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Theater in the Pines

History of Pinewood Players

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Introduction

Did you know there is a real theater in Munds Park where live theater events are performed? Many new residents are not aware of this unique community amenity nor are they aware of the theater group that has provided high quality live theater entertainment for the enjoyment of the community for over 30 years.

Pinewood Players is a non-profit organization whose origin dates back to 1990. The theater troupe started as a Pinewood Country Club group. The organization is still affiliated with the club, but it is a separate 501(c)(3) corporation with membership open to the public. All Munds Park residents, full time and seasonal are welcome to join, participate in the group’s activities or just attend and enjoy the plays and events.  The organization has a rich history of serving the Munds Park community and contributing to the community in many ways.  In addition to providing high quality entertainment and opportunities to participate in plays and other events the group conducts youth drama camps each summer and awards scholarships to deserving students having connections to the community.

The theater is named the Pinewood Playhouse and it is located on the campus of the Pinewood Country Club on the east side of the property adjacent to the swimming pool area. The original building was converted to a theater with a capacity to seat over 100 theater goers in graduated theater seating. The theater boasts a large stage and state of the art professional sound and lighting systems.  There are dressing rooms, a make-up room and a box office housed in the playhouse building as well as restrooms. All plays and events in the Pinewood Playhouse are open to the public.

Over the next couple of months we will tell the story of Pinewood Players, the founding and early years, how the Playhouse came to be, the creation of the Youth Drama Camp Program which will celebrate 20 years this season, and the growth and evolution of the organization and the theater building itself. Finally we’ll examine how the organization is continuing to evolve into the future.

In the next installment of “The History of Pinewood Players” you will learn about the origin of the group and its early years. You will be introduced to the founders and early leaders whose love of live theater created a legacy that has lasted for over 30 years.

The Early Years

Legend has it that Elaine Smart, known as “Enie” was walking in Munds Park with a friend one late spring day in 1990 when she suddenly asked “Do you want to help me form a group to perform plays at the club?”

From that casual beginning a plan took shape and that summer Enie and several friends organized a group that produced, directed and performed two plays, “The Hitchhiker” and “Sorry, Wrong Number.”  Elaine Smart is recognized as the “founder” of Pinewood Players because of her leadership role. However, we also recognize four additional dedicated, talented individuals who worked with Enie from the beginning as founders. Hilda Buerkle, Joan Gorges, Jim Hedberg and Norma Thomas all played key roles in the early development of Pinewood Players.

That first summer the plays were performed on a small stage in what was then called the “Bingo Room” in the Pinewood Country Club. These plays required many supporting roles and surprisingly it was discovered that the residents of Pinewood were bigger “hams” than anyone may have expected. Folks seemed to like the idea of entertaining their neighbors by playing bit parts with a few lines which were easily memorized.  People who had never acted before in their lives were lining up to get on stage to enjoy the camaraderie of the “troupe.”

Income from those first two shows financed the next season. In 1991 the group performed “Blithe Spirit.” This play required a larger stage and the production was moved to the library room. Members of the club staff helped construct a stage in sections so it could be moved in and out of the room. The show was so successful that it covered all expenses and completely financed the next season in which Enie staged a tribute to her mother by producing “I Remember Mama.” The cast included children for the first time as well as a live cat. The success story continued with plays being performed in the Pinewood Country Club library for the next 10 years. The group grew in size and popularity each year.

Elaine Smart continued to lead the group creatively and she was active and performed in plays until her death at the age of 93 in 2006. Her son Bill, a highly accomplished director and one time professional actor was the troupe’s exclusive director from 1993 through 2008. Bill acted and was active in the organization until his passing in 2011.

The Founders and Bill Smart are memorialized in the entry of the Pinewood Playhouse with photos and plaques to remind all who enter of their tremendous contributions to the organization in creating a legacy that has lasted over 30 years.

In the next installment of “The History of Pinewood Players” we will explore the development of the organization through the late 1990’s into the early 2000’s and how the Pinewood Playhouse came into existence.

The Pinewood Playhouse

The popularity of Pinewood Players and their events continued to grow throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s. Plays continued to be staged in the library of the Pinewood Country Club (now the Elk Run Room). The events became so popular that the overflow audiences began spilling out into the lobby. It was becoming increasingly difficult to accommodate all those who wanted to attend the plays.

