The Firehouse Community Theatre, Inc. celebrates its silver anniversary this year, with their twenty-fifth season kicking off on October 27, premiering the season’s opener “Sex Please, We’re Sixty”. The small theatre, converted from it’s original function as a literal firehouse and later used as a tire and car repair shop, has been the epitome of an example of a labor of love for the acting/directing/producing/costume-making/ticket-selling troupe, many of whom have been involved since its inception.
Being involved with the theatre from very early on myself, in my teen years, I will always reserve a special place in my heart for this tiny theatre; and so, when I realized that this season marks the quarter-century celebration of stage productions here in LaBelle, I knew I had to write a brief history of the theatre as a tribute to the people who have worked with such dedication over the past twenty five years to bring this haven of theatrical arts to our community.
As I sat down with one of the founding members and former long-time president of the Firehouse Community Theatre, Inc. (formerly Firehouse Cultural Center, Inc.) Janice Groves, to reminisce and learn more about the theatre’s early days, it became apparent that she mirrored many of the same feelings of nostalgia and love that I did for the ‘Firehouse’.
“They had a group out at, what in those days was called, Hendry Isles. They had a really nice restaurant out there and a dinner theatre. I saw an ad in the paper that they were casting a show and so I went out, auditioned, and got a part,” Janice told me. “They had already done maybe three or four plays prior to that and that’s how I got started. I was involved for about maybe a year and then it folded,” she added.
After the restaurant and dinner theatre closed, a core group of the amateur thespians that had become involved with the Hendry Isles productions started to talk about how much fun they had had during the dinner theatre’s run. “It did provide some entertainment to the community, and we’re all kind of hams anyway,” Groves laughed. “So we just started trying to decide what we wanted to do and to see if there was anything we could do,” she added.
And so, an idea was conceived.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my twenty plus years experience in professional, educational, and community theatre - it’s that when an idea is born in the mind of an actor and reared within the perimeters of theatrical expectation, the essence of that which is conceived must be made manifest (and with good lighting) so that the magic of theatre can continue to cast its spell on new generations seeking artistic expression - and so it was with the small group that was ‘bitten by the theatre bug’.
“Sherri Craichy, who was very involved with the community even before her service as Mayor, went to the city council and had the idea of using the old firehouse (as a space for the theatre). It was empty and they were trying to decide what to do with the building because it was really an eyesore,” Janice recounted.
“She convinced them to let us use the space. That’s really how we got started,” she added.
After securing a space in which to put on their productions the crew set out to clean up the firehouse, which most recently had been used as an automobile repair and tire garage.
“It was really a mess. We got the community involved and started cleaning it up. Within six weeks we did our first play,” said Janice.
The ‘Firehouse Players’ first production, “Divorce Southern Style”, was one that most of the group had already participated in out at the Hendry Isles dinner theatre and starred some of the groups key players in getting the cultural center started: Janice Groves, Julie Craichy (now Julie Wilkins), Herman and Barbara Brandenburg (now Barbara McDowell), Barbara Evans (Barbara Miller) and Curtis Rimes. “It was ‘okay’ received. The first few years were a struggle to get audiences, but we stuck it out and we got more and more people involved and our audience started growing,” said Janice on their first few shows. It wasn’t only the audience that grew; the interest in being involved with the group started to grow also. “I think when we started our core group of people involved was fifteen at most. Now we are up to about forty,” she added. “It’s still all volunteer. Everybody does everything. I like to say that you can star in one play and then be cleaning the bathrooms the next!”
Janice also served as president of the board of directors for the theatre for the first eleven years. She recounted how the first few years of operations were pretty much trial and error. “None of us had any experience as far as running a theatre. We tried to do a play a month for the whole year, including summers, which was absolutely insane!”
The building, itself has seen its fair share of changes throughout the seasons as well. “In the beginning the stage was bare and we didn’t have the lobby or the bathrooms (they brought in port-a-potties for the entire first year), so we just tried to get the community involved and the local retail business were good with donating to us.”
Janice told me about the generous givings of many local businesses and people in the community which helped to see the theatre grow throughout the years. Hard plastic lawn chairs, which were replaced by wooden church pews, and most recently actual theatre seating was the evolution of the house seats.
In the early days the sound of the street traffic passing by was also a problem during productions until a scientist from NASA was recruited to come in and design a sound-proofing fill for the insulation between the large pull down garage doors and the interior of the the building.
After twenty five years of growth, the theatre and the core group of players who work to keep the audiences entertained, the magic of theatre alive in our community, and the cultural awareness of LaBelle ever growing, have managed to maintain the excitement for and childlike wonder of the theatre, which I believe is paramount in keeping any art form thriving.
Especially exciting and remarkable is that with the opening of the first play of this twenty-fifth season, we find two of the original ’Firehouse Players’ back onstage. Both Janice Groves and Barbara McDowell are excited to be returning to the stage to celebrate this milestone of growth for the theatre that they helped to conceive, nourish, and watch grow through the years.
Be sure to support our local community theatre as it continues to grow by going to watch the opening show of this season “Sex please, we’re sixty” this month. I suggest you opt in for the season pass to ensure you have seats for all of the upcoming shows and to be a part of this benchmark season.