Thursday, September 22, 2005

Portland Players celebrate 75th season

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (Sep 22, 2005): As the curtain rises Friday evening at the Portland Players in South Portland, the historic theater will be starting its 75th season, with residents of Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth and South Portland appearing throughout the show, as always.

The theater opened in 1931 as the Portland Dramatic Guild in a playhouse in Portland. No productions were performed from 1942 to 1946 as a result of World War II, but after the war the theater came back to life.

“When I first came here it was the only show in town – that and the symphony,” said Betty Longbottom, who has been involved with the theater since the 1950s.

“We’ve just kept going and going,” said Longbottom, now the theater’s vice president for artistic development.

The theater world has changed in Maine. Now, “the competition for the theatrical dollar is fierce,” she said.

In the late 1960s, the theater, which had been in a building on Preble Street in Portland, was told by the landlord that it would have to move.

“Before we knew it the seats were gone," Longbottom said.

She was in the last show in the Preble Street theater – “Fallen Angels” by Noel Coward – and the first one in its home ever since, a former movie theater on Cottage Road in South Portland, “Royal Gambit” by Hermann Gressieker.

The theater has never had an endowment, but has managed to keep going year-to-year. “There were times when we would worry about it, but we’re still hanging in there,” said Longbottom, who recently moved to Portland from a home in Cape Elizabeth near the South Portland line.

A key has been finding good directors who know how to cast, she said. That has remained constant, though audience demands have changed.

The theater used to do two musicals a season, and now does three. “Straight plays are not that well attended,” Longbottom said.

Donations and ticket sales used to cover most of the expenses, but the theater is now seeking grants for projects, including roof repair.

And they know “anything with kids in it is going to sell,” she said.

Jean Maginnis, a South Portland resident who is on the theater’s board of trustees, got involved through her son, who is now 21 and a college senior studying theater.

When he was 12, Maginnis was looking for a summer activity for him that he could walk to. Having gotten so much from the theater, “I feel like I need to give back,” she said.

There are no longer any summer kids’ programs, but Maginnis is considering restarting them.

As it is, of the 49 people in “Oliver!” which opens Friday, about half are kids, who “have given up most of their summers,” Maginnis said. Their parents have, too, driving them to and from rehearsals.

She is planning a large celebration event in April, and at that time may kick off an endowment fund-raising drive.

The charm of the theater is the local people in it, she said. “It’s your insurance man by day who comes out in a costume and sings and dances by night.”

In another 75 years, the theater may still be performing the shows now considered classics: “Nobody’s writing anything,” Longbottom said.

But there are always new possibilities. The upcoming season includes the theater’s first-ever production of “Gypsy” and its first female version of “The Odd Couple.”

“We do it because we love it,” Maginnis said.

Local cast members in “Oliver!” are:

From Cape Elizabeth, Sam Spicer, Alanah Lockwood, Ana Ryden, Griffin Carpenter, Tim Hartel, Chris Bowman and Brianna Bowman;

From Scarborough: Stephanie Hughes, Martha Lopez, Colin Swords and Owen Kelley;

From South Portland: Lisa Rockwell, Jaimie Schwartz, Jamie Lupien, Jennifer Eaton-Burke, Eliza Schwartz, Ali Schwartz, Jonny Lewis, Jack Cutler, William Cleaves and Mark Crawford.