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Monday, August 23, 2021

Photos - Part One: The Home of the 'Village Players'

A view of the Village Players building, taken August 10, 1978. 
(Img: Living Magazines)

By Jessie Eden

On August 10, 1978, a photo was taken. The unassuming image shows some old cars, "Busy B's" Bar and Pony Keg and a two-story building that was (and still is) the home to the Fort Thomas' thriving community theatre group -- Village Players. 

That building has seen a lot of history in the past 112 years.

From the minute you walk under the “Village Players’ awning or through the large white front door with its intricate half-moon transom window above it, you know the space at the corner of Highland and N. Fort Thomas Avenue is special. 

Built in 1909, the Village Players building used to be a telephone exchange.

If you’ve been lucky enough to explore the space – the Lobby, Great Room and adjoining Kitchen with a giant, cast iron sink and shelves that house decades of fine china left behind by The Women’s Club, there is a little piece of history everywhere you look.

The lobby of the Village Players building, 2021.

The second floor theater space where many a USO dance was held. (2021)

You've likely driven past this building hundreds of times or maybe you've pushed a stroller or walked your dear old dog past it. Maybe you've taken your child to a dance class there or, if you're really lucky, you've seen a fantastic show in the cozy theater.

Village Players Theater, 2021

Intricate details on the second floor railing. (2021)

The Lobby was last renovated in the 1960s. (2021)

The "Hiland" Exchange

The building that now houses the Village Players was built for a completely different purpose than a theater or social club. Although it is still used to make connections among people, the building's original purpose was more literal -- telephones and telegraphs.

In 1909, the building was home to the "Hiland" exchange, a part of the Citizen's Telephone Company and American Telephone & Telegraph Co. The telephone exchange opened for service on June 24, 1909 and housed over 1,700 telephones.

The space would eventually become home to The Woman’s Club. Although The Woman's Club was established in 1915 in Fort Thomas, the club would not claim the exchange building as its home until February 1941.

Originally the organization was divided into separate departments. From 1933 to 1943, there was the Needlework Guild. The Drama Department became the Music and Drama Department in 1954-55 which became the Village Players in 1967. 

The Woman's Club continued 100 years of service to the community by raising funds for local nonprofits. The Junior Department of the Woman's Club even established the first kindergarten in Fort Thomas and, after the Village Players Department renovated the dusty basement of the building, it would go on to regularly raise around $5,000 a year for Camp Sunshine.

You Can't Take It With You, 1951 (Seated, L to R: Marilyn Jacob, Carole Wischmeyer, Elaine Racke, Dave Stanley, Ruth Miller, Adlyn Ware, Marian Pladies. Standing: Charles Schorman, Jim King, Otto Budig, Bill Brinkman, Charles Crum, Jack Ebert, Jim Dixon, Jo Seibert, Tom Forde.)

In Fall 2018, The Woman's Club gifted the building to the Village Players.

The Woman's Club members pose for a photo in 1966.

From a Dirty Basement to a Dazzling Theater

In 1967, a group of hardworking individuals came together to help renovate the dark and dirty basement to create a one-of-a-kind theatre space. It was with their sweat, hard work and imaginations that Village Players was born.

Families grew up together within Village Players productions. The Haas Family of Fort Thomas was one of those hardworking families. Mary and Don Haas became involved in the early 1960s and soon after their children, Eric and Faye, joined the productions.

The Pleasure of His Company, 1982 
(Back: Bill Brinkman, Betty Raible, Eric Haas. Front: Charles Hewitt, Mary Haas, Bill Hartnett, Faye Haas Wendel, Steve Myers)

It all started while Mary was doing shows for the Woman’s Club Drama Department at what is now the Village Players building. “It started with one play a year to benefit ‘Camp Sunshine’ at Holly Hill Children’s Home. We just did one a year and I was in them at that time…but the upstairs stage wasn’t wide enough for crossovers,” said Mary. 

So, they started searching for a bigger space.

Cemetery Club, 1992 (Mary Haas, 1992)

First, they went to Notre Dame Elementary (where the St. Elizabeth Urgent Care is now) and then they performed for three years at Ruth Moyer. Yet, the search continued for the perfect spot.

