Avon Players Celebrates 75 Years

The year was 1947. On the world stage, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in his experimental jet airplane and Jackie Robinson became the first African American to take the field in a Major League baseball game. On the local stage in Rochester, Michigan, a community theatre group known as the Avon Players was born.

An early Avon Players production (Courtesy of Avon Players)

The Rev. Robert J. Burgess of Rochester’s First Congregational Church was a leading advocate for the formation of a theatre group in the community. Other like-minded residents, including several schoolteachers, joined in the effort. The Rochester newspapers announced the organizational meeting of what was known at first by the generic name “Civic Players” in June 1947.

Turnout at the first meeting was strong enough to organize the theatre group, and the Civic Players immediately got to work staging a production. Richard McGowan, a teacher at Rochester Junior High School, was selected as the director for the company’s first play. For its inaugural production, the group selected the 1940 Broadway hit, The Male Animal, written by James Thurber and Elliot Nugent.

Playbill for the first production by Avon Players, then known as Rochester Community Players (Courtesy of Avon Players)

The Male Animal opened on the gymnasium stage at Rochester High School on September 5, 1947. The comic farce starred Kenneth Sweet and Roberta Bachor in the lead roles. Large audiences were on hand for all performances.

Before the show opened, the group modified its name from Civic Players to Rochester Community Players. Soon thereafter, Rochester’s new community theatre was officially incorporated as the Avon Players. The name derived from Avon Township, but also included a nod to Stratford-on-Avon, the home of William Shakespeare. The organizers who signed the incorporation documents were Grace Nowels, William McClelland, Roberta Fenner, Pauline Dillman, Johnson Newell, Morrel Clute, and Henry Purdy.

The Avon Players conducted rehearsals in members’ homes, and later at the American Legion Hall, until just before a show opened. Final rehearsals then moved to the stage at Rochester High School. Occasionally, some performances were given at Smart’s auction barn on Tienken Road. Cast, crew, and directors for each production were selected from the membership. The organization regularly held potluck dinners at the Avon Park pavilion (today’s Community House in Rochester Municipal Park), during which impromptu scenes were presented to help build the skills of the members.

For the first 15 years, Avon Players typically staged three shows per season—either comedies or dramas, with a couple of smaller musical productions thrown in. The slate was broadened in 1962 when the company’s first Broadway musical production, Kiss Me, Kate, opened with Adele Carraher and JoAnn Bourez as the female leads. It was a smash hit with local audiences and led to the regular inclusion of a musical show each season.

Avon Playhouse under construction in 1965 (Courtesy of Avon Players)

By the mid-1950s, the membership of Avon Players had decided it was time to move on from borrowed stages and find a permanent home for the theatre company. Several options were investigated over the next few years, and in 1962 a new organization called Avon Playhouse, Inc. was created for the sole purpose of funding and building a permanent home for Avon Players. Sarah Van Hoosen Jones of Stony Creek offered a suitable piece of property on Washington Road at a nominal price, and soon the construction of a playhouse was underway. Member Ted Stratton, who was a commercial designer, created the plans for the A-frame structure with the assistance of a Mount Clemens architect. The A-frame design was chosen because it was simple and relatively inexpensive to build. The new Avon Playhouse was built primarily through sweat equity—members performed much of the construction labor themselves, and the professional services of the general contractor were donated.

Ground was broken in December 1964, and the playhouse opened its doors to audiences for the first time on December 3, 1965, for the opening night performance of Inherit the Wind. To furnish the house, Avon Players had purchased discarded chairs from Ridgedale Players for fifty cents each. Some of the women members of Avon Players reupholstered the chairs and they served audiences in the playhouse’s 240-seat house until 1980.

Avon Players’ production of Hunchback of Notre Dame in 2018 (Courtesy of Avon Players)

With a permanent home at last, Avon Players could offer more shows with longer runs. More performances boosted awareness of the organization in the community, and more ticket sales helped the bottom line. But through it all, the membership of Avon Players has remained a family, both literally and metaphorically. Three generations of one member family have been involved in over 60 Avon Players productions to date, and numerous other couples among the membership have involved their children in the organization as well.

