About the Beckwith Theatre Company
A History of Commitment to the Arts
During the mid 19th century, Dowagiac grew up alongside the new railroad to the west. Society was booming and boisterous as in any frontier town. Whiskey, plentiful as milk, sold for 3 cents a dipper. At one point, Dowagiac boasted 16 taverns, many of them on South Front Street. Since Michigan law allowed only 10 taverns per village, 6 of them sadly closed their doors on a very prosperous trade.
There was more to entertainment than a full dipper, though. Men challenged each other to billiards in the taverns, while townsfolk danced in the halls above them. Bicycle riding and horse racing were popular, along with the fun of Dowagiac Union Fairs, which featured sleigh rides, fresh oysters, and a variety of carnival booths. On Courtland Street, St. Paul's Episcopal Church hosted concerts and lectures, while the Dowagiac Mandolin Club, the Round Oak Band, and the Beckwith Memorial Theater Orchestra provided musical fare. The Young Men's Hall alternated between political rallies and theatrical performances. But the most splendid contribution to early Dowagiac social life was the Beckwith Memorial Theater.
Built with Round Oak Furnace Company funds, the theater attracted an impressive array of national talent. Lillian Russel sang arias here, and in 1911, John Philip Sousa directed a rousing performance of "The 1812 Overture" and his own "Stars and Stripes Forever."
In January 1990, a group of Dowagiac area residents took steps to revive a part of their heritage by forming the Beckwith Theatre Company, a not-for-profit organization. Initially, over 70 individuals ranging in age from 7 to 70, devoted their time and talents from acting and directing, to painting and hammering, to establish the Beckwith Theatre Company for a new generation.
One of those area residents was Paul Pugh, a member of the first Board of Directors of The Beckwith Theatre. Here is his history of The Beckwith:
The First 25 Years of the Beckwith Theatre Company
by Paul Pugh
It all began innocently enough in the summer of 1990. Gloria Cooper (who had been active in community theater for many years) and I discussed the play The Gin Game and how much we would really like to do it. Unfortunately, the only venue we had at that time was the theater at Southwestern Michigan College. We realized that it would be impossible to stage it there since restrictions had been set against the use of certain words in any production. So she and I and Patrick Spradlin, who was at that time director of theater at the college, came up with a simple plan. We would form a “community theater” in order to do the play. Easy enough, right? We would hold a public meeting where Patrick and Gloria would discuss the feasibility of starting what we thought would be a short-lived project.
Seven o'clock came along with 20–30 interested citizens. The two solid theatre people, Pat and Gloria, did not show and have been AWOL ever since that evening. There I stood, having minimal theatre background, other than being Mr. Dictionary in the sixth grade and two small roles in SMC productions. I don't remember what I mumbled, but someone suggested we form a small exploratory committee. It was formed and our first season began on the third floor of what is now The Wounded Minnow Saloon with flood lights mounted in coffee cans. Being totally disorganized, we thought it might be good to form a working board. The responses we got during our recruitment of potential members ranged from, “I've seen these things come and go,” to “I don't have the time.” Since then, we have had a waiting list of candidates.
Season two almost did not happen. We had no money. Don Frantz and someone else put up a couple of hundred dollars and we hoped for the best. It takes time to build an audience and I think the record low was six ticket holders for one of our productions—which had a cast of ten.
Historical Bits and Pieces
There is one board member still serving from the original board - Tom Hoff.
In twenty-five years, our highest-grossing shows were Children of Eden, Forever Plaid, Always, Patsy Cline, Spring Awakening, and The State of Michigan VS. The House of David. The most profitable show was House of David since we did not have to pay royalties.
The shortest rehearsal time for a production was the 1992 production of The Mousetrap. Two weeks before the show was to open, we checked with the director to see how it was shaping up. The director had not even held auditions. After assembling almost a full cast, Karen Pugh's nephew, who had previously performed the main role, came in from New York and we pulled it off.
We usually make a little money with our productions, but this big building's utilities and insurance eat it up quickly. As a non-profit 501 c3 corporation, we really do not “own” anything. If we were ever to close our doors, we must distribute our assets to another 501 c3 corporation. Strange, but that is the law in Michigan.
Goofs, Mishaps and Other Anecdotes
One of the main characters in Prelude to a Kiss completely zoned out and rambled on, only occasionally referring to the script, and after several excruciating minutes exited with the line “That's all I have to say about that!”, leaving a bewildered fellow actor on stage to “tap dance and fart” as one says in the theater.
A performance of the The Mousetrap should have been an engrossing mystery, but it was somewhat dampened when a main character skipped several lines of dialogue and then uttered, “I forgot to find the gun behind the pillow.”
