GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV)
Basically, Mary Ehlinger has been performing forever.
“Yes, I have. Yes, I have,” she said by telephone from her home in Green Bay.
“I did a lot of stuff here growing up, but ever since I moved to New York, I have been sustaining myself through the musical theater business doing everything I could, from performing to music directing, composing for Macy’s, playing piano for things (auditions and shows), from traveling, to opera even, and all the New York theaters and shows regionally.
“Yes, it’s just been a wonderful career.
“I developed an incredible theater family. So during this time, it’s come in handy because we all understand each other and what we’re going through. We kind of hold virtual hands, so to speak, to keep everybody positive and hopeful. It is an extraordinary time.”
In that last sentence, Mary Ehlinger is referring how the lights have been shut off for the live performance industry, which she says is akin to her soul.
She is music director of Fireside Dinner Theatre, a popular destination in Fort Atkinson.
She acts with Mountain Playhouse, a historic professional theater in Jennerstown, Pennsylvania, southwest of Pittsburgh.
In Green Bay, she is artistic director and co-founder of Play-by-Play Theatre.
What has the coronavirus COVID-19 done to calendar of Mary Ehlinger?
“It totally obliterated it,” she said. “I was supposed to begin a contract on March 30 (with Fireside). That contract was ended. All the auditions that we have with Fireside (in New York and Chicago) are all gone. That contract was a performing contract as well as music directing.
“Now we just found out today (May 5) the next show is postponed, canceled – whatever term you want to use.
“And then I found out Sunday that my contract in Pennsylvania has been canceled as well. That’s the Mountain Playhouse, an Equity (actor’s union) theater. It’s a summer regional theater. They run from May through October. So they have to make a decision, much like Peninsula Players. Their whole season has been suspended.
“So as of today, just like everybody else, I’ve lost over half of my yearly income. And I know I’m not alone.”
Snapshot of Mary Ehlinger:
– Grew up in Green Bay.
– Went to college through grad school.
– Landed in New York for 30 busy years.
– Equity member.
– Now works out of Green Bay.
– Musician, actor, singer, composer, music director, director, theater co-founder.
Probably written in the margin of her resume for more than one of her auditions was “sparkplug” or something of the like.
As much in her life, performing just kind of happened. Almost by accident.
“When I was a kid, I was No. 6 in a family of 10. Apparently, as my mom would say, I never had gray moments. I was happy with either black or white.
“I’d go to the parks. I’d play at St. Philip’s Park all the time. It was so much fun. And then this drama program came into the parks department. Each playground got to nominate someone from their playground to take part in this. I was nominated from St. Philip.
“My mom thought it would be great for me because it was drama classes at the UW Extension, which was on Deckner Avenue, which is now Anne Sullivan School. Karen Prevetti (now Kersten) taught it (and started a theater company for children that continues today as an arm of Evergreen Productions of greater Green Bay).
“I think you could say that pretty much changed my life. I thought it was the neatest thing.
“And then the parks department had all these plays with this group called the Poirot Players. It had kids from all over the city. We had to audition and be chosen or something. And we did all these different shows.
“They had acquired the Showmobile (a performance stage on wheels), and we then traveled around to these different parks, and we would do these shows. Gordon Parmentier (composer of ‘The Lost Dauphin,’ Green Bay’s one and only full opera), wrote one of our songs because of his niece, Julie Bettinger. I remember all these names! (Her voice is excited). They were wonderful people. Pam Hill. It’s just amazing the stuff that we did.
“I think it was, seeing where I was in the family, I was kind of always loud and always stealing focus. So I’ve been told. I guess I kind of always wanted to do that.
“I loved the piano. As far as the piano, I just wanted to play ’76 Trombones’ as well as my older brother. He could play so well on piano. I wanted to be like that. I loved Jo Ann Castle on ‘The Lawrence Welk Show.’ I mean, these were the people I liked. So I just kept doing it.
“Music and theater just fed my soul. There’s just something about it that fed my soul.
“But, of course, I got my teaching degree – education degree – because that was sensible. There was no performing, just performing, no music theater degree at that time. And now it’s pervasive throughout the college and university circuit.
“Actually, I was practicing piano as a kid so I could get out of doing dinner dishes. That’s how I practiced.”
Performing continued through St. Joseph Academy in Green Bay and St. Norbert College in De Pere. Of note, at St. Norbert she performed with the Swinging Knights show troupe, the forerunner of today’s Knights on Broadway. Some students branched into On Stage that performed shows locally. Mary Ehlinger also was part of New Company Revue, which made a run at turning pro in Milwaukee.
Among those in New Company Revue were Karen McDiarmid, widely known as the longtime “Shopko Lady” in commercials, and Parker Drew, whose personas include being Mark Twain in one-man shows around the country.
“Oh my gosh, when Parker and I get together (in Play-by-Play Theatre), we sit there and laugh about those times,” Mary Ehlinger said. “But they’re all good. It’s all ingredients into who we are today.”
