by Larry Austin
With its opening performance of "Inherit the Wind" on Friday, Feb. 8, the Niagara Regional Theatre Guild celebrated its 90th year of community theater in Western New York.
The guild is so old that the trial on which its latest production is based, the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee, occurred in 1925, two years after the guild was formed, noted the show's director, Fran Newton of Grand Island.
Newton directs a production (through Feb. 17) that stars Steve Jakiel, Paul Bene, Michael Breen, Andrew Polino and Marie Held. The cast includes Islanders Tom Slaiman, Grace Kulikowski, Bethany Kulikowski, Doug Smith and Dawn Newton Marcolini. Other Islanders involved in the anniversary show included Nancy Watts, costume design; Alaina Rowswell-Kulikowski, producer; and Gretchen Beach, stage manager.
Opening night included a "birthday" cake and a ceremony, and celebration afterward, Newton said. A corporate sponsor, KeyBank, allowed opening night tickets, long since sold out, to sell for 90 cents.
The show celebrated life members of the guild and the countless volunteers who have been the backbone of the organization. Dawn Newton, Fran's wife and member of the NRTG board of directors, estimated that the group that formed in 1923 as The Players of Niagara, and later the Niagara Falls Little Theatre, has been the artistic home to thousands of theater volunteers.
"We probably have 300 just in a single season," she said of the volunteers, counting publicists, musicians, box office personnel, actors and ushers.
"When you multiply that by 90 years, that's a lot of volunteers," she said.
Fran Newton said those volunteers have helped develop the theater scene in the entire region.
The list of volunteers with the group includes Maynard Burgess, the first director of the Shaw Festival, and two Academy Award nominees: Franchot Tone, nominated for best actor in 1935 for "Mutiny on the Bounty," and Mark Bridges, an Oscar winner for costume design in 2012 for "The Artist."
"I know most of the theaters, and I don't know of one that is older," Fran Newton said. "I do believe we were the first community theater in Western New York."
From its first show in February of 1923 ("Wedding Bells"), the key to the group's staying power is "the power of the volunteers," Dawn Newton said. "I believe that this group has a magic about it. Its people are dedicated, passionate, and love what they do. It's not just on stage, it's all of the work that they do off stage."
"That's probably the one consistent thing that has kept this group running for as long as it has, is we've always been blessed with very dedicated, very passionate volunteers," Fran Newton said.
"Inherit the Wind" runs through Feb. 17. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. All shows will be presented at NRTG's home at the Ellicott Creek Playhouse, 530 Ellicott Creek Road, Tonawanda.