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1940s Guild put spotlight on theater

POSTED: February 28, 2010 1:00 a.m.

Community theater in Gainesville wasn't really in the spotlight until the 1960s, but a Gainesville Theatre Guild organized in the 1940s produced several plays before it was succeeded by a group that eventually became today's Gainesville Theater Alliance.

The Guild formally formed in December 1946 with John W. Jacobs Jr. its first president. Martha Finger Stratton was vice president, Louise Platt secretary and R.L. Brittain treasurer.

The first production was "The Animal Kingdom," a three-act comedy in February 1947 at Brenau's Pearce Auditorium. Jacobs and Joyce Brittain played the leading roles, and other cast members were Virginia Woodall, Henry Ansaldo, Carl Tibbetts, Drane Watson, Virginia Ray and Sylvan Meyer.

The cast had been chosen by "Miss Sue" Johnson, Lou Pilgrim and Russ Holt after tryouts at the Gainesville High School gymnasium, now the Gym of '36 office building. James A. Dunlap was stage manager, and Carolyn Ramsey business manager.

Martha Stratton remembers little about the play except that her role required a German accent.
The cast practiced in the parish room of Grace Episcopal Church. Tickets for that first play were $1.25 for orchestra seats, $1 for balcony and $10 for box seats. Half of the profits would go into a civic auditorium fund.

Walter Paschal, a well-known Atlanta radio commentator at the time, helped open the production. The play was well received, but it didn't take in as much money as expected.

Nevertheless, momentum carried the enthusiastic thespians into a second play, "You Can't Take It With You," another three-act comedy, in June the same year. Many of the same people were involved, but others included H.Y. McCord, Estelle Bloodworth, E.F. McLeod, Glenn McConnell, Alice Purvis, Mary Tibbetts and D.L. Brittain.

The community had begun to embrace the Guild so much Courtenay Jewelers provided "Oscars" for outstanding performances.

The Guild's second season opened in October 1947 for three performances of "Out of the Frying Pan," another comedy directed by Meyer, who had joined the fledgling Gainesville Daily Times and would become its editor. His wife, Anne, was a member of the cast.

Other performers were journalist George Porter, Belle Godfrey, Jim Knox, Joan Garner, Virginia Woodall, Hazel Gilreath, Bill Friedstedt, Paul O'Dell, Hammond Johnson Jr. and Billy Dunn.

The Theatre Guild closed its 1947-48 season with "Angel Street," a drama that was titled "Gaslight" in the movie version that starred Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. The organization continued into the 1950s with, among other plays, "Ladies in Retirement," directed by Jacobs, who mentioned it in his newly published book, "The Longer You Live."

Community theater continued off and on until 1965 when Gainesville Civic Theater succeeded the Guild under the auspices of then Gainesville Junior College. Seeking a permanent home for rehearsals as well as productions, the Civic Theater went from the Music Room of the Civic Center to the basement of Bud's Restaurant to an old filling station warehouse behind Dixie-Hunt Hotel. Janet Jewell (now actress Jaye McIntosh) was its first director under the new name.

Ed Cabell came on as artistic director in 1968, and the college built a 150-seat theater that would become the home of the Civic Theater. Cabell brought a new personality, professionalism and enthusiasm to community and college theater, which became a joint venture with Brenau College in 1986. The organization changed its name to Gainesville Theater Alliance, and it has operated that way since.

Its productions for many years used the theater in the Georgia Mountains Center in downtown Gainesville, sometimes Pearce Auditorium or the theater at what became Gainesville State College and University.

Today, under the direction of Jim Hammond, a former student of Cabell's, it most often uses the Hosch Theater in the Burd Center for Performing Arts at Brenau and the Ed Cabell Theater at Gainesville State College. Brenau's Pearce Auditorium, where that first Theater Guild play was performed 63 years ago, also continues as a venue for Gainesville Theater Alliance and associated ventures.

Theater in Hall County has come a long way from the all-volunteer effort in the 1940s to today's organization with a 10-person professional staff. At least two other theater groups, the Georgia Mountain Players and Fifth Row Center, also put on several performances a year.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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