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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: A Favorite Story: Early Peninsula Players actor connects to world

Sam Wanamaker inspired Shakespeare’s Globe in London
Sam Wanamaker
Sam Wanamaker
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

PHOTO: A bronze plaque shows former Peninsula Players actor Sam Wanamaker and iconic playwright William Shakespeare, who are bonded by the re-created Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. Warren Gerds photo

GREEN BAY, WISC., (WFRV) – Since joining WFRV, this is a story I’ve been eager to tell.

It’s an update about Sam Wanamaker, an actor who has international impact. His first professional acting job was in Northeastern Wisconsin. Today, because of him, thousands of people come to London, England, to experience William Shakespeare plays in a theater built in the fashion – exact fashion – of the original Globe Theatre of Shakespeare’s era more than 400 years ago.

I visited Shakespeare’s Globe during construction in 1995. Wood beams from a massive storm that knocked down giant trees were being re-purposed. A woman by the name a Thatcher headed up the installation of the roof – a thatched roof. Interesting.

I returned the next year in the week leading up to the Globe’s opening. The place was abuzz because royalty would attend in a few days.

At the time, I didn’t think the theater would last. It was a futile attempt, I thought. It’s an open-air theater with a limited season. The place seats more than 800 people, but a key part of its concept was to require up to 700 patrons to stand – in the manner of the Shakespeare period – for hours while watching a play. And how much clout does the sometimes-hard-to-decipher Shakespeare have these days anyway? I figured the theater would struggle along for a few years and vanish. Poof.

Wrong.

Even after I returned in 1999 when the Globe was up and running with a few seasons under its belt, I wondered whether it could last. But on it went.

Returning this year, I saw that Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is a growing complex that attracts people from all over creation to eagerly soak up the atmosphere of a world-class facility. The site includes the theater (for plays and tours), a museum (history of London, Shakespeare and early plays), restaurants and an ambiance of being a vital place of interest to thousands of people. Piquing my interest was new construction, which now causes me to turn in this writing to Sam Wanamaker.

Sam Wanamaker was active on both sides of the Atlantic. His career included directing and acting on stage and screen. His most famous movie roles were in “Judgment in Berlin” (1988), “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” (1987), “Private Benjamin” (1980), “Death on the Nile” (1978) and “Taras Bulba” (1962).

Of great significance to this story is that Sam Wanamaker was an actor who graced the stage of Peninsula Players Theatre in Fish Creek in 1937, two years after the Players started.

And today, Sam Wanamaker is revered at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre because he was its inspiration.

He was “the crazy American” who made it happen.

The story goes that he went to London in the 1949 and couldn’t find a theater rooted in Shakespeare. He went on a mission that led to the building of the present-day theater. Wanamaker died before Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre opened, but he certainly hasn’t been forgotten.

Under construction at the site is Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The 300-seat theater is due to open in January and offer plays and concerts. It will make the Globe complex a year-around center.

References to Sam Wanamaker can be found around the Globe site. Search and you can find his name among the bricks of donors and honorees and see that he has a “CBE” following his name. That stands for Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Not many Americans hold that distinction.

I was witness to another honor of which Sam Wanamaker was unaware. Prior to a 1999 performance of “Julius Caesar,” a man announced his name to the maître d’ at a restaurant attached to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. He said it loud and clear for all to hear: “Wanamaker.” It was Sam’s brother – with strong family resemblance – who had come to experience what was taking place. Later, prior to the performance, William Wanamaker roamed through the seating area of the theater taking photographs of the place from many angles. It was fascinating to see a brother’s pride in tangible form.

Peninsula Players Theatre also takes pride in its connection to Sam Wanamaker and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

As you enter the Door County theater, displayed to the right side of the entrance doors is a bronze plaque. The plaque shows an image of Sam Wanamaker, the Peninsula Players logo, an image of William Shakespeare, the Globe Theatre logo, the signature of each man under his image, while over the top edge runs the Shakespeare line, “All the world’s a stage.” A duplicate plaque was given to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

Sam Wanamaker helped with the construction of the Players theater structure that once stood on the site of the present theater.

He recalled hauling gravel, sand and concrete. “We built the foundation for the walls,” he said in the early 1990s.

Sam Wanamaker’s hands-on work at the Players resonates with today’s leaders at the company.

Greg Vinkler, Players artistic director: “I LOVE the connection that links Peninsula Players to Sam Wanamaker and the Globe Theatre in London. That his first paying job was at the Players and that his life led him from here to a wonderful career which culminated in such an amazing realization of a dream is a spectacular journey.”

