The Peninsula Players has a history which is as captivating as the plays staged at the theater during the past 87 years. And it began simply with “two planks and a passion.” Patrons have returned year after year, drawn by the theater’s tradition of providing exceptional professional productions of classic and contemporary literature. They are also delighted by the talent of its acting company and the theater’s serene location along the shores of Green Bay.
The theater opened its first show, Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, on July 25, 1935 behind the Bonnie Brook Cottage/Motel in Fish Creek. With a small friendly audience, a youthful and talented cast, and the determined Fisher family, the Peninsula Players were born.
Produced by young and enthusiastic novice theater producers Richard and Caroline Fisher, a brother and sister team. Mama Fisher designed and built costumes, in between preparing meals for the company, and Papa Fisher served as the theater’s general handy man. Their daughter Caroline, when not busy on stage, ran the business end of the theater while their son Richard directed, stage managed and was the overall artistic director.
In 1937, the industrious thespians realized they had outgrown the Bonnie Brook Motel, and purchased the newly vacated 16-acre Wildwood Boys Camp, the present site of the theater – a truly beautiful and striking setting with its spectacular sunsets, cedar-scented landscape, paths along the Green Bay shoreline, and enchanting gardens.
When the theater first moved to its present location the audience could be found sitting under the stars in the open air, watching plays presented in the new, barn-like proscenium stagehouse. Early Players’ actor Sam Wanamaker, who helped build the stagehouse as an apprentice actor in 1937, remembers his experience: “What romantic memories! So many firsts – first play, first car wreck, first passionate unrequited love affair (Caroline), first star-filled nights, first Northern Lights… It was a beautiful time which I shall always cherish.” Wanamaker went on to help form the organization which funded the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.
In 1946, a huge canvas top was draped over the audience allowing performances to continue through all kinds of weather. Since the late 1940’s Caroline had envisioned a permanent roof over the theater, and in 1957 her dream came true. The new pavilion with its open sides did not distract attention from the tranquil atmosphere and beauty of the Theatre in the Garden yet provided secure protection from inclement weather.
In 1960, for both business and personal reasons, the original founders were forced to sell the theater. The theater was put up for sale at a public auction and the new owner, Kenneth Carroad, a New York City attorney, asked Jim McKenzie to oversee the operations as producer. Jim and his wife, Jeanne Bolan, both associated with the Players since 1947, took on the Fisher legacy, and in 1962 the Peninsula Players Theatre Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization was formed to operate the theater. Eventually, Mr. Carroad offered to sell the Players to Jim and in 1978 he became the owner of the property and continued as its producer until 2001.
The main contributors to the Peninsula Players success have been the stalwart group of artists who have delighted audiences since the theater’s founding. Countless actors have been involved in the more than 500 plays presented at the theater. The Players’ resident company maintains ensembles of high quality and artistic standards. Many alumni have become Broadway, regional theater, screen and TV personalities. Present company members appear regularly in major regional theater, Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, on TV and in films. Directors and designers are hired from across the country.
By 1993, the aging theater pavilion and surrounding support buildings began to show need for significant renovations and repairs. In addition to upgrading the existing spaces, new housing and production facilities were also desperately needed. In reviewing the financial situation and the necessary plans for future building and redevelopment, Jim accepted an offer from the Foundation to sell the property. On June 17, 1993, the Peninsula Players Theatre Foundation, Inc. acquired ownership of the property. Along with the sale went a legacy to continue the founders’ inspired efforts towards excellent professional theater in Door County, Wisconsin.
Since the sale, building upon the original mission and vision of the historic Peninsula Players Theatre, company members, the Board of Directors and dedicated contributors worked to preserve and improve the facilities and environment of the theater. New housing, public restroom facilities, expanded and upgraded rehearsal and storage areas, and thriving gardens have all been added to the facility, thanks to the help of countless dedicated donors, benefactors, and volunteers.
Working in a resident company such as the Players is a unique experience for company members. With approximately 50 people living and working together, the company becomes a supportive network. “We offer a unique relationship – working, living, and eating meals with theater professionals,” said Brian Kelsey, Managing Director. “Everyone in our theater company lives on property: actors, interns, directors, designers, technicians, stage managers, and administrators. Company members get to know everyone involved in the creative process because they’re not living an independent life off property.” Each year many interns are enticed to work at the Players because they have ample opportunities to meet, work with and learn from practicing theater professionals. This is another vision of the Players’ founders which is carried on today.
The Peninsula Players Theatre is nestled in a fragrant cedar forest overlooking the waters of Green Bay, where patrons come before curtain to stroll along the shore, enjoy a relaxing picnic, or have a cocktail while watching the sunset before the exhilaration of a live theatrical performance. Since 1935 and the opening of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, the Players have been entertaining, educating, and uplifting loyal audiences.
Eighty seven years have passed and the Players still strive to continue their founders’ goal of providing a professional working atmosphere for current and future theater artists. Former General Manager Tom Birmingham recalled once: “It is said that theater in its simplest terms is two planks and a passion. The two planks are easy to come by. The passion is rare.” The Players, past and present, have the passion to continue Caroline and Richard’s vision into the upcoming decades. Knowing this we hope to see you in our audience on those nights, too.