- Associated Press - Thursday, July 9, 2015

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - It’s been through fires, a threatened closure and some much-needed repairs, but the Black Hills Playhouse keeps on going.

The venerable theater will celebrate its 70th anniversary Friday through Sunday with a reunion for Playhouse alumni both old and young. Up to 200 people are expected to attend.

“The alums are coming from all over the country, some of whom are in their 90s and were with the Playhouse in its earliest days,” said Linda Anderson, Playhouse executive director.

Anderson has been executive director of the theater for five years, but has 40 years’ worth of memories of attending shows there.

When she first came on board, “we needed $500,000 worth of upgrades to keep things going,” Anderson said.

Anderson is referring to the trouble the Playhouse ran into in 2010, when it was closed and then-Governor Mike Rounds threatened to revoke the theater’s lease in Custer State Park.

“But we made it, and we’ve done $1 million in improvements since,” Anderson said.

This year’s project is fundraising to replace all of the Playhouse’s electrical systems, including its lighting and sound system.

One person who will be in attendance at the reunion has been there from the start: Byron Lee, son of BHP founder Warren M. “Doc” Lee.

“I was 18 months old when it started,” Lee said. “I acted in shows like ‘The Legend of Devil’s Gulch,’ which my father wrote, and ‘On Borrowed Time’ in a part that Billy Crystal would go on to play.

“I wish my family had the technology to film his version so I could have seen it and stolen everything he did.”

In its original form, the Playhouse summer theater would tour. But that eventually became “an impossibility,” according to Lee, and a tent theater was started, followed by the conversion of Custer State Park’s dining hall into a theater in 1951.

Two weeks after the dining hall was converted into a theater, it burned down. But with the help of the Custer residents, “Doc” Lee kept the show going and eventually designed and built its current theater in 1955.

Byron Lee, who lives in Texas, says he tries to come back and see the Playhouse’s shows every summer, and that now that he’s retired, he plans on seeing every show this year.

“My father loved everything about theater,” Lee said. “He produced shows in high school with his own theater company, got a Ph.D. in theater at the University of Iowa, wrote and published plays, and started this because he believed it was important. This theater means family to me.”

It also means family to Dan Workman, artistic director since 2011 (and from 2007 to 2008). Workman has been with the theater on and off since 1990, when he acted in the show “The Boys Next Door.”

“In my first summer, I knew it was the place for me,” Workman said. “It was such a nurturing environment with a real sense of community, and I met my wife here in my third summer.”

Workman recently played Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” appearing alongside his sons Satchel (Jem) and Preston (Dill). His oldest son, Dylan, has also been in shows in the past, including “The Music Man” and “The King and I.”

“There’s constant challenges at a nonprofit, where you’re running short on money and then something breaks and needs to be replaced,” Workman said. “But we always find a way to get it done, and the supporters keep coming.”

Each Playhouse alumnus and worker has a favorite show, with Anderson citing her love of the 1990s production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and Workman the farce “Move Over, Mrs. Markham.”

“For me, it’s still ‘Devil’s Gulch,’” Lee said. “It’s near to me because my father wrote it, and because everybody in the camp had something to do with it. People would come back and lines became inside jokes between us.”

The Playhouse alumni are a big family that spans over several generations, and this weekend that family will reunite to celebrate the theater that means so much to them.

“It’s a place where theater professionals can be trained and employed and where people can see great quality theater,” Anderson said. “And all as a part of a family. That kind of experience is precious and rare.”


Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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