In the last show of All My Sons I forgot to tell Jack Gannon, playing tortured patriarch Joe Keller, that I had clicked the safety on the gun that fired a blank cartridge. When he exited to shoot himself, the gun would not fire. In desperation, he loudly knocked over a folding chair. We decided that he had either hanged himself or jumped from an upstairs window.
We once received an irate call from a patron at the library that a nun was smoking a cigarette outside our front door. Nunsense was the production running at that time.
Our second production of Lone Star had just begun when the power failed. The show continued by using several flashlights. The audience thoroughly enjoyed it.
Rich Frantz remembers that during the climactic scene of the first act of Sleuth, Max Sala was supposed to shoot and kill Dave Tushla. Dave was crying and Max dramatically placed the gun to his head and squeezed the trigger. Nothing. There was no shot. During the profound silence that followed, Max and Dave both said that the audience could hear the exasperated director backstage utter, “Shit!” Max was able to make an adjustment and the gun fired, killing Dave. Fortunately, the act ended before Max and Dave broke into laughter backstage.
In a performance of Squabbles, Jeff Gunn dropped a tray of champagne-filled glasses when the audience found out that the wife was pregnant. That was probably also the night we were visited by a resident brown bat.
It was a rehearsal of Laughter on the 23rd Floor, but worth reporting that when Max Sala threw the character Ira on the writer's table, it broke in half.
When we did a variety show called Vaudeville in 1990, nine-year-old Sean Anderson was supposed to open the show by running down the aisle shouting, “Extra, extra read all about it!” Where was he? Fast asleep in the hallway.
One of our board members liked to go to auctions where he would buy set pieces we might use. The one thing he returned with that I doubt will ever find a use for was a bowling ball.
Costuming that is difficult to find? Hard to believe, but vintage men's hats, shoes, and women's dresses that are large enough to fit today's bodies.
Extra paper mâché tines were added to the mounted deer head in Escanaba in Love to make the Soady Ridge Buck more impressive.
“Snowflakes” are instant potatoes.
We sometimes have a stray bat fly across the stage whenever a particular door is left open upstairs. Did it happen during the production of Dracula? Of course not.
You handymen in the audience probably suspected that spirit levels are not used in set construction. You are correct.
The most ambitious sets? I would nominate Nunsense for the ‘57 Chevy wheeled onstage; The Apartment, where the audience entered the theatre through an apartment door and the play was done in an apartment with the audience sitting in the round; and Mass Appeal that had a 10-feet high stained glass window. Not ambitious, but unique, was Prelude to a Kiss which featured various sizes of cardboard boxes as constructs for the different sets.
The shit hit the fans with Yasmina Reza’s Art. Art probably had the most four-letter words.
Worst things we have ever done? Old timers at Beckwith refer to “the Irish plays” whenever we discuss bombs. Those would be The Leprechaun and Riders to the Sea in our first year. Lives of the Saints done by students also ranks toward the top (or is it the bottom?)
Are there really ghosts in the theatre? Theatre tradition believes that a light must be left on backstage for theatre ghosts. I can only report what others and myself have seen or heard while here alone. More than once someone downstairs has heard music upstairs. There was nothing or nobody here. Gary Hood first reported seeing a small girl huddled in a blanket on the landing at the bottom of the stairs in entryway. Others have also seen this. She is named Daisy as determined by a Ouija board session. Even on the hottest day when there is no A/C, the hall leading into the basement is several degrees cooler. The plot of land where the theatre stands was once occupied by a building where the first orphan train children were distributed in Dowagiac. There were happy stories from these “adoptions” and unhappy as well. A few adventurous souls used a Ouija board and performed an amateur séance in the basement. They left early and would not tell what occurred. This building was a church for almost one hundred years and was the site of funerals before it became popular to hold them at a funeral home. If you hear squeaks and bumps while at the Beckwith or feel a presence behind or beside you, remember it is an old building.
We love to hear: “I saw professionals do this. You were better.” I heard this in regard to Forever Plaid, Always, Patsy Cline, and Art.
Most touching comment after a show? An eighty-year-old lady was in tears when she said, “I have never been to live theater. I didn't know what I was missing.”
We have had at least eight Beckwith folks go on to work in professional theatre. Unable to hide their light, they also worked with other theatre groups besides Beckwith. Their honors and achievements are too numerous to cite here. Most, if not all, can be found on IMDB (Internet Movie Database—Google “IMDB Nick Westrate” for example).
Aislinn Frantz–Dramaturge (basically someone who can do anything)