Members of Lake City Arts were in the mood to celebrate last Friday evening, June 29, as the humanities organization fondly looked back on notable successes it has achieved during the past quarter century.
Nattily-dressed arts board members were attentive as servers at a sold-out, 72-seat roast chicken dinner which was preceded by cocktails and amiable chatter in the outdoor courtyard.
Later in the evening, the festivities adjourned to Mary Stigall Theater as master of ceremonies Phil Virden donned a silver striped vest to “laugh and reminisce.”
Although laughter and smiles were prevalent, it was thunderous applause from the audience which repeatedly greeted a smorgasbord of local talent appearing on stage.
In his remarks from the stage, John Parker recalled the evolution of the humanities in Lake City dating back to the 1970s as he and his Golden Fleece Construction crew renovated a series of rundown commercial buildings in downtown Lake City.
Key for Parker, he recalled, was the present-day headquarters of Lake City Arts in the two-story brick Hough Block. This was the location of the initial Black Crooke Theater which hosted the Chamber Music Festival and served as home base for Carolyn Lee’s innovative local history theatrical, “Beyond All Measure.”
Parker’s evocative remarks served as a succinct overview of recent Lake City history and are reprinted in their entirety at the conclusion of this article.
Also from the stage, long-time Lake City Arts supporter Helen Dewey received applause in announcing Lake City Arts’ creation of a fellowship honoring the organization’s late founder, Mary Stigall. As explained by Dewey, the Stigall Fellowship will fund a nationally-based director to be drawn from the theater department of a college or university.
This individual, she explained, will conduct a theater week to be held in Lake City during the school year. Much like the successful “Music Matters” program which includes both public school students and the community at different times of the year, the director of the proposed theater week program would also involve the community-at-large during annual summer visits.
Among those applauding Dewey’s announcement of the creation of the Mary Stigall Fellowship was her daughter, Amy Stigall Hindman, from Nebraska, who was among those seated in the theater named in her mother’s honor.
Bob Johns, who serves on the arts council board and was instrumental in developing the arts center’s women’s club-funded catering kitchen in Anthony Gallery, noted his near-life-long seasonal association with Lake City which he said is a “beautiful town in paradise.”
While basking in the glow of the organization’s past successes, John concluded by saying, “and now it’s time to put our hands together and clap for the future.”
In his opening remarks at the start of the gala evening, Lake City Arts President Dan Wampler noted the “elegance which surrounds us” and referred to the organization’s quarter-century “legacy which we can look to.”
Wampler, a 12-year resident of Lake City, received cheers and hearty applause in crediting the efforts of a succession of Lake City Arts’ presidents starting with its founder, Mary Stigall, and continuing through the tenures of Lake City Arts presidents Warner Dewey, Ed Campbell and John Smith.
Also thanked by Wampler were Donna Waller, who serves as culinary arts director for the organization, and gala committee members Bob Johns, Peggy Bales and Kerry and John Coy.
Serving as obsequious and attentive servers at the gala dinner were Wampler, Waller, Bales, Johns and the Coys, joined by fellow arts directors Celeste Scott, Dave Davault, David Palmer, Jim Rowe, and Don Farmer.
Gala attendees were enjoyably guided down memory lane with a succession of musical reprisals which took place on the theater stage, beginning with nationally-acclaimed David Palmer who performed Rachmaninoff’s ‘Prelude in e-flat major’ on the theater’s concern grand piano.
Recollections of Lake City Arts’ 2004 and 2009 productions of “Always, Patsy Cline” were enjoyably brought to mind by vocal renditions of “Crazy” and “Two Cigarettes and an Ashtray” performed by Julie Rothschild and Cindy Bissell, piano accompaniment by Leo Jo Lowry.
Exuberant Lakette Dancers and Magdalene Dance Troupe brought the audience to its feet with “Clap Your Hands” and “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me,” two popular and energetic dance numbers performed on the Lake City stage from 2007 through 2014.
