Theres no business like show business

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It seemed like a quaint idea at the time. Community theater was the latest post-Depression fad, so a group of Alexandria residents, led by a woman named Mary Lindsey, decided to form their own local theater troupe.

Calling themselves the Peacock Players, over 200 people gathered at Gadsbys Tavern in January of 1935 to formally organize what is now known as The Little Theatre of Alexandria. By April, they had staged their first full-length production at The Lyceum, the Phillip Barry play Holiday.

No, I wasnt in that first play, but I do go back nearly that far chuckled Ernie Sult, who joined LTA in 1942 when he was a senior in high school. I met my wife Pat here and even performed in a show the night of my wedding.

Sult was a star of sorts among the many past and present LTA members and fans who were on hand to celebrate the theaters 75th anniversary last Saturday evening.

I remember rehearsing here, said Sult as the evenings walking tour of past LTA sites stopped in front of a building in Ramseys Alley. This used to be a blacksmiths shop but we bought it in the 30s to use for rehearsals and building sets.

After taking a hiatus during World War II, the group resumed productions and began staging what are known as restoration plays, or plays that George Washington may have attended.

Joining with Gadsbys Tavern in 1946, the period plays became such a sensation that President Harry Truman, along with First Lady Bess and daughter Margaret, attended on four different occasions.

These shows tried to create an atmosphere as if George Washington were coming to town, with the arrival of each guest being formally announced said Frank Shutts, a past LTA president and director of the upcoming musical 1776. They were wildly popular and the success of these plays is what gave LTA the financial hope of building the theater we have today.

When a Fire Marshall intervened and put a halt to the performances in Gadsbys Tavern, the enterprising LTA members built an outdoor stage in the courtyard behind the building, where they stayed until an empty lot on the corner of Wolfe and St. Asaph Streets became available in 1957.

Designed by LTA member Joseph Orendorff, the current theater cost $150,000 to build and opened its doors in November of 1961 with a production of Send Me No Flowers.

Saturdays anniversary celebration was highlighted by a reception at Gadsbys Tavern, where guests repeatedly commented that LTA is unlike any other community theater.

This is the closest thing you can get to a professional theater, said former LTA actor Jim Howard, who just finished filming My One and Only with Rene Zellweger and Kevin Bacon. The Helen Hayes Awards have brought a lot of well-deserved prestige to the local theater scene.

Roland Gomez, a professional radio actor and director from New York, moved to Alexandria in 1966 and has been with LTA since 1968.

LTA treats its theater like Broadway, said the multiple award-winning director and local real estate agent. We have a great quality of actors, many who decided to trade their Broadway dream for a wonderful life here in Alexandria.

LTA has been a springboard for many successful actors, including Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden, who played Libby in the Neil Simon play I Ought To Be in Pictures in 1982 (yes, she got good reviews).

Dermot Mulroney, of My Best Friends Wedding fame, grew up in Alexandria and took acting classes at LTA.

And while the name Calvin Remsberg may not be a household name to everyone, the LTA alumni starred in Cats and Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, and was the first person that David Hyde Pierce thanked (as his vocal coach) when he won the 2007 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical in Curtains.

The audience is just as star-studded at times, with playwright Thorton Wilder attending a staging of Our Town=2 0in 1939, and George W. Bush making his first theatrical outing as President to see sister-in-law Margaret Bush in Neil Simons Proposals in June of 2001.

He came here even before attending a performance at the Kennedy Center, said Shutts. The Secret Service gave us strict instructions to not approach him, but he was so wonderful to everyone and posed for pictures with the cast during intermission.

Margaret Bush, who also performs in summer stock theater in Maine, has been active with LTA for over 10 years now and echoed other alumni sentiments.

LTA is the most professional community theater I have ever worked for, said Maggie who will be auditioning for the production of Picnic at the end of the month. It has the most unbelievable community and volunteer support, as well as the most talented directors and set designers.

Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille stopped by the festivities to congratulate LTA and reminisce for a moment before reading an official proclamation.

I remember growing up in Alexandria and watching the construction of the new theater on Wolfe Street, said Euille. Now Alexandria ranks in the top 25 in the country as an arts destination. We are blessed to live in Alexandria and I am so proud to be mayor of this community.

Euille went on to add, I dont have a lick of talent myself, but I can support and promote an d be proud of LTA. Seventyfive years is only the beginning.

But it was Maggie Bush that seemed to sum up the sentiments of everyone who has been involved with LTA over the years when she said, I will always have a very special place in my heart for The Little Theatre of Alexandria.

LTA will kick off its Diamond Jubilee season with its signature production of 1776, which runs from July 26-August 23, with a free public performance on August 21st at Fort Ward Park. For more information on classes, volunteer opportunities and ticket information, call (703) 683-5778 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com.

 

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