Meanwhile, patrons and supporters were beginning to donate to the group to help cover the costs of the productions and ensure the group could continue to provide entertainment for the community.  In 1997 under the leadership of then President Lee Henry the group incorporated, applied for and received approval of tax exempt 501(c)(3) status to enable tax deductible donations. Lee remained very active in the organization after his tenure as President and was a “regular” on stage, acting in many plays until his passing in 2018.

By 2001 it became obvious that a different venue was needed. The library was no longer adequate to accommodate the audiences or productions. There was a vacant building on the country club campus that had previously been used as an activities center. It was a far cry from a theater, but it was large enough and with imagination one could envision the conversion of the building into a real theater. President Marsha Propps led discussions with members of the country club Board and negotiated a long-term lease for a very nominal annual fee. Of the countless contributions Marsha made to the organization (acting, directing, drama camp administrator and volunteer extraordinaire) this must be considered her crowning achievement and legacy to Pinewood Players. Marsha and husband Gene currently reside in Peoria, AZ but both remain dedicated members and supporters of Pinewood Players.

Once the building was secured the Pinewood community stepped up to support the group with donations and volunteers. Among other donors, the Pinewood Property Owners Association donated a significant sum to the project. Then the work of converting the building began. With the assistance of local architect Don Cross and local contractor Larry Lambrecht the plans took shape. Many volunteers contributed countless hours to the project. By the summer of 2002 the Pinewood Playhouse was christened and Pinewood Players began performing on the “main stage.” After over 10 years of performing in the country club library Munds Park finally had its very own “Theater in the Pines.”   In the next installment of “The History of Pinewood Players” we will explore the origin of the Youth Drama Camp and its evolution over the past 20 years.

Youth Drama Camp

An excerpt from Pinewood Players’ Mission Statement reads “Each season the Pinewood Players entertain the community by presenting live theater and by providing various venues where children and adults learn about the performing arts through participation in workshops, drama camps and plays of all kinds.”

True to the mission, youth theatre productions were initiated in 2001. For the first three years, a single show was produced each season that featured youngsters of all ages. The first show, “Broadway Bound” was performed in what was then the Show Room in Pinewood Country Club. By 2004, the program had attracted enough young performers to enable the camp to be segregated into two age groups. The Kidz Camp accommodated youngsters from age 7 through 11. A separate “Teen Camp” was established for the older kids, ages 12 through 18. Each group held their own camp workshop sessions and presented separate plays. In 2019, the camp format reverted back to one camp for all ages.

Sandy Machette was the original administrator and directed all drama camp productions from 2001 through 2010. Since 2010 a number of talented administrators and directors have been employed to carry on the mission of the camp including renowned actor, acting coach and director Matt Dearing and award winning children’s theater director Dale Nakagawa both of whom directed multiple youth productions on the Pinewood Playhouse stage. The productions of the past are far too numerous to mention here, but junior versions of classic productions such as “Oliver,” “Cats,” “Jungle Book,” “101 Dalmatians,” “Aladdin,”  “The Sound of Music” and in more recent years “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Annie” have been performed.

The stated mission of the Pinewood Players Drama Camp is to provide activities to develop creative imagination, individual confidence, group cooperation, performance skills and an appreciation and enjoyment of all aspects of theater. In speaking with many of our Drama Camp alumni, some whom are Pinewood Players Scholarship recipients, we can confirm “mission accomplished.”

In 2021 Pinewood Players Youth Drama Camp will celebrate 20 years of providing an incredible venue for the youngsters of Munds Park to learn and have fun while developing an appreciation for theater, the performing arts and building friendships and memories to last a lifetime. The camp is open to all children in Munds Park. A special 20th Anniversary production will be presented in July. Visit our web site for more information.

In the next installment of “The History of Pinewood Players” we will explore the growth and evolution of Pinewood Players and the Pinewood Playhouse in more recent years.

The Evolutionary Years

The years since the Pinewood Playhouse opened could be referred to as the evolutionary years of the organization’s development.  Technology and other factors brought about significant changes in the organization, the productions and the Playhouse itself.  

