Peoria Players celebrates 95 years

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In 1957-58, Peoria Players produced only one show and did it as a traveling show while the company's current theatre on North University Street was under construction.

It may not have seemed all that significant at the time, but it is today as Peoria Players Theatre celebrates 95 consecutive years of entertaining the Peoria area with musicals, dramas, comedies and special events. It is the longest continually operating community theatre in Illinois and the fourth longest in the United States.

On Saturday, for one night only, about 30 of the performers who have graced the Peoria Players stage will present a revue of those 95 years in an on-stage celebration that will bring its audience much nostalgia as well as a reminder of the load of talent that exists and has long existed in Peoria.

"Our purpose is to give our theatre folks the chance to celebrate with our audience, our faithful theatre goers that will know many of the songs we're doing and may even remember when some of them were done," said Peoria Players business manager Nicki Haschke. "It just really promises to be a fun evening."

From the opening number that reminds the audience that "There's No Business Like Show Business" to the ending piece "What I Did For Love" that the full ensemble will perform, there will be solos, ensembles, dance numbers and ballads that have been performed at Players once or more over the years.

The show begins at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and tickets are on sale now for $20.

Performers will include Cheri Beever, Bryan Blanks, Steve Bortolotti, Barb Couri, Erica Franken, Megan Manley, Katie McLuckie, Mike Reams, Roger Roemer, Michelle Steffen-Rouland, Bruce and Pat White.

Lee Wenger, who recently charmed audiences in "Fiddler on the Roof," will perform a piece from that show. Also, the cast of "Godspell," which was an audience favorite this past season, will perform songs from that show. Its director, Cheryl Dawn Koenig, who has performed in and directed many shows on the Peoria Players stage, will be making her final appearance there before relocating to another part of the country.

And Jerry Johnson, long a favorite of Peoria audiences who portrayed just about every leading man role through the years, will make his first appearance on a local stage in a decade.

In between songs Bruce White will narrate the theatre's history while photographs appear on the big screen behind the performers.

"Everybody in this show is so talented and we've had so much fun putting it together," said Haschke, who is coordinating the show along with Jimmy Ulrich. "It truly has been a group effort."

Peoria Players was founded in October 1919 when a play called "The Maker of Dreams" was staged. As it turns out, the theatre has been making dreams for nearly a century, which is why Haschke believes the anniversary should be shared with an audience.

"Without audiences we wouldn't be here and they have been so supportive through the years. Technically, this is also a fundraiser. But really, it's a celebration," she said.

Noting she had been involved in Peoria Players much of her life, including the last 21 as its manager, Haschke said, "This theatre has always given a people a chance to dream and live their dream. Most of us work our eight-hour day and here, people can come and perform and do something they've always dreamed of doing. That's what we're about and that's what we want to celebrate."

The 95th season of Peoria Players opens in September with one of Broadway's biggest blockbusters, "Les Miserable," directed by Connie Sinn.

Season tickets are on sale for $90 for the six shows, including four musicals. For more information or to order tickets call Saturday's show or for the 95th season, call (309) 688-4473 or visit www.peoriaplayers.org.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).