- Associated Press - Monday, August 28, 2017

BAY CITY, Mich. (AP) - This fall, the Bay City Players celebrate their milestone 100th season.

But looking at their timeline, this could actually be their 118th or 82nd year of providing art and culture to the Bay City community.

“Tracing our linage back according to the chart, we might have chosen any date up to the beginning of the Bay City Art Club in 1899,” said Leeds Bird, a longtime volunteer with the Players. “We have chosen March 1917 as our official year of birth because of the nature of the entertainment presented at that time: two one-act plays by world-famous playwrights.”

Whether it’s the Players’ 100th, 118th or 82nd season, the success of Michigan’s oldest continuous community theater is obvious. Since 1917, the Players’ actors and directors have put on 482 plays and musicals. This includes Broadway blockbusters like “Cats,” ”Chicago,” Les Miserables,” ”Annie” and “The Producers.”

And to what do they owe their success? Volunteers and a sense of family.

The Bay City Players has a volunteer base of about 400 people with about 200 who are needed for each show, said Leeds Bird, a longtime Players volunteer. There is a core group that is at most, if not all, shows and is ready to pitch in when help is needed, professionally and personally.

“For those of us involved, we always use the term ‘family,’” Bird told The Bay City Times .

Bird first was involved with the Players at the age of 19. He has been a volunteer for the past 63 years and has served in many roles, including as an actor, director, designer and honorary president of The Players. The core group and the enormous number of volunteers keep the theater running, he said.

In 1917, a group of four ladies began directing and producing one-act plays in people’s living rooms. The group did two one-act plays annually. Their first season performances were “The Twelve Pound Note” and “Riders to the Sea.” Props were borrowed or supplied by the cast and crew as there was no place to store items long-term.

Over the years, the group grew in number and bigger venues were necessary. Plays were performed all over town at churches, high schools, the Madison Avenue Masonic Temple, the Riddotto Building/Theatre and the Woods and Westover Opera Houses. Even during World War I and World War II, the theater group performed at least one play each season. It was that dedication that makes the Bay City Players “Michigan’s oldest continuously operating community theatre.”

It was in 1955 when members of the Bay City Players took the plunge and took out a mortgage on the Pines, a movie theater on the corner of Columbus and Sheridan and the current location of the Bay City Players stage.

Three major renovations took place to make the theater what it is today. In 1992, the house behind the theater, previously used for storage and dressing rooms, was torn down to add a 5,000-square foot back stage. The extra footage allowed for separate dressing rooms for men, women and children as well a storage space and a make-up room. The 1998 expansion project included a larger lobby, rehearsal room, kitchen and office space and 2014 brought an upgrade to the auditorium which included seating and decor.

In 1996, Stages of Discovery, a theater program from youth, was formed and in 1999 The Recyclables was established. This program is a favorite among the “golden agers” and retirees.

The Bay City Players next challenge is attracting a younger generation to attend shows.

“Millennials don’t make plans,” Bird said. “More than half of the audience comes in off the street.”

Social media, like Facebook, has helped the organization get people to purchase show tickets.

What’s next for the Bay City Players? The group purchased the old Jamie’s Dairy ice cream shop property and will demolish it to make more room for parking.

A recent donation was used for the purchase of new body microphones and some sound and lighting improvements.

Theater improvements add to the neighborhood. Bill Keipert, chairman of The Columbus Avenue Management Board, said the Bay City Players is a traffic builder and the improvements made by the Players are a great asset to the Columbus Avenue business district.

The Bay City Players 100th season has been recognized by the American Association of Community Theatre, proclamations from Bay City Mayor Kathi Newsham, the Bay County Board of Commissioners and Gov. Snyder.

Mayor Newsham said the Players have done so much to bring art and culture to Bay City.

“It’s a great honor to have them in the community,” she said.

For the 100th season, the Bay City Players are presenting “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” ”A Christmas Story,” ”Calendar Girls,” ”On Golden Pond” and “Annie.”


Information from: The Bay City Times, https://www.mlive.com/bay-city

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