Brian Kelsey, Players managing director: “I would like to think that his experience in the fabrication of the theater on our current property stayed with him his entire life and that that experience played a role in his desire to re-create Shakespeare’s Globe. When I speak of experience, I mean that understanding of creating something greater than the individual – something that will have permanence – something to give to future generations.”

Kelsey added, “I also see it as a beautiful bookend to Sam’s life and career. He was such a young man when he was part of the 1937 company at the Players and built the theater. And then near the end of his life – although he didn’t know it at the time – he once again builds a theater to last long into the future. To me, that is the significance – that an experience in the woods of Door County perhaps led one man to rebuild the theater of the greatest playwright in history. That is pride. And pride is one of the GREAT things we hope our company takes away from here each season. Pride in the creation of art whether that art is that of an actor, a production staff member, an intern, a groundskeeper/bartender, a cook, a box office manager, an artistic director, a designer or a member of the administrative team.”

Sam Wanamaker’s affinity for Peninsula Players Theatre is documented in Players records: He wrote, “What romantic memories! So many firsts – first play, first car wreck, first passionate unrequited love affair, first star-filled nights, first Northern Lights… It was a beautiful time which I shall always cherish.”

In the Players’ archives are programs from the six-play 1937 season. He called himself Samuel Wanamaker at the time and was credited with having previously performed with the Globe Theatre Players and the Institute Players in Chicago. His Players roles were Sir Wilfull Witwoud in “The Way of the World” (from 1700), Wesley Cartwright in “Post Road,” a photographer and Floyd Gibbons in “When in Rome,” Arthur Westlake in “Goodbye Again” and the Rev. Canon Chasuble in Oscar Wilde’s famed “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

Photographs from 1937 show a shirtless Sam Wanamaker rehearsing with actress Caroline Fisher, who co-founded the Players.

Sam Wanamaker also speaks of his unrequited love affair and the romance of Door County in “Two Planks and a Passion,” a documentary history of the Players that continues to be shown at the beginning of season at professional company.

Among the past Players actors in the documentary perhaps the best known is Harvey Korman. For many years, he starred on TV’s “The Carol Burnett Show.” Korman generated howls of laughter in skits opposite Burnett and longtime sidekick Tim Conway.

Kelsey said “Two Planks and a Passion” is shown to incoming interns, the production team and new and returning actors for a number of reasons.

“The first is to give them an understanding of where they are, what came before them and what we hope they will continue into the future,” Kelsey said. “The history at the Players is such a strong part of who we are and what has led us to survive for 78 seasons. There have been so many well-known and lesser-known individuals who have walked these ‘planks’ both as actors and part of the production team that created the world in which the actors lived. Those individuals went on to make names for themselves in their respective fields, and we played a strong part in their development.”

In the background as Sam Wanamaker speaks in “Two Planks and a Passion” are construction drawings of Shakespeare’s Globe-in-the-making and a calendar with a drawing of the original Globe. Little did he know.

“I think it’s fantastic that Sam Wanamaker’s dream is being finished with the playhouse named after him,” Vinker said. “It was part of the original plan to have an indoor Jacobean theatre – for which Shakespeare originally wrote some of his plays – but was put aside for a long while. I’m very happy to see his name attached to it.”

Kelsey finds that “Two Planks and a Passion” inspires newcomers.

“When you look at an individual like Sam Wanamaker, who was just 18 years old when he arrived at the Players, we are able to show our incoming college interns that they, too, have the opportunity to make something great of themselves – just as Sam did – and the many others besides Sam whose amazing careers began as part of the Players. This is just my belief, but to me, people want to belong to something bigger – to understand that it is more than just ‘theater.’  To understand that they are part of history – perhaps they, themselves, think of the future and the history they create in their daily work and how it is just as important as Sam and the great team the Fishers (founding family) put together when they built the theater in 1937.”

Additionally, Kelsey finds that the documentary is a reminder.

“For those of us who have been with the Players for multiple seasons, I believe ‘Two     Planks and a Passion’ resonates differently. For me, personally, it reminds me of how fortunate I am to be a part of something much bigger than me. The piece speaks to me in two ways – that what I do will matter for years to come and with that (comes) the GREAT responsibility of ensuring its financial security. Each time I see the film, I am energized, excited and honored that I get to be a part of such an iconic organization. It also reminds me of the hardships that the theater has faced over the years and what it has taken for the organization to arrive at its current incarnation.”

Sam Wanamaker’s year at the Players has a ripple effect in Vinkler, who started in the company 25 years ago and performs with Chicago Shakespeare, often in leading roles.

“I feel so connected to him because of my own association with the Players and with Shakespeare,” Vinkler said. “My professional life for over 20 years has gone back and forth between the two, and I love both of them dearly. In Sam Wanamaker, I truly feel a kindred and inspiring spirit.”

Please email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com.

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