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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!”
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.”
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
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.
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!”