PEORIA — On June 27, 1919, The Peoria Transcript published the following headline: "Make plans for little theatre here next fall."
“A little theatre plan for Peoria was launched last night at a meeting of 35 Peorians at the home of William Hawley Smith, Knoxville Avenue, where they gathered to talk over the feasibility of such a movement here. It was decided to form a ‘players group’ which will be made up of amateur actors, writers, painters and electricians so that all the requisites of a ‘little theatre’ production may be furnished at home. It is the plan of those promoting the project to secure a limited number of patrons and patronesses to act as a backbone for the theatre during the first season. Plays will be given monthly, patrons guaranteeing one ticket for each performance. For this they will be given special privileges, such as first and second night seats. They probably will be invited to special productions during the year given for patrons only,” the newspaper printed.
Little did they know at the time, but they were making history. Peoria Players is now the longest continuously running community theater in Illinois and the fourth longest in the nation, said Nicki Haschke, Players manager.
The first show on Oct. 6, 1919, was "The Maker of Dreams" by Oliphant Down. This “little theatre” has been in continuous operation since that date.
Peoria Players will celebrate its 100th season for the next year, starting this fall.
"When selecting our 100th season lineup of shows, we wanted to not only celebrate the past, but also look ahead to the future," said Haschke, who has been with Peoria Players for 40 years. "Therefore, we are offering some of our most well-known productions, along with a regional premiere.”
Last year, Peoria Players asked their patrons what shows they would like to see in the centennial season.
“Our top vote-getter was actually 'The King and I',” Haschke said, “but unfortunately, due to the tour, we could not get the rights. So we decided to give audiences their second and third choices, which were 'A Chorus Line' and 'The Wizard of Oz,' respectively. However, we will continue trying for 'The King and I' and hope to present it in a future season.”
To kick off the celebration, on Sunday, July 22, Peoria Players will hold its annual Get Acquainted event. It's free and begins at 1 p.m. with doors opening at 12:30 p.m. at the theater, 4300 N. University St.
The theater group's next performance is by its Summer Youth Theatre, who will perform "Grease" from Aug. 1 to 5. Director Mary Ellen Ulrich has assembled a cast of 14- to 20-year-olds who represent 14 schools and 11 central Illinois communities.
“Since Grease was our first Summer Youth Theatre production in 1997, we thought it would be special to bring it back in this slot to lead into our 100th season,” Haschke said. After "Grease" closes, Peoria Players will be installing new seats thanks to a generous donation, Haschke added.
The mainstage season officially opens in September with "The Wizard of Oz" directed by Jimmy Ulrich.
The rest of the season includes: "Steel Magnolias" directed by Susan Hazzard, "Elf the Musical" (a regional premiere) directed by Jeremy Kelly, "West Side Story" directed by Connie Sinn, "Dreamgirls" directed by Lisa Voyles, and "A Chorus Line" directed by Chip Joyce.
Along with the season lineup, Peoria Players will offer several special performances, including the annual showing of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," now in its 27th year at Peoria Players; "Christmas One Acts," featuring one-act plays written by local authors; "A Ring-A-Ding-Ding New Year," a New Year’s Eve celebration showcasing the music of Frank Sinatra; and "Centennial Celebration Revue," a musical revue of Peoria Players’ history.
Other 100th anniversary events include: a video documentary by WTVP, which can be purchased with a commemorative booklet; a historical exhibit opening in October at the Peoria Riverfront Museum; a gala celebration on Jan. 19, 2019; and a birthday party in October 2019.
The Illinois Theatre Association will award Peoria Players with its Community Theatre Award of Excellence next month.