success and the boards were merged. In 1929, it was renamed the Bay City Theatre Guild and in 1931, it was renamed again, this time, and finally, the Bay City Players. This group continued until 1935, when the Musicale-Art Club again revised its constitution and continued on its mission of alternating art and music programs and the drama group proceeded on as the Bay City Players.
For the first thirty-seven years, the group put on plays anywhere it could, in member's living rooms, gardens or ballrooms. Like a group of nomads, they performed at the Woods Opera House, the Westover Opera House, Washington Theater, the Ridotto Theater, both Handy and Central High Schools, the Scottish Rite Cathedral, the Madison Avenue Masonic Temple, Trinity Episcopal Church's Parish Hall and St. Joseph's School.
Many of the plays were one-act with the first full-length plays being performed in the Blue Room of the Masonic Temple. Many of the early plays required little or no costuming. Even if you had no desire to appear on stage personally, your furniture often did. The group owned very little furniture or props, and what they did have was stored all over town, so the sets were often decorated with furniture belonging to the cast and crew or their friends.
When the Musical-Art Club was reading plays in their living rooms, legitimate theater was booming. In 1911, there were ten theaters in Bay City. Minnie Maddern Fiske, Robert Mantell, Richard Mansfield, Maude Adams, George Arliss, Otis Skinner Maggie Mitchell, Forbes Robertson, John O'Nell, Ethel Barrymore and Sarah Cowell LeMoyne all performed in Bay City during these years. With the onset of talking pictures, they had some real competition. Even back then, when theater was the established type of entertainment, the Players needed volunteers to keep it alive.
The current theater is dedicated to Mrs. Benjamin Calvin, who let the group use her third floor ballroom for their rehearsals and was instrumental in the purchase of the theater. Mrs. Franklin Parker, Mrs. Thelma Johnson and Mrs. Thomas M. Tabor were elected honorary presidents as a way of thanking them for their hard work.
The first property owned by the Bay City Players was a storage building affectionately known as "the shack". It was located at 1400 Marquette Street at the foot of the Belinda Street Bridge, next to the Last Chance Saloon, and was used as a makeshift rehearsal hall and storage building. The building cost $2000.
1969 - Impossible Year: The players were hoping for a bit hit but not the auto that crashed the front entrance.
Polk Directory History
for 1214 Columbus Avenue:
1920 - Pictureland Theater
1930 - Columbus Theater
1946 - Tivoli Theater
1950 - Pine Theater
1953 - Bay City Players
In 1953, the Players leased the Pines Theater with an option to buy, and, in 1955, they purchased the building. At that time, the group’s total assets were about $4500 including the small storage building. The Players borrowed $30,000 to purchase the building. The Pines Theater was originally the Tivoli Movie House with an old grocery store attached to the west wall. The outside of the theater and the lobby were covered in knotty pine. First, a stage was added to the tiny movie theater stage. Then, Mrs. Otto Pierce donated money for an orchestra pit to be built in the memory of her late husband. In May of 1969, a car lost control and ran straight into the front of the theater, allowing the insurance company to pay for a whole new façade. Over the years, the building got a new lighting grid, remodeled lobby and box office, and a host of other small improvements. For the actors, the next purchase was a big improvement.
The Players purchased the little house that sat behind the theater to be used as a dressing room. Previously, the actors had one small room below the stage and they had to sit quietly in the wings during performances. A second house next to this was purchased and razed to make a small parking lot behind the theater. In 1968, the mortgage was burned.
In 1974, the Players spent $20,000 remodeling the inside of the theater with the orange seats carrying new name plaques and the carpeting that you still see today.
In 1992, the Players tore down the little house and built a 5,000 square foot backstage area with set and prop storage, but more importantly to the actors, with men’s and women’s bathroom/changing rooms and with a makeup room. This addition cost $342,000 and was Phase I of a three phase theater renovation.
Phase II is now complete, and was the $675,000 renovation of the lobby, offices, box office, kitchen, bathrooms and new storage areas. This renovation included the purchase and demolition of the small building to the west allowing the Players to vastly increase their capacity.
Phase III, planned for sometime in the near future, will consist of renovating the theater seating and staging areas. The generosity of the members and the community as a whole throughout all these projects has been phenomenal. The lobby renovation, now completed, contains the names of those people, organizations and businesses who gave so generously of their resources.
1964 - The King and I: Player Frank Braham.
1965 - Becket: Players Frank Serresseque and Robert Roman.
Before and during World War II, the Players found a better way to support the war effort than that of suspending performances as the Bay City Art Club had done in World War I. In 1941, "The Unguarded Hour" was performed with proceeds going to the British Relief Society, Inc. That same year, the group also donated the proceeds from "Distinguished Gathering." In 1942, the Players performed "Skylark" and sent the proceeds to the Navy Relief Society. Men in uniform of our armed forces were also given free admission.
In 1963, the performance of the play "Death of a Salesman" was cancelled on opening__?¿ night, due to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. When the BCP acquired its own building in 1955, it planned to present two children's plays a year. In 1970, the players began Youththeatre as a joint venture with the YWCA under the leadership of Dorothy Arnett. In that year, 38 children were cast. Now, they cast 150 actors per year and often have to turn away more. In 1996, Stages of Discovery was launched as a joint venture with the Bay City Public Schools and the Players, involving even more of our youth of every age.
The Bay City Players was the first amateur group in the United States to perform the musical "1776." When it opened in February of 1975, it sold out all performances. In two weekends, 4000 people saw this production.
The Bay City Players have been a productive theater group, especially over the past 75 years. A complete listing their presentations and the year given are on the Bay City Player's Play History page.