+ Play-by-Play Theatre, Green Bay
“Oil City Symphony,” “Swing Time Canteen,” “Ring of Fire,” “Always… Patsy Cline,” “The Last Five Years,” “Artists United,” “Baby,” “Return to the Forbidden Planet,” “Smoke on the Mountain,” “The Gift of the Magi.”
+ Fireside Dinner Theatre, Fort Atkinson
More than 80 productions, including “Beauty and the Beast,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Newsies,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Church Basement Ladies” (two of the stories), “A Christmas Story,” “Holiday Inn,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” “Annie,” “My Fair Lady,” “Elf,” “Grease,” “42nd Street,” “Yeston and Kopit’s Phantom,” “The Little Mermaid,” “South Pacific,” “Mamma Mia!” “Legally Blonde,” “West Side Story,” “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” “West Side Story,” etc.
+ And more places and companies.
+ Off-Broadway, New York City, and beyond:
“Oil City Symphony,” “Cowgirls,” “Return to the Forbidden Planet.”
+ Fireside Dinner Theatre, Fort Atkinson:
“Church Basement Ladies: A Mighty Fortress Is Our Basement”
+ Play-by-Play Theatre, Green Bay:
Including “Oil City Symphony,” “Swing Time Canteen,” “Return to the Forbidden Planet,” “Smoke on the Mountain,” “The Gift of the Magi.”
+ Mountain Playhouse, Jennerstown, Pennsylvania:
Including “Smoke on the Mountain,” “5/31/1889: The Flood,” “One Slight Hitch,” “Ring of Fire,” “Midlife! The Crisis Musical,” “Honky Tonk Angels,” “Cowgirls” (and musical director),” “The Underpants,” “Over the Tavern,” “The Pajama Game,” “Lend Me a Tenor,” “Bubba’s Revenge,” “Boeing Boeing,” “Alone Together,” “The Fox on the Fairway,” “Suds the Musical” (music director), “Nana’s Naughty Knickers,” “Church Basement Ladies #4,” etc.
+ And many more places and productions dating to childhood in Green Bay and such entities as St. Norbert College Music Theatre and Swinging Knights, On Stage and New Company Revue.
Growing up in Green Bay, was New York a goal?
“Welllll, not really,” she said. “I had finished my master’s degree in Louisiana at LSU, and I came back here and I was teaching. I have my education degree, so I was teaching at different schools and privately. And one of my professors who had left the university and moved to New York – he was a voice teacher – suggested I come out and visit. There was a fellow grad student there, too, who was working for New York City Opera. So I went out and visited these guys, and they both said to me that I should just come out there for a little while at least and call it post-graduate work. So that’s what I did.
“But it was pretty much at people’s suggestion. I would never have thought that it would be in my cards. I went out to learn, to hone my craft and sharpen my skills. I had no visions of grandeur – although, had the option come around, I would grab it, of course. I did. (She chuckled).”
What happened that she stayed in New York City?
“I got shows. I’d get commercials. I got work in other theater companies. You have to audition in New York, and that would take me around the country.
“I got involved with Macy’s, composing for them. I was with Macy’s about 20 years.
“I am grateful, though, that my husband (Mark Silverberg) said it was time that we move out. My parents had passed away, and my dad wanted me to have the house. My husband really wanted to move here, to Green Bay. And I’m grateful for that. He was wise on even that.”
What took her to LSU?
“I wanted to go to another country,” she said (and we laughed about how, from a Green Bay perspective, Louisiana is another country). “Just that thirst, you know, when you’re younger for something different. And that was certainly different from Wisconsin. And it was recommended to me by my piano teacher at St. Norbert, Tom Hurley.
“I got accepted there, and it was, again, one of those wonderful transformational periods of time.”
And by accident, she got to New York.
“Yes, by accident. It’s funny, when I was down there, my piano professor said to me, ‘You know, Mary, now that you’ve got your master’s degree – and I know you’re thinking about staying here and working on your doctorate – but to be honest, I think you should take your piano and go find your stage.’ (Laughing). What? I took that as a compliment – question mark. (Laughing hard).
“They didn’t know how to handle me, but they apparently enjoyed the time when I was there. They were honest. That’s the hard part; when you’re in performing, to accept the truth, to accept constructive criticism.”
Mary Ehlinger lived in New York just over 30 years.
“It was exciting. It had work opportunities. It had a big variety. It was stimulating. All of those good things. All of those things you need when you want get out and experience the world.
“I was liked. I fit in very well there. But, yes, every time I got tired of it and I wanted to leave, something good happened and I would get a job or whatever, and I’d have to stay there. Or I’m ready to leave and then I meet my husband and then we get married and stay there.
“So it was a wonderful place, such a variety of people, right? And opportunities. It’s really excellent for that time of one’s life.
