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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Pandemic pause allows famed Door County theater to tell its story, Part 2

Critic At Large

Peninsula Players Theatre

Episode image.

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – A pandemic can be serendipity.

That headbanger thought applies only in a tiny fraction of situations. Here is one:

The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic leads to Peninsula Players Theatre canceling its 2020 summer season. The theater holds out hope of being able to present a fall season.

During the summer, the theater would reach its 85-year milestone.

Turns out, there are no plays.

But there is the Internet.

Artistic director Greg Vinkler and business manager and historian/archivist Audra Baakari Boyle put together a Zoom interview in July to tell how the theater started. Greg Vinkler had been interviewing people with close ties to the company, and this episode was a little shift.

Looking back from today, the episode seems like it was to be one-and-done with no particular plans for more.

Then COVID-19 hung on. Peninsula Players Theatre had to cancel its fall season, too.

A pandemic became serendipity.

Now came an opportunity to continue looking at the history of Peninsula Players Theatre – available time and people in the know, one of whom savors the explorations of history.

The initial offering was filled with juicy material, so moving forward seemed only natural.

It would be three months for the second part to appear as part of “Peninsula Players Presents” at peninsulaplayers.com. All the episodes may be found there; it’s a gold mine.

The company that calls itself “America’s Oldest Resident Summer Theatre” has quite the tale to tell.

Greg Vinkler.

“Actually, this is very fun for both of us because it’s great finding out about how this all happened and some amazing people and events,” Greg Vinkler says at the start of “The Hollywood Years – 1937-1939.”

The theater started July 25, 1935. While liked, the theater ended in the red. There was no 1936 season.

Through smoke and mirrors, maybe, the founding Fisher family managed to purchase the Wildwood Camp for Boys and set about building a theater structure from scratch with the 1937 performing company helping.

The episode tells about what was available – and not – on site.

Sam Wanamaker of the 1937 acting company helped build the stagehouse. He would go on to be an actor and director on stage and screen and more.

Audra Baakari Boyle says, “He went from helping to build a theater in Door County, Wisconsin, to then London, perhaps didn’t find the Globe there, and it sparked something in him that this needed to be done. And he spent the rest of his life pursuing that dream of getting the Globe up and running.”

Sam Wanamaker was an inspiration for building Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre as an international attraction.

A bronze plaque at the entrance of Peninsula Players Theatre calls attention to the connection with images of Sam Wanamaker and William Shakespeare beneath the phrase “All the world’s a stage.” A sister plaque was given to the Globe.

The plaque. (Warren Gerds)

Greg Vinkler says, “That’s always been extremely meaningful to me because my background in Chicago theater is mostly with Shakespeare. So I love that Peninsula Players and the Globe Theatre in London are connected.”

The Players history is filled with many such interesting stories, Audra Baakari Boyle says.

Among others in the second part of the series, which is being added to:

The Hollywood saga of co-founder Caroline Fisher is filled in. Her wedding in 1938 caused a stir. She married Rodion Rathbone, son of famous actor Basil Rathbone, who was about to become FAMOUS with the 1939 release of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” his first appearance among many as super sleuth Sherlock Holmes.

Audra Baakari Boyle says, “Basil’s wife, Ouida, was known as ‘The Hostess of Hollywood,’ and Caroline and Rodion’s wedding became a real Hollywood party. They ended up getting married in the back garden of Basil and Ouida’s house. In attendance were Myrna Loy, Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert and all of these other famous Hollywood actresses.”

The wedding.

The wedding made newspapers all over the world “because it’s Basil Rathbone’s son… All that glamour, all that celebrity, and then it all comes back to little Fish Creek and little Peninsula Players in Door County. It’s mind blowing.”

Here’s little: Longtime actor/director Bob Thompson liked to say he got room and board and $5 a week.

At the time, he got to know Stacy Keach. Not Stacy Keach, who has starred in many roles on stage and screen, but Stacy Keach Sr., who also had a huge acting career.

Greg Vinkler says, “(The younger Stacy Keach) was doing a national tour of the play ‘Frost Nixon,’ and it came through Appleton. When he was growing up, his parents, Stacy and Mary, spoke so lovingly of their experience at the Players that he really wanted to see it. So he had someone drive him up, and I got a chance to meet him, which was great.”

Audra Baakari Boyle adds, “He’s so gracious. He was just delighted to see where they spent time, and it was beautiful.”

Greg Vinkler adds, “And he was gracious enough to do an interview with us, and he just loved seeing the place where his parents had had such a great time.”

In reliving the past, the episode also is a reminder of a time when live-play theaters could get away with things that couldn’t be done in films. Playgoing was a spicier attraction at times – even at “little Peninsula Players.”

Co-founder Richard Fisher would adapt plays of an elevated level, like “Salome” and “Oedipus Rex.”

Audra Baakari Boyle.

Audra Baakari Boyle says, “The highlight of ‘Salome’ was Margot Fisher (Richard and Caroline’s sister), who company member Maggie Magerstadt has described as ‘sultry and a good comedian,’ doing ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils.’ It’s 1939, the Hayes Code is in effect for movies. If anybody knows a little bit of film history, you couldn’t kiss for longer than two seconds on screen; married couples had to sleep in separate beds; there were all these obscenity laws, but Margot Fisher was dancing ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’ on stage at Peninsula Players live, underscored by Strauss’s opera.”

The soundtrack was playing underneath as Margot Fisher, a trained dancer, danced.

Audra Baakari Boyle reads the quote from Maggie Magerstadt:

“There was much suspense on the peninsula as to whether she would drop that last veil at the end of the play. No one will ever know because the lights were dimming, she was near the edge of the stage and her hand was at the clasp of the last veil when the lights went out.”

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