Had they been able to find jobs in the summer of 1936, there might not be an Antrim Players.
But, as luck would have it, a group of college kids, led by Belle Mayer (who would later go on to be a prosecutor in the post-World War II Nuremberg war crime trials), couldn’t find work and decided to put on a show called “Joan of Arkansas” at the Airmont School. They held a benefit performance of the show for the school PTA on Sept. 18, 1936 — 75 years ago today.
That show begat others.
Four years later, they moved to the Suffern Community Center on Spook Rock Road, renaming it The Antrim Playhouse. Seventy-five years later, Antrim is still going strong, producing six shows a season.
It has been a first stop for the likes of Fred Gwynne, Rene Auberjonois, Christine Andreas and Tyne Daly.
To mark the anniversary of that first production, members of the theater gathered to share memories of shows and the people behind them. Their reflections offer a glimpse into why people do community theater. They talk about esprit de corps and finding an outlet for creativity.
Jimmy Guarasci’s favorite moment is a recent one: the opening night of 2009’s “Miss Saigon.”
“It felt like a Broadway production on that little stage,” says New City’s Guarasci. “We had 11 people in the orchestra and 35 in the cast. Just the amount of people we were able to move was remarkable. There were 100 pairs of shoes and 300 costumes.”
Guarasci was inspired by longtime member Blanche Rothstein, who acted, directed and taught actors.
“I learned a lot about life from Blanche,” he says. “Her big thing was ‘Never give up on Antrim. The harder we work, the better we’ll be.’ That sense of community and camaraderie that she helped create is one of the things I’ll never forget.”
Brianne Higgins, of Nyack, has been with Antrim about six years and is now the theater’s manager.
Her fondest memory is last fall’s “Antrim Antics,” an original sketch-comedy show she created with Dana Duff, a lifelong goal.
Higgins points to two Antrim stalwarts as unforgettable: Tom France and Jean Reda.
“At the cast party for ‘Snow White,’ we were all sitting on the floor listening to Tom,” Higgins recalls. “Then, he said his favorite line: ‘Antrim is not a building. It’s a living and breathing soul. It has a pulse that began before you and will continue to exist long after you’re gone.’
“Next, he went around the room and pointed to each of us and said ‘It’s up to you and you and you and you to keep this theater going.’”
Higgins says she took it as a call to action.
If France was the father of Antrim, Jean Reda, a longtime prop master and set dresser, was the mother, Higgins says, adding that she holds precious the time they spent together before Reda’s retirement from the group.
Higgins says there’s a real sense of history and purpose in that building on the end of Spook Rock Road.
“Tom left us an archive of photos and you look at these photos that go back so far and all of these faces upon faces and you have to think, ‘Wow! We’re just a tiny speck in time,’” she says. “It doesn’t minimize what our job is now, but it just makes you think how little we are when you think about the history of this place.”
Randy Accardi showed up for an audition for “Kiss Me, Kate” in 2004 and has gone on to direct several shows. He credits past president Bill Conroy with giving him the support to bring shows to the 22-by-28-foot stage. Among his favorites is last season’s “Wait Until Dark,” “because I had a cast that was completely into it.”
Pomona’s Connie Reiss Taragano came to Antrim after her husband died, and found a new family.
“Ten months after he passed away, I saw a notice in the paper, shining up at me: ‘Auditions for ‘Miss Saigon,’” she says.
“What impressed me was that Antrim was able to create an illusion on stage. More than 30 people on stage, but we all knew what we were supposed to do.”
Suffern’s Marty Andreas, Antrim’s president, lauds France, and the late director and actor Bill Zachar, who cast Andreas as Harry Brock in “Born Yesterday.”
“I liked his directing style,” Andreas says. “He’d let you find the character and then he’d steer you if he needed to.”
Andreas says his favorite moment is an unusual one, 2010’s “Assassins,” by Stephen Sondheim.
“The memory I have is people walking out of the show at intermission, offended. ‘How could we glorify these killers?’
“I said to myself, ‘I’m so proud that we could put something on that could get this emotion out of people. I realized, ‘These people are going to be talking about the show. I don’t care if they say good things or bad things. They’re going to be talking about a show at Antrim.’ And they did. I’d never seen that before. And at every performance, people left.’”
It’s likely, though, they’ll be back for season 75, which ranges from “Biloxi Blues” to more “Antrim Antics” to “Of Mice and Men.”
They’ll sit in the Tom France Theater, in the cozy embrace of a hall that has meant so much to so many, in a group whose history began being written 75 years ago this very day.
A Tribute Brooke Malloy and Brianne Higgins produced a film tribute to Tom France, “Our Friend, Tom,” with a soundtrack that includes France’s warm voice. Watch “Our Friend, Tom” here.
Photos, from top: The program from “Joan of Arkansas,” on Sept. 18, 1936, 75 years ago today. (Courtesy Marty Andreas)
Antrim Playhouse members talk at Jimmy’s on Main in Nanuet. From left, Jimmy Guarasci, Brianne Higgins, Connie Reiss Taragano, Randy Accardi and Marty Andreas. ( Peter Carr/The Journal News )
Elva Jump Mumma was in Antrim’s first production, “Joan of Arkansas” in 1936. Here, in 2005, she’s honored by the group. At right is Suffern’s Tom France, known to his friends at “Mr. Antrim.” France died in 2007; Jump in 2010. (File/The Journal News)