Last night I went with friends to take in the final dress rehearsal of Rumors, the latest offering of the local amateur theater company. Judging by the audience reaction it was a screamingly funny farce; judging by my reaction, I'm not a fan of screamingly funny farces. But it was a nice evening out -- the theatre space is a redesigned Baptist church just a few blocks from my house. I walked over and back in the warm humid air, and thought of the theaters in Fairhope I had known.
When my family moved over the bay from Mobile, my parents were both excited that there was a well-respected amateur theater we could all attend. They were sure it was something we would enjoy as family entertainment, and a way to shoehorn ourselves into our new community. The first play I remember us going to certainly fit that bill. It was a production of Arsenic and Old Lace, directed by Gretchen Riggs, the local theater guru who nurtured many a talent over the years and oversaw the indoctrination of generation after generation into the love of the art.
The two old ladies were played by a very prestigious pair. Florence Scott, our Montrose neighbor (once referred to by a local garden club member as "the queen of Montrose"), played one, and Piney Gaston, wife of James Gaston, whose father had founded the town, played the other. They were both dignified, elegant ladies in their way -- Florence the more patrician, and Piney the earthy, accessible one. Neither would you expect to see on a stage; both were type cast and delightful. Marvin Nichols played their brother who lives with the delusion that he's Teddy Rooseveldt. Jim Merlini, then the principal at Fairhope High, played the Peter Lorre role, Eloise Nichols and Gale Rowe (soon to be married) played the young lovers, and it seemed everybody in town had something to do in the play, if only, like us, to attend and laugh our heads off.
It was our introduction to the fair hope that this town used to provide. My siblings and I all wanted to be in plays, from then on -- and we all went forth to do so on some level or other. My brother is a professional actor who has written film scripts, performed television commercials, and still takes jobs in movies shot on location in this area. My mother and sister were in a play a few years later at the Little Theater, something called Sunday's Child, in which Mama played the wife of a minister and sister Billye played her daughter.
The theatre space then was Comings Hall, on the old Organic School campus. It was a great barn of a place, with a full floor for basketball games and dances, good acoustics, and a nice stage with lots of backstage space. Trouble was it hadn't been well maintained; there were leaks in the ceiling and broken windows. It remained Fairhope's principle community center until it was condemned by the city in the early 1960's, and there has never been an adequate replacement.
The Fairhope Little Theater stopped producing plays for a ten-year period, but Gretchen Riggs, Nancy Head, and a few others kept the flame alive. Gretchen helped direct high school kids with drama clubs, and finally the group began to emerge that would call itself Theater 98, taking the name of the nearest highway. Mobile arts entrepreneur Tom Pocase had run a little amateur group out of the building the Baptist Church left behind when they built their new sanctuary; it was restructured as a three-quarters round. When Tom left the Fairhope area, Theater 98 took over the building and has been operating there ever since. I've been associated with several productions there and find it difficult at best -- the space is too small and there is limited provision for storage of furniture, props and costumes -- and facilities for waiting backstage for an entrance are almost nil. But the audience loves the building -- and apparently so do the management of Theater 98. They have never actively sought a change.
Everything will change in a few years, when the new Performance Center goes up near the high school. This will be a state of the art, 2,000 seat auditorium. There may be a smaller theater space in the complex, I don't know. I haven't heard that. The town is elated to have such a big space, so that major productions will come here and the local performing groups and presumably Fairhope High School will have a place big enough for their ambitions.
Nobody ever tried to replace Comings Hall with a similar, more up-to-date structure, and I've always thought that was a shame. The Civic Center out in what was originally a supermarket has a performing arts space with terrible acoustics and sight lines, and there has been dissatisfaction with that since it was remodeled in the early 70s.
I hope the next building to go up on Organic's campus will be a nice performing arts "barn" structure, designed for multiple uses but with play production a priority.
It's time I got to work on that.