Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

March 26, 2014

RAY MOSCOWITZ: Ole Olsen has been a Peru gem for 50 seasons

Cadre of volunteers, supporters contribute to its success.


MC Weekly

---- — When the final curtain drops on “Arsenic and Old Lace,” which runs April 24-27 and May 2-4, it will close the 50th season for Ole Olsen Theater, a Peru gem that deserves oodles of kudos.

The first-ever curtain went up in March 1965, when Ole presented “Come Blow Your Horn” in the old Peru High School Auditorium.

Ole had been founded in the fall of 1964, named after John Siguard Olsen. He had been born in Peru on Nov. 6, 1892, and gone on to have a noted career in vaudeville with long-time partner Chic Johnson.

Among the cadre of volunteers who have made Ole a shining success for five decades is Kelly Voss.

“Ole is one of the few civic theaters in the state that is maintaining itself,” she said in an email interview.

That’s understandable, considering the quality entertainment offered at affordable prices. General seating is $12. Some productions include dinner for another $20 — excellent food catered by various Peru restaurants.

Since 1996, Ole has been doing shows in the Peru Depot, which the organization bought and restored. The Depot generally seats 65 people comfortably.

Ole Olsen Memorial Theatre Inc. is a not-for-profit organization that owns the Depot, the Cole Porter Birthplace and the “Ole Building” on Ind. 124 used to store sets and costumes, long-time volunteer and performer Tammy Hileman said. Ole is attempting to sell the Cole Porter Birthplace, she added.

Two boards oversee Ole.

A theater board selects plays from those submitted by qualified directors, Voss said. “You must have assistant-directed another Ole production to be a director, according to our by-laws, and the membership votes on the slate for the next season at our annual membership meeting.”

A financial board oversees Ole’s income and expenses, Voss said. “We pay upkeep on the Ole Building, the Depot and the Cole Porter Birthplace. We have insurance and costs of running all the buildings. We have taken on projects that involved renovating the Depot, Peru Toll House, and the Cole Porter Birthplace.”

The main sources of income are donations and ticket sales, while the primary expenses are building maintenance and rights to shows, Hileman said. “We usually at least break even, but that is not always the case, depending on ticket sales and maintenance expenses each season.” (People can help maintain Ole’s viability by mailing donations to Ole Olsen Memorial Theatre Inc., 154 S. Broadway, Peru, IN 46970.)

The beauty of Ole is how people in the community blend their skills — theatrical and otherwise — with their love for performing. The result is a creative force that has won praise for quality productions. Equity sweat and greasepaint go together like PB and J.

Among such people are Jeff Carnagua, who’s president of the financial board; Diane Blair, who serves as vice president, and Anne Loy, secretary and historian. Brandi Murphy handles marketing.

On the theatrical side, John Kirk is the chairperson, with Voss serving as vice chair and Christy Sullivan as secretary.

Sunny Holtzlander is in charge of ticket sales, Joe Pyke oversees production, Cari Scott takes care of publicity, Angel Mumaw-Williams coordinates hospitality, and Hileman serves as treasurer.

Hileman also plays a pivotal role with Pat Piper and Jayne Kessler in producing the Children’s Theater.

Some people have become Ole fixtures over the decades, including Mayor Jim Walker, who has been involved for nearly 50 years. “Jim Walker lived it,” Voss said.

“Barb Cooley, who was on stage in my production of ‘Showstoppers Part Deux,’ has been a member of Ole for 45 years,” Voss noted. “She and I were installed into the Ole Hall of Fame together about four or five years ago. …

“Madge Marzalek just stopped being our dialogue monitor for shows about three years ago due to her age. She had been a member for 40 plus years. … Bob Radel had been involved in Ole for nearly 40 years as our bookkeeper most of that time. Tom Gustin remains involved and has been a member for more years than I know.”

Another veteran is Bob Bryan, now retired after a stellar career as a reporter for Nixon Newspapers Inc. He, too, is a member of the Ole Hall of Fame and has been involved as long as Voss.