In 1964-65, Avon Players addressed the need to train the next generation of community thespians. Members JoAnn Bourez, Jarvis Lamb, and Dorothy Nofelfer launched the Avon Players Youth Theatre. Hansel and Gretel was the first show staged by the Youth Theatre, and it has been followed with a summer production for youth ever since.

Longevity has been a hallmark of Avon Players membership through the decades. Veteran member Jeff Stillman says it is not unusual for someone to participate in a production for the first time and find themselves unable to leave after the show closes. That was how it happened for Stillman himself, he recalled in a recent interview. “How am I going to walk away from this?” he remembers asking himself in 1997 after his first production with Avon Players had wrapped. Like many other members of the group who have been drawn together from diverse backgrounds by a love of theatre, Stillman found a home-away-from-home at Avon Playhouse.

The Avon Playhouse today

Today, Avon Players is governed by a nine-person board of directors and is funded by membership dues, ticket sales, and donations. The organization typically offers a five-show slate each season, including one drama, one comedy, two musicals, and one wildcard production. Avon Players strives to stage a mixture of proven crowd-pleasers and fresh, new offerings to create the widest possible appeal to audiences. This approach works well, in Stillman’s view. “We sell out a lot of shows,” he says. “We are being discovered a lot more by people in the Rochester area.”

Avon Players will open its 75th season on September 24 with Ayn Rand’s courtroom drama, Night of January 16th. More information about upcoming shows and a detailed oral history of Avon Players is available at avonplayers.org.

Check out our Theatre and Stage announcements to find out about live shows coming to the Rochester Area.

Did you participate in an Avon Players production as cast or crew? Do you have a special memory of a show as an audience member? Tell us in the comments.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Vickie Kriewall says

    Another great article from Deborah Larsen.

  2. Mary Lee Kowalczyk says

    Enjoyed this report of one of Rochester’s most wonderful assets. Although I was not a member of Avon Players, I was a supporter and watched many of my friends in their productions. They were marvelous and had many layers of talent. Congratulations to Avon Players. A journey well appreciated by the Rochester community.

  3. Nan Alexandra (Reynolds) Drinkard says

    Great article! Jim and Johnnie Reynolds, my parents, were early members. They had SO much fun! My mom was the lead in Laura and a hatcheck girl in Guys and Dolls. Her photo was on the wall in the bathroom, last time I checked!
    My dad was Dracula, the Lion in Wizard of Oz and his photo, in a toga, is on the wall in Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
    I wanted to join the fun, so I joined Youth Theatre in 1969. I was a giant rook in The Great Cross Country Race, Aunty Em in Wizard of Oz, and many other shows. The highlight of my career was in 1980 when my husband and brother ran lights and my parents and I were ALL in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Our neighbor Dick Bourez led the pit orchestra on piano. That was a really good year!

  4. Pat Wagner says

    My dad Richard McGowan is mentioned in your wonderful article. I’m familiar with many of the names of the Avon Players highlighted above. They were friends of my parents. I loved watching the productions.

  5. David Liggett says

    My Dad (Bob Liggett) was an avid fan of the Avon Players. I can remember him acting in Suddenly Last Summer in the 1960s (I would coach him on his memorization of the lines). I definitely remember that he was in plays with Richard McGowan. My dad also wrote a play that was performed at our barn on our home property on Silver Bell Road. The play performed was In the Shape of A Camel (a line from Hamlet I believe. Those memories are sort of fading. He was also a director of several plays in the sixties. He grew up in Cleveland and was a member of the Cleveland playhouse, a pretty well known professional theatre. When we moved to Rochester he liked the high quality of the plays and acting found here. Your article taught me a lot about the improvements made from that long time ago. Thank you for preparing it. It has enriched this community for so many years.

  6. David Liggett says

    One other memory I had was:

    Another name that I wanted to share that my Dad told me about was a local actor Jerry Dahlman. I am impressed with the research in your fine article.

  7. Walter Graves says

    I remember Helen Morgan. Very talented. I was in a few productions in the early ’70s.

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