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MC Weekly

October 9, 2013

50 years on stage

From humble beginnings, Ole Olsen Memorial Theatre grows into community staple.

Back in 1964, Mel Myers was hanging out at the old Fox and Hound bar in Peru when he heard rumors someone was starting a community theater in town.The rumors piqued his interest. Myers said he’d performed in a few plays in high school, but it’d been a while since he’d been on a stage. So he started looking into it. Sure enough, the rumors were true.A group of theater enthusiasts in Peru had started from scratch a new group called the Ole Olsen Memorial Theatre.“I thought, ‘Hmmm, that sounds interesting,’” Myers said. “So I tried out and, sure enough, I got a part.”Myers ended up performing in “Come Blow Your Horn,” the maiden play put on by the new theater group at the now-demolished high school gym.What started out as a ragtag group of local actors and producers putting on low-budget shows has since morphed into one of the most active and prolific community theaters in the state. This year, Ole Olsen celebrates its 50th season in Peru, where it’s produced over 200 plays and musicals since its founding.It was Bob Gross who originally had the idea to start a theater company in Peru. At the time, he worked with the WARU AM-radio station in town.“He thought Peru needed a theater,” said 81-year-old Anne Loy, the archivist for Ole Olsen and a member since 1975. “There wasn’t enough going on in this town to suite him. So he got a few people together, and they started it out with nothing. If they ended up with 30 bucks in the black at the end of the year, they were happy.”One of the big issues at that first board meeting was what to call the new theater group. They brainstormed a handful of options, including the Miami Theater Wing, Peru Civic Theater, Circus City Players and Mississinewa Civic Theater.But what seemed the obvious choice was a name honoring Peru native and Broadway composer Ole Olsen, who died just a year before in 1963.Ole Olsen was born John Siguard Olsen in Peru in 1892. He graduated from Northwestern University in 1912 with a degree in music and started travelling the Vaudeville circuit. In 1914, he met ragtime pianist Chic Johnson. The two formed “Olsen and Johnson,” and eventually made it big with their Broadway show and movie “Hellzapoppin.”“Olsen told everybody he was from Peru, Indiana,” Loy said. “We had another personality here – Cole Porter – who did not care to be known that he was from a small Indiana town.”In fact, Loy said if Olsen found out an audience member at one of his shows hailed from Peru, he always invited them backstage to shake hands and talk about their hometown.“He was extremely popular here,” she said. “He came back often and did a lot in this community, and he was much loved. So of course, his name was really in their minds when they named the theater because he had just died that spring.”So it was settled. The new group would be named the Ole Olsen Memorial Theatre.That first season, the theater put on “Come Blow Your Horn” and “Ten Little Indians” with a small group of actors, and Loy said it was a low-budget affair.The theater was so poor, in fact, that they had to store costumes and props in large trash barrels and stash them in the attic of a local bank. Members donated their living room furniture to be used as props in theplays.But with the help of local stylists Ron and Patti Blackman, the group eventually got on its feet. Ron Blackman performed in the first production, along with now 81-year-old Mel Myers, and ended up having rolls in 14 shows and directing 13 more.He also donated money to keep the fledgling theater alive.Ole Olsen’s daughter, Moya, also made substantial financial contributions to the group. In 1941, she married millionaire Bill Lear, the founder of the Lear Jet Corporation and the inventor of the first car radio and 8-track tapes.“I was at that first banquet and I met Moya,” Myers recalled. “Nice lady. She was a good speaker. Very charming.” The theater held its first performances in the old Peru High School gym, then moved its productions into the auditorium when the new high school was built. By that time, Ole Olsen was well established in Peru. With a large high school auditorium to perform in, the group produced popular large-scale musicals like “Fiddler on the Roof,” “West Side Story” and “The King and I,” as well as smaller, more intimate plays.An auditorium was great, but it wasn’t a place to call home. That changed in the 1992, when Ole Olsen purchased the old train depot on South Broadway. It was the first venue the group actually owned and operated.It took a year to restore the dilapidated depot, which had sat empty for over 20 years. The floor was rotting, the ceiling was falling down, but the group cleaned it up and installed a stage and lighting system inside.Now Ole Olsen could practice its plays where they wanted, and when they wanted. When the group first started, they practiced wherever they could – church basements, garages or even actors’ backyards.Debby Myers, a veteran performer who now directs Ole Olsen productions, said the new venue was much smaller than what they were used to, comfortably seating only around 60 people. But she said performing inside an historic depot has been a big draw for audiences.“My favorite part about acting for Ole Olsen is this depot,” she said. “At the high school, I felt so far away from people. The applause didn’t sound as loud and you can’t look people in the eye and see their reaction to what you’re doing. “Now, I think the biggest draw for people to our theater is this depot,” she said. “They like the quaintness. The audience can see the actors, they can hear the people on stage. It’s comfortable. It has ambiance.”It’s the kind of theater that works well for Ole Olsen’s current play, “Of Mice And Men,” which kicked off the 50th season last weekend. Performances will also be held Oct. 11 and 12 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 13 at 2 p.m. inside the depot. Tickets cost $12.Debby Myers said the depot is a perfect venue for the small-scale, intimate and intense play based on the novel by John Steinbeck that takes a penetrating look at mental illness and racism.“A lot of people think this is a really, really depressing and sad show – and it is,” she said. “It’s one of those plays that shows us where we used to be, and how our attitudes and feelings and opinions have changed from then to now.” With its 50th season now underway, Loy said it’s pretty amazing Peru’s community theater has lasted so long.“There’re not many theaters like this left. They’re all disappearing,” she said. “… We’re still around because we get along with each other … The ego doesn’t take over here. We don’t have anybody who wants to lord things over other people. That’s unique.”The community theaters that do still exist usually put on one play a year, said Mel Myers. Ole Olsen, on the other hand, puts on six shows a year.“There’s more talent in Miami County than people realize,” he said.Looking back on Ole Olsen’s 50 years, Alan Myers, who is directing the group’s next play, said it’s easy to see the impact the theater has had on Peru.For starters, Ole Olsen restored the old train depot. It purchased and renovated the house where Cole Porter was born after a meth lab was discovered on the property. Members participate in fundraisers and chili cook-offs, and the theater takes its shows to schools and other places people normally wouldn’t see a play. “This enhances our community,” Alan Myers said. “More than anything, I’ve seen this gives an outlet to people. Ole wants to enhance the community in as many ways as it can, and it’s done that.”Debby Myers, Alan’s wife, said that’s all true, but for her, the theater serves a more basic purpose.“It’s about providing entertainment to the community,” she said. “It’s live entertainment, people are right in front of you, things happen, glasses break, accidents happen. It’s not sitting in front of a TV or computer or movie screen. It’s live theater from people who put the work in to make it real.”And Peru Mayor Jim Walker, who’s performed in 22 shows and directed six more, said the chance to see a live show can have a real impact on a person.“I believe the greatest thing we accomplish in Ole is making the audience forget their worries for the time they spend with us at a performance,” he wrote in an article for the group. “They may enter the theater with a heavy burden, but when they leave, they have a smile on their face … That is a nice gift to give someone.”Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, or at carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com.

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