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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: A look at 1940s of famed area theater telling its story in special ways

Critic At Large

Peninsula Players Theatre

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – Returning for another look at a massive project – that of Peninsula Players Theatre – with a focus on the highs and lows of the 1940s:

Episodes may be found online at peninsulaplayers.com, click on “Peninsula Players Presents.” Viewing is free, with donations accepted.

The series that started in July 2020(first feature story) is continuing.

Because of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the theater has not presented live performances.

Greg Vinkler, artistic director/actor/director, and Audra Baakari Boyle, business manager/archivist/historian, took the time to put together the series in special ways.

Both have been associated with the theater for four or so decades, so they have an institutional history from what they have seen and heard. They knew personally, or of, many of the personalities going back to the beginnings of “America’s Oldest Resident Professional Summer Theatre.”

The series includes Greg Vinkler and Audra Baakari Boyle conversing about seasons of the theater based on her explorations of multiple archives. Edited into their conversations is a multitude of photographs, newspaper clippings, movie posters, play programs and historical images from the period they are talking about.

A visit to the 1940s includes episodes with these titles:

“1940,” “1941,” “The War Years: 1942-1946,” “The Theater Blossoms: 1947,” “The Theater Blossoms: 1948-49” and “Alumni: Ted Bird: 1948-1952.”

The episodes often last a half hour or so.

Among the things happening, the “charismatic” and “electrifying” co-founder Caroline Fisher is surrounded by company members who are up to exploits.

+ Caroline’s husband, Rodion, a British citizen, flies with the Royal Canadian Air Force and, in a “photo op,” poses with his father, Basil Rathbone of Sherlock Holmes fame. Caroline’s married name is Caroline Fisher Rathbone, but she uses her maiden name at the Players.

Basil, left, and Rodion Rathbone. (Peninsula Players Theatre)

+ Jacqueline Wells has graduate from B movies like “Tarzan” with Buster Crabbe and “The Bohemian Girl” with Laurel and Hardy to being Julie Bishop in 16 Warner Bros. movies with major stars such as Humphrey Bogart in “Action in the North Atlantic” in 1943.

+ Jean Sincere makes her first appearance on Broadway in “Arsenic and Old Lace.” She is on her way to becoming a perennial Players favorite. Additionally, her daughter, Francesca Zambello, gains fame.

+ Marden McBroom becomes David Bruce in a widespread career that has him rubbing shoulders with Ronald Reagan in the movie “Santa Fe Trail” in 1941.

+ Dan Simon becomes Simon Scott who becomes a TV mainstay when not at the Players.

+ Paul Ballantyne expands on his Broadway experience so he can go on to help shape the notable Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

+ Leading man Leo Lucker establishes ties in New York City with the American Theatre Wing and eventually acts on Broadway.

Peninsula Players Theatre was an open-air adventure-filled place in the 1940s. Ted Bird, who started as a lighting apprentice and eventually makes a name globally in advertising, gives a bird’s-eye view of what theater-making was like technically at the time.

Greg Vinker and Audra Baakari Boyle have access to materials, knowledge, passion and a charming way of telling history.

In each episode, they add a glimpse of what was happening in the world and around the Players.

Because of World War II, the theater was shut during 1942-1945. Members in the company served in the military – Leo Lucker and co-founder Richard Fisher became officers. Jean Sincere toured in USO shows.

The Fishers – the parents and children Caroline and Richard – offer a heaping supply of anecdotes. Even Caroline’s mother-in-law is a source. Marion Forman Rathbone, the first wife of Basil Rathbone, was a classical actress. She would come to visit the Players to see her granddaughters – Rodion and Caroline Fisher’s children – and in 1947 took to the stage.

The episodes are filled with other tidbits.

Early casts arriving by train were big news when they came through Green Bay. Their trip was finished by bus, and the last leg from Highway 42 to the bay shore was by gravel road.

Early Players setup. (Peninsula Players Theatre)

Richard Fisher and his father used pseudonyms when they acted on the Players stage.

After the 1940 season, stars of the company appeared in a Green Bay music store to help customers pick out recordings for Christmas gifts.

After the war, Rodion became a pilot for TWA and flew the Rome-Cairo route. Caroline lived with him in Rome in the off season, and Caroline became involved in humanitarian causes because of the war’s devastation in Italy and spoke about the situation in talks at such places as Union Congregational Church in Green Bay.

After the war, the Players would put on 12 plays in nine weeks or 11 plays in 10 weeks or such – wholly ambitious. And a canopy was installed for use when rain arrived.

On and on the facts and curiosities tumble in the episodes. And there are pictures and newspaper clippings and chuckles from the hosts about finds and quirky reminders.

The series is about the Players and much more.

And it is continuing.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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