Gateway Players: the city’s spare-time Barrymores

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 22, 2002

Gateway Players sounded like a logical name for a group of local amateur actors who decided in early 1947 to form a theatrical group and present plays.

The city’s predecessor of the Albert Lea Community Theatre and Minnesota Festival Theatre was organized on Jan. 13, 1947, with 25 members.

A Tribune editorial in the March 28, 1947, issue stated, &uot;The Gateway Players … are men and women about town who have an interest in theater and who got together and decided to start something in order to keep their interest alive and their talents exercised. Now they’re ready to offer the public an evening of entertainment which is a bit out of the ordinary for Albert Lea.&uot;

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For the first production, the Gateway Players presented &uot;George Washington Slept Here&uot; in three acts at the Albert Lea High School Auditorium on March 29, 1947. The leading roles were played by Lucianne Hodges, an employee of Stephenson’s Music Co., and Guel Dostal, a high school teacher. Directing this play was Gwen Cerney, one of the prime organizers and promoters of the Gateway Players.

Cerney was a graduate of the University of Minnesota, had acted in and directed several University Theater productions, and been involved with summer stock work. She was then the women’s program director at Radio Station KATE.

An undated review in the Tribune said the group’s first production was successful and &uot;showed plenty of promise of more good things to come.&uot;

During the summer of 1947 Cerney kept the Gateway Players busy with half-hour skits presented weekly on KATE. These scripted radio plays included &uot;The Key,&uot; &uot;Ask Aunt Mary,&uot; &uot;The Affidavit,&uot; &uot;Red Head Baker,&uot; and &uot;What’s Your Name, Dear.&uot;

The second play by this group was &uot;The Royal Family,&uot; presented on Nov. 15, 1947, on the stage

of the high school auditorium. Again, Cerney was the director. Starring in this production were Bernice Tidemannn, Bob and Bette Gamble, Wanda Keeler and Malcolm Ernest.

By this time the Gateway Players were becoming a community organization. Meetings were held in the homes of members and rehearsals took place in school rooms and spaces provided by local firms. Sponsorships and assistance with various aspects of play productions came from several local organizations and business firms. These included the Albert Lea Lions Club, the Bob Wallace Store, Skinner-Chamberlain, the Tribune, KATE, and several student groups.

The Gateway members provided the cast and backstage crew for each play.

The most successful production for the Gateway Players was &uot;Charley’s Aunt.&uot;

This three-act comedy, presented on the stage of the high school auditorium, starred Ernest in the lead role, and the production was directed by Cerney. A reported 1,500 people saw this play presented on Feb. 23 and 24, 1948.

Despite its name, a comedy with the title of &uot;January Thaw&uot; was presented on June 1 and 2, 1948. This play featured Cerney as a part of the cast and was directed by Ardella Grier.

A notation in a diary written by one of the members about this particular play said, &uot;Financially, we didn’t score very high.&uot;

The Gateway Players also presented short skits and programs to entertain various groups and clubs. One example was the one-act play, &uot;The Man In the Bowler Hat.&uot; It was performed for an audience of about 400 people in Fountain Lake Park Bandstand on July 20, 1948. This &uot;old-fashioned meller dramer&uot; had a cast of seven, and followed a concert by the Albert Lea High School Band.

On March 7 and 8, 1949, the actors presented their first mystery, &uot;Cuckoos on the Hearth,&uot; at the high school auditorium. The director was Blanche Bensen. Several cast members were recent high school graduates who had participated in class plays.

Bensen wrote and directed the pageant, &uot;I Remember Freeborn County.&uot; This production involved both the Gateway Players and a large cast of local citizens who were observing the Minnesota Territorial Centennial of 1849 and the organizing of the county in 1857. The pageant was presented with two evening performances on June 4, 1949, at the high school auditorium.

An old saying, &uot;The show must go on,&uot; certainly became a reality on July 26 and 27, 1949. The Gateway Players, in conjunction with the city’s Recreation Department, intended to have a local talent show at the Freeborn County Fairgrounds. However, a rainstorm forced a change in location to the high school auditorium. This resulted in some confusion and a reduction in the audience.

Proof that 1949 was a busy year for the Gateway Players came with a comedy, &uot;Two Blind Mice,&uot; at the high school auditorium on Nov. 5. An encore performance was given at the Hollandale School a few nights later for an audience of some 200 people.

&uot;You Can’t Take it With You&uot; was the title of the play presented on Feb. 24 and 25, 1950, at the high school auditorium. This may have been the last major production for the Gateway Players.

Very little information is available for &uot;Fiat Lux,&uot; a Christmas 1949 play. &uot;Barter,&uot; an Easter play in four acts, was presented on March 16 and 17 in either 1949 or 1950, again at the high school auditorium. And no program or information seems to be available regarding the play, &uot;John Loves Mary,&uot; scheduled for April 1950.

The demise of the Gateway Players may have come when the play, &uot;The Man Who Came To Dinner&uot; was canceled because several cast members were drafted into the military services in mid-1950.

By this time the nation was involved in the Korean War. Some participants in the Gateway Players were becoming more involved with their occupations and family life. Several of the original members and promoters, like Gwen Cerney, had left Albert Lea. Then there was the interesting challenge of trying to work with the schedule of events based on the high school auditorium. Also, the lack of a permanent base of operations had hampered the city’s spare time actors of another era.

(Information for this story came from a large scrapbook now in the files of the Freeborn County Historical Society Library.)