Molly Crusen Bishop: Fond memories of Corn Stock; proud of its diversity

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The tall, green, curly slide standing tall amidst the trees is my first memory of upper Bradley Park. The next is around age 5, losing one of my cool new Buster Brown shoes with the shark tooth attached on the thick brown shoe string in the sandbox.  I ran around in my cute Garanimals searching for that shoe.  I never did find that shoe. 

But my best memories begin with ushering under Corn Stock Theatre’s magnificent tent with my mom, Joani Crusen. Thursday nights became Joani Crusen and friends night for me, as it was listed in the programs.

Every summer as I grew, every Thursday, every show became something I longed for. Arriving early to stand at your designated ramp to pass out the programs and to guide the guests to their seats was an important job to this little girl.

I went on so many magical adventures in that tent. There was popcorn during intermission after dropping my quarters in the cup for a donation. I loved walking with my bag of popcorn over to the ticket booth to see the pictures of the show’s stars up on the wall. I would see the house lights flash on and off, signaling to the crowd to return to the live music and dancing. I loved seeing the actors’ faces as they made you feel a part of the story.

After the show it was fun talking to the cast and sometimes recognizing the familiar thespians. The conclusion of the night was also fantastic. Should we go to Hunt’s and throw some coins in the bubbling fountain, and eat a tenderloin with ketchup only?  Or should I get the Tiny Tiger Hamburger and a vanilla soda?  We would rotate between Hunt’s on Farmington Road. and Lum’s up on Western.  Lum’s would mean a child size hot fudge sundae and sitting in a special booth. I am sure many Peorians share similar memories.

Into the next couple of decades I had the privilege to see my dearest friend Erica Franken play many roles including Peggy Sawyer in “42nd Street.”  She auditioned on her 17th birthday for “42nd Street” and got the lead.  She was such a young triple threat.  She could act, sing, and dance like nobody’s business, and now runs a successful dance school in her home in Brimfield called The Tap Shack. She is also a professional choreographer for many charity events, including the most recent one for CASA. Anyone who has ever seen her on stage will never forget her or her energy. My favorite role she ever played was a dog in “Sylvia.” She took on the role and lived up to the challenge making you forget a human was panting and peeing over there in the corner. With her long brown hair in side pony tails and kneepads to walk around like a dog, one began to see her as Sylvia the dog.

Moving along the trail of nostalgia, into the 1990s my oldest daughter Amanda (Bishop) Maddalozzo, then 8, caught the acting bug, beginning at Corn Stock Theatre. She auditioned and was then cast as an orphan in “Annie,” with Steve Bertolotti directing. This classic favorite musical was the only time my ailing father saw her on stage.  My Dad, Don Crusen, was a tall and stoic man and my hero in life and he appreciated music. With a twinkle in her eyes and zest in her dancing during “It’s A Hard Knocked Life,” Amanda and the orphans, brought my father to tears with pure joy and pride. Incidentally, Erica’s daughter Toni played little Molly. Years later my younger daughter Maggie Bishop followed in Amanda’s footsteps in “Music Man” at CST, directed by Peggy Breaux Hupp.

Further along the path Amanda and Maggie encountered a nice young man named Bryan Blanks, and they did many shows together, including “Oliver” at Peoria Players Theater. In 2011 Amanda and Maggie and I were all lucky enough to do “Annie” with Bryan at Peoria Players Theater, directed by Mary Ellen Ulrich.  Bryan played the fun and sleazy role of Rooster. I was in awe of his wonderful crooning and eloquent dancing.                                                                                         

Bryan’s connection to Corn Stock began years earlier after auditioning and then being cast colorblind for a role in “Carousel.” Colorblind casting is when a director chooses to forgo casting per the ethnicity of the part. He said being cast in this role gave him much confidence in the future. “Carousel” was a pivotal show in his life. 

Corn Stock and Peoria Players became Bryan’s second homes for more than a decade. The casts, directors, backstage crews, and choreographers became his second family. Bryan said his favorite place to perform or direct is at CST because of the round theater. The audience is close-up in such an intimate space and he said that forces you to be a better actor, dancer, and singer when the eyes and presence of the audience actually becomes part of the energy of the show.  As a director, he said it pushes you to be more creative and innovative with the cast and props, and thinking outside of the box to get the scenes done in a flowing way.

CST is a wonderful theater and does traditional favorites, as well as taking chances on edgier shows such as “Bare” from last year, and most recently “Heathers,” at the Corn Stock Winter Playhouse.