Voss’ induction into the Ole Hall of Fame is understandable. She estimates she has acted in more than 60 plays. She says she has lost count of how many she has directed.

“I directed Children’s Theater for several years,” she recalled. “I have directed three ‘Nunsense’ productions, co-wrote and directed our first Cole Porter show with Kurt Schindler, [and] have created and directed two Showstopper Shows. I have assistant-directed about ten shows and built sets for more than 25 productions.”

Voss created and directed the 50th season’s third production, “Showstoppers — Part Deux.” That show was preceded by the season’s kickoff last August at Peru High School auditorium — a one-night extravaganza featuring nearly three hours of Ole history on stage.

The season’s first play was “Of Mice and Men,” directed by Debby Myers. It played in late September and early October at the Depot. Debbie’s husband, Alan, directed the season’s second play at the Depot, “Everybody Loves Opal.” The show was one of the first plays presented by Ole Olsen in the 1960s after its inception. Stu Sullivan will be directing “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

Each season has an encore production — an “add-on” show that corresponds with the Cole Porter Festival in June, Voss said. “These are generally originally written plays using Cole Porter music. This year’s production will be called Country Fried Cole and is written by Sunny Holtzlander.”

Children’s Theater is another summer activity. Piper and Hileman will direct this year’s production of “Macbeth.”

Voss might not have been involved with any of this if not for her father, Fred, a retired Air Force colonel who spent time at various bases before settling in Peru. (Kelly’s mother, Vicki, retired from Peru Community Schools as the eighth- and ninth-grade transitional guidance counselor.)

“My father did plays with Ole Olsen during the mid ’70s, when we were stationed at Grissom Air Force Base,” Voss related. “When my parents retired here, I moved to Peru from Omaha, Neb., where I had been living to attend college, to be near my family and raise my children [Casandra Stowell, Colbey Voss, Courtney Voss and Caitlyn Maiseroulle, who are involved with Ole].”

Upon returning, Voss immediately followed in her dad’s footsteps. She has been with Ole ever since. (Perhaps there’s some “Hollywood” in her blood; she was born in Los Angeles when her dad was stationed in California.)

Her first production was “Carousel,” directed by the late Ron Blackman, who, Voss said, was a major contributor to Ole.

Emblematic of others, Voss has fit Ole into a busy personal life. After getting a bachelor of science degree from Indiana University, she worked at the Miami Correctional Facility as a substance abuse counselor, in outpatient and minimum security and in the meth unit.

Before that, she spent six years as a reporter for the Peru Tribune. (She returned to journalism in October 2013, when she and her significant other, David Makin, started the Peru Miami News, an Internet publication.)

Asked about Ole’s future, Voss said the organization is not actively thinking about leaving the Depot. A future goal will be whether to build or buy a structure that can house the theater and workshop in one place

“We are currently trying to get enough funds built up for that project,” Voss said. “We are patient.”

Before moving into the Depot, Ole used the stages at Peru and Maconaquah high schools, according to Voss. On at least two occasions, the Circuit Courtroom on the third floor of the courthouse was used. The Children’s Theater productions are staged at Ivy Tech.

Ole’s steady growth has come from community support, and Voss is quick to recognize it.

“I think it is important to thank the people of Miami County and Peru who have supported Ole Olsen over the past 50 years,” she said.

“We have people like Bulla Hoffman, who left us a trust at her passing, and Joe B. Williams, who passed recently, a season ticket holder for many years. He left us $45,000 to keep producing Ole productions, because he believed in what our organization does. Joey Kubesch, who is a Cole Porter relative still living in Peru, supported Ole for years financially and did so much for us. Ron Blackman made a large financial contribution in the late ’70s and early ’80s when Ole was in need, which allowed us to keep going.

“I am so appreciative that Peru has this little thing called a community theater that has been such a big part of my life.

“I can’t wait to see what Ole Olsen does in the next 50 years.”

Neither, I’m sure, can a lot of other people.

Ray Moscowitz of Bloomington is a retired newspaper executive and former publisher of the Peru Tribune. Contact him at r.mosco@comcast.net.