“I planned on three years, and it stretched to 30.”
When Mary Ehlinger returned to Green Bay with her family, she continued with her work bases of Fireside Dinner Theatre and Mountain Playhouse.
And then came Play-by-Play Theatre. Its impetus?
“Mark needed to do something more here. He thought by creating this theater that we could do a play by play, we could pick a show that we wanted to do – not too massive – and we do quality work in the same way ethically as the people we work with. And those people could educate us – a back-and-forth thing.
“He wanted to create that because we were here, from New York, and just needed that. And there were other like-minded people here who really wanted to do that, to be professional.”
As an operatic/music theater baritone, Mark Silverberg performed widely with New York City as home base. Local audiences saw him in leading roles in “Man of La Mancha” and “South Pacific” with St. Norbert College Music Theatre.
A favorite story of his about moving to Green Bay from New York was, “I used to joke that when I drove home here, I’d circle the block 45 minutes before I pulled into the driveway so I felt like I was back in New York looking for a parking spot.”
Mark Silverberg died in 2017 after battling cancer for six years. He was age 63.
With Play-by-Play Theatre, Mark Silverberg was managing director – the dollars-and-cents person – and advisor to his wife.
Mary Ehlinger said, “He wanted to do shows that I knew inside out, backwards and upside down. So that’s why I was able to perform in them and direct them.”
It takes a lot of chutzpah to start a theater company with a professional bent.
“It sure does. It sure does,” Mary Ehlinger said.
“It’s still a labor of love. I still haven’t gotten paid a penny. Yes, it takes a lot. I could certainly use help if somebody wanted to help strategically with our finances and money and stuff like that. I just don’t know how to do any of that stuff, and my money guy’s gone now, Mark.
“So we keep it this little pocket company that we just do what we can. We’re hoping we can do a show at the end of the year at St. Norbert College. We’ve got plans for it. We just need a venue. But who knows? Who knows? It all boils down to that – we just don’t really know. We’ve got the cast, we’ve got the show. We have the venue, maybe, right?”
In the meantime, Play-by-Play Theatre has other presences – on line and live.
Online – playbyplaytheatre.org – the company is auditioning for its August outdoor production. Also, during May 11 to 21 via Facebook, it is hosting live Q&A sessions from all over the map with this lineup:
Adriana Trigiani: author, playwright, filmmaker; Renee Lawless: television actress, “Wicked” national tour; Jessica Tyler Wright: Broadway performer and musician; Richard Carsey: conductor, currently for Broadway’s “The Phantom of the Opera;” Guy Stroman: director, creator/original cast member of “Forever Plaid;” Mary Murfitt: playwright, composer, lyricist; MJ Bernhardt: stage manager, The Fireside; Shanna VanDerwerker and Justin Brill: “Wicked,” “Beauty and the Beast” national tours, Broadway and regional theater choreographer, music theater faculty of Columbia College, Chicago; Kelsey Denae: “Les Misérables” national tour; Elizabeth McMonagle Pragel and Greg Pragel: professional actors, fight choreographer; Yvonne Frazier: international opera singer.
“They all know me, yes,” Mary Ehlinger said. “It’s the perfect time because we’re all in the same boat – talk to one another, inspire one another.”
The video auditions are for William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” scheduled for Aug. 30 in Whitney Park in Green Bay in a collaboration of Downtown Green Bay and Play-by-Play Theatre. The “Theatre in the Park” venture is in its second year. Being repeated June 28 with much the same cast as last year is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Directing is Carolyn Silverberg, daughter of Mary Ehlinger and Mark Silverberg.
“Carolyn has always wanted to do Shakespeare here because that is her love. She has a master’s degree in Shakespearean studies from the University of London…
“Somebody said, ‘You want to do Shakespeare in the park? We’re interested.’ So they hooked us up with Downtown Green Bay. The two groups pulled it off.
“Because it went over so well, we’re going on to another season. But of course, again, it’s a fluid situation. It all depends – the mandates of the governor, the social distancing requirements….
“We at Play-by-Play are only in charge of the creative part, the show itself. Downtown Green Bay or Olde Main Street, that section, is charge of the event. They’re calling the shots, and rightly so.
“It’s wonderful to be able to collaborate with the CITY on this. And, I mean, twelve hundred people (attending last summer)! And they loved it. We got great comments, and they want more.
“Shakespeare! In Green Bay! Four hundred years later, and relevant today. People are becoming less afraid. Actors are becoming less afraid of tackling Shakespeare…
“Oh my gosh, these kids in their thirties are fantastic. They have this energy, and they want to live here, and they want to stay here, but they need their creative fulfillment. This is a great place to do it.
“There are other people that we are discovering. They want this to happen. And it is exciting.”
In Monday’s column, Mary Ehlinger talks in lively ways about the experience of being resident music director of Fireside Dinner Theatre and notable shows she’s been in.