CST has a mission to promote the arts and also use educational components as part of the process. This theater system has made wonderful memories for thousands of Peorians for almost 63 years. Peoria’s population is drastically different than 20 years ago and Corn Stock Theatre is making some big changes, part of which I will tell you about next.  

Why is “Carousel,” education and promotion of the arts, traditional shows, edgy shows, my nostalgia, Peoria’s diverse population, and Bryan Blanks so important in my little trip down memory lane?

Bryan Blanks has just been elected the first African American president of Corn Stock Theatre. Bryan and others with the workshops, tent, and Winter Playhouse are working to incorporate diversity into the theater. The city of Peoria is blessed that Bryan auditioned forCarousel” all those years ago. He is part of a push and an energy of forward thinking, planning, and purpose. CST wants to be all inclusive and bring all Peorians together.

Corn Stock Theatre is theater for all Peorians.

“It is happening right before our eyes. CST is embracing diversity on so many levels and seeing consistent shows that call for diverse casting, seeing diverse audiences, and in leadership roles within the organization. In the span of one year we will have seen three African American directors, three African American choreographers, president, and even more African American committee members in leadership,” Bryan said.

Bryan walked into the auditions for this year’s “The Color Purple” and said he had chills up his spine to see and know that more than 80 African Americans auditioned for this show. He said it was astounding every night to see a whole new segment of Peoria’s population attending each and every show throughout the entire run of the show. This show led to more minorities auditioning for even more shows, gaining confidence and trusting in the new consistent push for wanting to keep diversity coming into the theater. 

He mentioned “Once On This Island,” performed as the Corn Stock For Kids fall show, as a multi-ethnic show with “Hair,” “Brigadoon,” and “Grease” using colorblind casting, opening once traditionally white roles to all.  This, he said, opens up even more opportunities for minorities to be included. 

There are many minorities besides Bryan in this vision working equally as hard and bringing their hearts to the table.  “The Color Purple” was co-directed by Sharon Samuels Reed and Molly Burroughs and choreographed by Taunya Jenkins. CST has been involved in the Trewyn School Partnership for the past three and a half years. Pamela Rumba is the School Resource Coordinator for this. There has been a partnership made that was developed in which students from Trewyn School could attend productions at no cost. These students also attended The Corn Stock for Kids summer camp with scholarships given by Corn Stock.

Most of these children are African American. Many went on to be involved on stage in summer shows at the tent, including “The Wiz” in 2013 and “The Color Purple.” Paula and Aleisha Graves are mother and daughter leaders within CST who recently directed and choreographed “Once On This Island.”

The students from Trewyn are grateful for their experience with CST because live theater made a huge impact on them.

In 2013 Bryan Blanks invited the older Trewyn kids to auditon for “The Wiz” and they were cast in a tent show and seamlessly integrated into the theater.  “Corn Stock Theatre is truly becoming an accurate representation of our community as a whole. All walks of Peoria are now being represented,” he said.

He is also forward-thinking and cementing the diversity into the permanent fabric of CST. In the summer of 2016 CST will feature the musical “Memphis,” which has a multi-ethnic cast. Bryan believes educating youth about CST and asking them to participate in live theatre will make them enduring patrons who support the arts. The children will be included long-term as performers, patrons, and feel more of a part of the Peoria theater communities. This in turn will leave our future arts programming in Peoria filled to the brim with diversity.

Corn Stock Theatre has three programs. The tent is in its 63rd season, the Winter Playhouse in its 38th and Corn Stock for Kids is in its 18th season. CST is keeping traditional shows  ̶  classical musicals that we all love  ̶  while doing edgier and modern shows and adding inclusive shows for people from all walks of life. I am proud of Bryan Blanks and I see his hope and big ideas and I see the bigger picture.

Thank you Bryan. 

I have so many heart- warming memories of CST from my childhood. I am thrilled that children from all walks of Peoria life will now share in that nostalgia. There is room on the Peoria theatre carousel for us all.

About the Author
Molly is a life-long Peorian and an author, speaker, and storyteller. She is married to Doug Bishop and has five children and one grandchild. Molly loves history and Peoria and loves to share her passions with anyone she can get to listen to her. She loves to research, interview, and write or speak about history. The youngest and ninth child of Don and Joani Crusen, she grew up on the West Bluff in the house her great grandparents built in the 1880s. She writes a historical column in Woman’s View magazine, and will be writing a column called The Peorian Perspective in The Peorian.