A melodious highlight of the gala evening’s entertainment was a vocal reunion of original members of the “Magic Cabaret” dance, vocal and humorous skit group which was successively directed by Lloyd Lebow and Claire Jessee between 1995 and 2005.
Both Lebow and Jessee were present for occasion,
Lebow recalling that in its initial inspiration Cabaret members were “encouraged to step out of the box.” Claire Jessee noted that the highly creative and adaptive Cabaret shows “embodied the spirit of Lake City Arts.”
The reunion troupe’s vocal selections “Steppin’ Out on Broadway” and “The Way We Were” were followed by a slide show featuring vignettes of cast members, prepared by Jess Young.
Following is text of John Parker’s recollections on the initial inspiration for the start of what was to become Lake City Arts, dating back to the 1970s:
Thank you to the Arts Council for giving me the opportunity to talk about the early years of the Black Crooke Theater. Pardon me for reading most of it, I am too damn old to remember all these details.
I realize this may appear somewhat narcissistic, which it may be, but I believe it is important to remember what has gone before to appreciate what we have.
Some background to explain why I thought a theater was important: Ann and I moved here in May, 1976, after being involved with Up With People since its inception in 1965. It is an international educational non-profit that travels all over the world with an international cast performing shows and doing community service projects.
They have performed four times in the Armory. As a result of that experience, we felt strongly that a community to be complete needs an arts component.
The Hough Building when I bought it was in very bad shape. The second floor was covered with buckets to catch water coming through the roof. The basement was filled with clinkers from the coal-fired boiler. All the plumbing and wiring had to be replaced and the support structure you see above you needed to be redone to keep the second floor from bouncing up and down.
Bob Hall designed it and all the experts said it wouldn’t work, but it did. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the guys — sorry, ladies, it was the 70s — who are still here who worked for Golden Fleece Construction and did the hard work to restore the Hough Building. The structure as we see it is actually two separate buildings, both of which were built by Lake City pioneer John S. Hough.
Thanks for the renovation project going to past Golden Fleece crew members Jimmy Milski, Danny Milski, Bruce Vierheller, Allen Brown, Michael Glasscock, Jerry Gray, Eric Larson, Charley Curtis, Henry Woods, and Richard Dunham.
Since this was going to be a multi-year project, the initial theater activity started in the summer of 1976 with the Popcorn Palace which was located where Russ Brown is now.
Popcorn Palace creators were Louis and Sally Harris. Louis was the choir director of Sam Houston High School in Arlington, Texas. He would put together a selection of songs, dance and comedy routines that student volunteers from his school and neighborhood would rehearse, then come and perform. They had a very successful run for six summers until I decided to charge them a modest rent.
Mike and Stella Pavich owned the Hough Building from the 1930s and ran various businesses over the years. When I bought it, Stella was running a grocery store where the theater is now. They used the elevated room in the back of what was to become the Black Crooke Theater to project movies for the community. The two projectors that they used are now in the lobby of the Mountaineer Theatre. This elevated portion of the building was the perfect place for lighting, sound and projection booth. The raised stage was based on many I had seen around the world.
The idea for the name of the theater came from the venerable Smokey Swanson. He was an encyclopedia of knowledge about the mining history in Hinsdale County. When I told him about the theater, he said why don’t you name it after the Black Crooke Mine above Lake San Cristobal. It was named after a famous French play by that name that toured the United States. It featured the first African as a lead actress, Thus we could tie together local mining history and theater history.
One thing to keep in mind, during the 1970s Hinsdale County was the second least populated county in the country.
Opening of the Black Crooke Theater was Tuesday, July 24, 1979, when Summertree Players presented “Fourposter”.
Quoting from the SILVER WORLD, “The Black Crooke, the renovation and construction of which has been under Jim Milski, will offer a stage measuring 22’ x 18’ and seating capacity of approximately 200. Its lighting system installed and overseen by Gary Wysocki includes sophisticated computerized dimmer system and other innovations completely new to Lake City.”
