By Ron Hayes
On Dec. 1, 1953, somebody in Lake Worth said, “Let’s put on a show!”
Six decades later, the Lake Worth Playhouse is still putting on shows.
That first production was Springtime For Henry, and theater-goers had to climb three flights of stairs to the City Hall auditorium to enjoy the 1931 farce in non-air-conditioned discomfort. There wasn’t a lot to do here in 1953.
When the curtain opens on the community theater’s 60th anniversary season July 5, playgoers will see Hairspray, followed by The King & I, The 1940s Radio Hour, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Foreigner and finally, Barnum.
In the 60 years between Henry and Hairspray, the Playhouse has produced 340 plays and musicals — everything from A Streetcar Named Desire to The Odd Couple, Annie Get Your Gun to Annie.
And the audiences have kept coming, so loyal that in 1975 the theater bought the 1924 Oakley Theatre building at 713 Lake Ave. for $60,000 and renovated it with a $15,000 Bicentennial grant. The first play in the new home — the oldest building registered by the county’s Art Deco Society — was The Last of Mrs. Lincoln.
“This is not Mom and Pop putting together a show on a shoestring budget,” says Theresa Loucks, the theater’s marketing director.
Indeed, if the words “community theater” make you think of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in a barn, think again. “Nonprofit” does not mean inexpensive.
The Lake Worth Playhouse has an annual budget just under $1 million, but no endowment. The small band of about 20 full- and part-time salaried employees are paid from ticket sales and a few grants.
And Rodgers & Hammerstein don’t care that you’re a nonprofit, largely amateur playhouse. The rights to put on a popular musical, for example, are sold by the theater’s seating capacity, multiplied by the number of scheduled performances.
Fifteen shows at the 300-seat Lake Worth Playhouse total 4,500 seats, whether or not those seats are sold. Simply buying the right to put on a classic musical can cost $20,000 to $25,000. And then the musicians have to be paid.
Still, the ticket prices range from $23 to $32.
“It’s real Broadway theater on a dime,” says Loucks.
An actor auditions for this summer’s production of Hairspray on the Lake Worth Playhouse stage, which was filled with sets for a production of The Music Man. Photo by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
The heart of the effort is the 250 men, women and children who volunteer every year to act, sing, dance, paint the sets or work the lights. For free.
The woman in charge is Jodie Dixon-Mears, who came to the theater as a high school student in 1980. Now she’s its artistic director.
“Basically, I’m the producer,” she explains. “I bring in the director and choreographers. I oversee everything that has to do with bringing the show to opening night.
But my biggest challenge,” Dixon-Mears says, “is finding people who will volunteer their time without any monetary payoff at the end.”
One of them is Michael McKeich, a telecom analyst for Palm Beach State College by day and the theater’s treasurer, stage manager, lighting technician and occasional thespian by night.
“You have to commit to eight weeks of rehearsals and three weeks of shows,” says McKeich, who drives from his home in Royal Palm Beach. “That’s 300 hours from beginning to end.”
Starting as a backstage volunteer in 2004, his moment of glory came last year, when the role of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Annie was suddenly, unexpectedly vacant.
“I came on at the last minute,” McKeich says, proudly. “They told me, ‘Don’t worry about blocking, someone will just push you around in a wheelchair.’”
And he was hooked.
“You do it all for free,” he says, “and your paycheck is the applause.”
The playhouse will mark its “Diamond Year” with a gala celebration at the Palm Beach Zoo next March, but before then, Dixon-Mears has one play and five musicals to put on, starting with Hairspray.
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” she says, “because the cast is half black, half white, so I need actors. And then for Barnum I have to find circus performers.” She sighs. “Stilt walkers, fire-eaters, gymnasts, jugglers … tightrope walkers!”
But the show must go on, and at the Lake Worth Playhouse it always has, for 60 years.
“In the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s, there was not a lot to do in Palm Beach County,” McKeich says. “Now there are a lot of entertainment options. But we’re still here.”
For more information, call 586-6410 or visit www.lakeworthplayhouse.org.