Members of the Woman's Club pose with a donation check, 1966. (L-R: Mrs. Paul Kiel, Mrs. Wilson Gosney, Tory Hall, Patti Koehler)

Mrs. Henrietta Gosney poses with a model of the Village Players building.

Henrietta Gosney and I went looking at the army post (Tower Park) but it just wasn’t big enough, there really wasn’t a place you could make into a theater” said Mary. “So we thought, ‘Well, wonder what the basement at the Woman’s Club looks like?’ and you never saw such filth!”

The Village Players stage after renovations in the late 1960s.

Yet, somehow, the crew created a stage, dressing room, risers and scene shop out of the space.

With some imagination and, well, some serious hard work, the founding members of the Village Players busted through the 12-inch-thick walls of the basement. “We had to use heavy cement cutters to get openings in the walls for fire exits where you would enter and exit,” said Don. “That’s the only way we got on stage during the play!”

At the time, both Mary and Don Haas were in their mid-thirties and along with at least 10 to 15 other couples, they transformed the space. “When we cleaned out that basement, we were 35 years old when we opened that theatre and our kids were not quite teenagers, so they were in there hauling stuff out too. We had more help than we could ever use, even a couple of the fellas were contractors and helped to build risers,” said Don.  

Of course, there were challenges too. “The bank was smack next to the building and the drive through was right next to wall so we had to work with the bank to open up the side of its lot and we had to clean out the steps down to the bottom of wall”, said Don. “Local Artist Bev Erschell painted the Village Players figures (logo) at the bottom of the steps.”

The original theater seats were from the Albee Theater, once located in Fountain Square.

Then, they had to search for seats for their patrons. “We went looking for seats and found some that they were getting rid of from Shubert’s Theater at the Albee Theater [once located in Fountain Square, Cincinnati], said Mary. “Those lasted for years.”

It may have just been a basement at the time…but those founding members made it a theater. “We made it an ‘In the round’ style. I had never worked with that style but I loved it. I liked that the audience was just six rows up and wouldn’t miss the little things like large crowds in bigger theaters.”

The Community was Ready for a Theater

The cast of The Women, 1967

Once productions began in the new space, Village Players packed the house. 

The Village Players would do one show to benefit the Woman’s Club, who paid the rent, gas and electricity in the space, and the other two shows were for the Village Players. 

You Can’t Take it With You, 1982. (From left: Don Gilchrist, Bill Brinkman, Mike Jaggers, Nancy Glier, Bill Hartnett, Frank Beard, Ellie Shepherd, Unknown (possibly Mike Mitchell) 

With three shows each weekend for three weeks in a row, performers took to the stage to share their talents with Fort Thomas. “We were sold out, constantly sold out. We would sell out a month ahead of time! Bill Brinkman was the Ticket Chairman and he did a lot”, said Mary. “The community was ready…and we were pretty good!”

An unknown show in November 1968.  (Mrs. Charlotte Hall, Tom Biltz, Mrs. Carolyn Galvin)

Walter and Billie Bohart were extremely involved with Village Players.

The Home of the Community for 112 Years

From telephone exchange building to Woman's Club to the home of the Village Players, this space has seen so many members of the community walk through its doors. As the years have progressed, the home of the Village Players has endured several renovations to keep this 112-year-old beauty in working order. 

Village Players members work on removing old paneling during a renovation in 2019.

Some things may have changed...but you can still spy so many little details that nod to the rich history of the building. 

If you haven't had a chance to check it out, you should! 

Be sure to follow the Village Players on Facebook for more updates on upcoming shows, events and news!

THEN - A cast party, year unknown (Bill Brinkman, Don Haas, Sara “Pink” Hamel, Betty Raible)

THEN - A cast party, year unknown (Charles Hewitt, Sara “Pink” Hamel, Mary Haas, Rilla Foster)

NOW - This main room was recently renovated in 2019. (2021)

NOW - Village Players Dressing Room, 2021

NOW - Village Players Costume Room, 2021

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing past. Thanks for sharing this with the community. Can't wait to see what the future holds for the Village Players.