Gary Wysocki was a stage manager with Up With People (UWP) for a number of years with Ann and me. He and his wife moved here after they left the road. He was able to arrange for us to purchase a used lighting system from UWP at reasonable price and had the knowledge how to install and run it.
Next year you can celebrate the 40th anniversary of the theater opening. You always need a fundraising event.
In 1979 the first Chamber Music Festival took place sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce at the instigation of Bill Hall.
The idea was presented to Bill by Michael Palmer, Conductor of the Wichita Orchestra and Guest Conductor of the Houston Symphony. His dream was to have a summer music festival in a relaxed vacation atmosphere. He brought members of the Wichita and Houston orchestras to perform five nights the first year. The program was a huge success.
The Chamber decided it wasn’t in their wheel house to sponsor it again, so the first Lake City Arts & Humanities Council was formed. Guess who was the first President? Yep, it was Phil Virden. He has been working for this community for a long, long time. The other members were Bob Hall, Irene Weems, Ruthanna Hall, Jani Landry, Carolyn Virden, Eileen Olander, Michael Palmer, and Up With People expats Belen Davila, Gary and Jean Wysocki, and yours truly.
The council sponsored the Chamber Music Festival for five years. They hired Ann Schumaker to coordinate the activities. After the last Music Festival, that council faded into the woodwork.
One of Ann’s ideas was to bring theater students from Western State for the summer to put on plays. They were staying at the tourist cabins at the San Juan Ranch which was owned by the Parkers, Halls, Virdens and Anthonys. I can’t remember anything about their plays but I do remember getting a call that they were chasing each other between the cabins as naked as Jay Birds.
By the next summer, I realized that except for some music and art events, all the theater was being done by outsiders. I contacted my good friend Carolyn Lee — another Up With People alum who has a PhD in Radio, Television, Film and Theater History — to write and direct a light-hearted play about the history of Lake City to be performed using local talent.
To quote Carolyn: “The goal was to provide entertainment, to provide the audience with a pleasant and fun way to spent an evening. Of course, at the same time we will be passing along interesting historical information.” This was done with slides, skits, and songs performed by locals. Opening in the summer of 1981 for an initial three-year run, it was very popular and successful.
Carolyn Lee told me she almost had a stroke when she realized that no one had any acting experience. Beyond All Measure returned the summer of 1987, marking the last of Carolyn’s seven years as Theater Director.
The first run of Beyond All Measure was succeeded in 1984 by a 650-slide presentation of the history of Lake City called In the Shadow of Uncompahgre put together by Gary Wysocki with materials from Lyn Lampert, Phil Virden and the SILVER WORLD. It went on to be shown in the Mountaineer Theatre.
For the summers of 1985 through 1987, the Kuntz Brothers Darryl and Frank and their wives, Lynn and Sandy, put on their very professional and entertaining Vaudeville Show.
For three years, Dr. Epperly, who was a theater professor at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, brought his theater students to perform in the theater. They stayed in rooms above the theater.
The productions I have mentioned were the longer lasting major productions during this time period. Intermingled were other plays, art shows, Christmas school plays, and musical events.
In conclusion, I would like to thank some people, first my wife who was very supportive of me spending a lot of money on this facility and efforts that didn’t pan out to get the arts up and running.
I would like to thank Grant Houston for not only keeping us aware of our historical history but documenting the present as well.
Carolyn Virden, my associate of 30 years, who had her hand in the restoration, construction and the productions. Without her detailed organizational skills, many things would not have happened. She also gave the initial support to Mary Stigall when she came up to our office with the idea to start the Arts Council for which you are celebrating the 25th year.
I would like to thank Jack and Kathy Moseley, and Jim and Jane Anthony for picking up the burden of taking care of this beautiful historical building.
Thank you all here for supporting the Arts and to past and current Arts Council Board Members for carrying on the work that started 39 years ago.
— John Parker