Breaking the Fourth Wall of Omaha’s “Little Theater”Jun 23, 2023 01:05PM ● By Sophia Ridge
Photo provided by Omaha Community Playhouse.
The word ecstasy comes from the Ancient Greek drama term ‘ekstasis,’ which refers to the moment an actor releases their identity, ego, and consciousness in order to become ‘empty for the divine.’ This force then inhabits the body, the body becomes a “character,” and the audience is held in a state of suspended disbelief as reality gives way to expression. However, in early 20th century America, this experience became limited by the commercialization of theater and the advent of movies, or as they were known then: “photoplays.” Craving a more “ecstatic,” and expressive experience, amateur founders across America—inspired by the work of the German director Max Reinhardt and Swiss architect Adolphe Appia for their expressionist work—started the “Little Theatre Movement,” from which the Omaha Community Playhouse was born.
In the early 1900s, it was popular for department stores to have tearooms, and in one of these luxurious chatter spots is where the Omaha Community Playhouse was conceived. According to Warren Francke in The Omaha Community Playhouse Story: A Theatre’s Historic Triumph, in 1924—in the tearoom of Burgess-Nash formerly located at 16th and Harney streets in the Old Market—a group of performers sick of movies purloining their gigs gathered to sit crooked and talk straight about plans to produce, direct, and design plays. The individuals in attendance were Marguerite Beckman, Rex Morehouse, Alan McDonald, Mark Levings, and the Mackin sisters, among others. Dodie Brando had missed the meeting as she had plenty of children to dote on—one son, just 6 months old at the time, being future The Godfather icon Marlon Brando—but later starred in many Omaha Community Playhouse productions.
According to The Omaha Morning Bee newspaper, on March 4th, 1925, the Omaha Community Playhouse introduced their by-the-people-for-the-people art organization in the auditorium of Technical High School, now the district headquarters for Omaha Public Schools. The first production was a variety show displaying much of Omaha’s talent: Susan Glaspell’s one-act drama Trifles, Francis Potter’s two banjo performances, Adelaide Fogg’s dance number titled “The Clock,” accompanied by The West Sisters’ quartette, an “All Scotch Trio,” and disappointingly (but not surprising for the time period) a student-performed “American Indian dance” by area teacher, Mary Cooper.
In April of 1925, Dodie Brando starred in Arthur Wing Pinero’s play under the direction of Greg Foley, The Enchanted Cottage, put on by the Omaha Community Playhouse, which was reviewed by The Omaha Morning Bee as “one of the strongest ever [play productions] given by amateur talent in Omaha,” with students at the Technical High School helping to create the set design.
The Omaha Community Playhouse would then host productions at the Cooper Dance Studio at 4012 Farnam Street for a couple years until the first OCP building was constructed in 1928. The original Omaha Community Playhouse was built in 28 days on 40th and Davenport, located on Sarah Joslyn’s cow pasture. In Omaha Community Playhouse Story: A Theatre’s Historic Triumph, Francke also noted that John and Alan McDonald, the same Omaha architects responsible for the design of the Joslyn Art Museum, created an extravagant blueprint for the playhouse complete with wide opera seats, a motion picture booth, and an orchestra pit. However, following the economic crash of the Great Depression, the more extraordinary features had to be omitted.
One of the biggest names to come out of the Omaha Community Playhouse is without a doubt Henry Fonda, who is decorated with film awards for works like Grapes of Wrath (1940), 12 Angry Men (1957), and On Golden Pond (1981), among other famous Hollywood flicks. According to Francke, it is said that Dodie Brando called Henry’s mother, Herberta Fonda, and stated that the playhouse needed a young actor for productions in the summer of 1925. The 20-year-old agreed to play the character Ricky for the play You and I. Fonda’s Nebraska roots followed him to Hollywood—to his chagrin. The Evening Star in Washington, D.C. reported in November of 1942 that the actor “yearns for [a] film role where he can be [a] polished city slicker” and “was getting plenty fed up at people constantly referring to him as a hillbilly and a farmer.”
When Henry Fonda returned to Omaha to perform for the Omaha Community Playhouse, he met 13-year-old Dorothy Hackett McGuire who was cast in a role alongside him in A Kiss for Cinderella (although this was a few years before Fonda gained notoriety in Hollywood films). Years later, McGuire would play the lead role in Claudia, which was then made into a film of which McGuire also played the lead role—and so began her journey to fame. McGuire would go on to play leading roles in films such as The Enchanted Cottage (1945), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and The Spiral Staircase (1946) and was even nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for a film on anti-semitism titled Gentleman’s Agreement (1947).
The Omaha Community Playhouse has changed a great deal since its founding. In a conversation with OCP’s Executive Director, Katie Broman, she explained how some things have changed about the playhouse, but the spirit of being a by-and-for-the-community theater has always remained at the heart of OCP. A major difference from then to now with OCP is that it is no longer completely volunteer work, and most workers get paid for their labor. Of course, the playhouse has grown exponentially since its establishment–the address no longer on Davenport but rather on Cass Street since 1959—with a scene shop expansion, a caravan of traveling actors (stalled recently since COVID-19), and even a tornado ripping the roof off in the ’70s followed by a huge expansion in the ’80s and ’90s.
In June 2023, the Omaha Community Playhouse wrapped up its 98th season. What Broman and others at OCP look forward to in the coming years is the inclusive community work they hope to bring to Omaha, not necessarily carrying on, but rather progressing the same spirit the playhouse’s founders once had: ekstasis, and catharsis, for the community.