Technology enhanced the ability of the group to reach members and patrons and made participation easier and more convenient. Circa 2012 the group introduced its first web site and entered the age of electronic information and communication. Online ticket sales came onboard a few years later.  The first email Newsletter was published in 2013.

On stage, more elaborate productions were made possible by such enhancements as wireless microphones.  Large cast musicals such as “Guys and Dolls” and “Bells are Ringing” were staged. Classics such as “Steel Magnolias,” “Plaza Suite,” ”Cactus Flower,” “On Golden Pond,” and “Bus Stop” were performed.  Productions requiring elaborate sets and multiple set changes were no obstruction for the talented cadre of directors, producers and backstage managers. Audiences were entertained by hysterical farces and moved by heart-warming stories brought to life on the Pinewood Playhouse stage.

At the other end of the performing arts spectrum, Reader’s Theater was introduced as a way to encourage “would be performers” to try their hand at reading humorous skits to entertain their fellow members, friends and neighbors in a casual setting. Many of these novices embraced the experience and graduated to become talented performers on the Pinewood Playhouse main stage. Reader’s Theater remains the training ground and one of the most popular events playing to sell out audiences each season.

During this time the Pinewood Playhouse underwent significant physical changes with additions to the building to create dressing rooms and a separate make-up room. The covered patio was added to the front of the building and a ticket office enclosure was subsequently built out onto the patio. Air conditioning was installed for the comfort of the audience and the building received a new roof.

In more recent years a computerized digital sound system was added which expanded the capacity for wireless microphones. A theater curtain was added in 2019 which enhanced the audience experience and professional ambiance of the stage. A portable sound system was purchased to support Reader’s Theater events and Drama Camp performances.

No doubt these were the formative years that established Pinewood Players as a Munds Park institution and positioned the group to continue to evolve as changing demographics and lifestyles usher in a new era to the community and the organization.

Epilogue

You need only to look around you to see the significant changes taking place in our community. In the past few years many new families are calling Munds Park their full time or seasonal home. The demographics are changing. The population is becoming increasingly younger. A significant number of older residents are choosing to no longer maintain their homes in Munds Park for various reasons. Families with children of all ages are backfilling the void as older residents depart. 

This quite natural “changing of the guard” that serves to revitalize and refresh communities also reflects in the cultural disposition of such communities in flux. Young families often have different preferences regarding their leisure and entertainment choices. Staying relevant to a new generation of Munds Park residents will be the challenge Pinewood Players must address now and in future years.

Providing the opportunity for children to participate in and learn about theater and the performing arts remains one of the most important missions of Pinewood Players. The Youth Drama Camp Program will continue to be a priority to preserve the fun and comradery of the drama camp experience and to ensure that an appreciation of theater and the performing arts is passed on and instilled in younger generations.

The Scholarship Program is also a critical component to staying relevant in the community as more families with children become full time or seasonal residents and those children grow up and pursue higher educations.  The program was initially targeted to students pursuing educations in the performing arts but has been expanded to include students pursuing other disciplines if they meet the program criteria and have participated in at least two Pinewood Players Drama Camps.

Live theater and the performing arts are cultural experiences that can appeal to a wide variety of tastes. Comedy, drama, singing and dance can be appreciated across diverse age groups and backgrounds. Live theater can become an acquired appreciation given the opportunity to experience it in the ambiance of a real theater with professional lighting and sound systems and an inspired staff of directors, actors, backstage and technical crews. A quality live theater experience can enrich one’s life and impact one’s perspective in a very positive way.

To maintain the tradition and pass on the legacy, Pinewood Players must not only continue to attract members and patrons to the theater for performances, but must also attract those who are willing to direct, act, work backstage, operate sound and lights and volunteers to help with all aspects of the productions and operations. This includes volunteers who are willing to help guide the organization into the future as members of the Board of Directors. The group provides training for all of these positions and welcomes new members and volunteers into the organization. Pinewood Players is open to everyone in Munds Park. You are all encouraged to join, participate and be a part of the 30 year tradition as well as to share in and contribute to the future of live theater in Munds Park.

Pinewood Players thanks Munds Park for their patronage and support for the past 30 years and looks forward to the future and many more years of service providing cultural opportunities for the community to enjoy. For events, tickets, membership and other information visit www.pinewoodplayers.com