Soon, the lobby of the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown is going to look very different.
There is every possibility that you've never been in the lobby of the company's theater, at 18 East Second St. when Business Manager Marshall Dahlin wasn't present, just to the left of the box office. This is his 70th consecutive season with them.
In May of this year, when the last production of the present season plays its final performance, Dahlin plans to retire. After seven decades of acting, directing, and dealing with the business of a busy theater, He's decided to turn things over to others.
Of all the arts organizations in Chautauqua County, the Lucille Ball Little Theatre has the most members. The company recently completed a membership drive which increased its membership by 50 percent, to 1,200 season ticket holders.
Linda Rinaldo is the President of the company's board of directors. She recently said, ''None of us have ever been here, when Marshall wasn't around. Somehow we all just thought he would always be with us. We're all going to miss him very much, but we know he has earned his retirement and we have nothing but fond wishes for him.''
Recently I spoke with a few of the many people who have long memories of Dahlin's tireless activities on behalf of LBLTJ. Let me give you a quick history of community theater in Jamestown, greatly assisted by Dahlin's version of their history from the company's web site, and then I'll share their words with you .
The first record of community theater in Jamestown indicates that in 1920, Madelyn Jones Osgood invited a group of her friends to put on a play. Her father owned the large brick house on Fairmount Ave., across from Zion Covenant Church, and they rehearsed and built scenery in the large carriage house, behind the main house.
Their loose organization was called The Players Club, although it was never legally organized. The performed in a number of different sites around the area. In 1929, Mrs. Osgood cast a young area girl in her early teens, in a small role in the play ''Within the Law.'' Her name was Lucille Ball. For the rest of her life, Ms. Ball would remember the company, sending them donations of both cash and costumes from her television and film career. She even purchased at auction, a costume from the film ''Gone With the Wind,'' which is still used when the company does plays about the Civil War era.
In 1935, a young man from Bemus Point would successfully audition for the professional company of the Cleveland Play House. His name was George Warren. His eye was soon captured by a actress in the company named Harriet Borden. She was a graduate of the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va.
Each summer, in those days, the Cleveland company would repeat its entire season in Norton Hall, for the enjoyment of the Chautauqua Institution. The dynamic Ms. Borden, whose real name was Harriet Smith, always looked forward to the weeks at Chautauqua. One day in 1936, Warren suggested that they should get married, resign from the Play House, and establish a theater company of their own, in Jamestown.
''I told him that he should make certain that the local company was willing to be replaced, and then he should conduct a membership drive, and if he sold at least a thousand season tickets, I'd do it,'' the actress would tell this column in an interview, 20 years ago.
There are different opinions on exactly how many tickets Warren sold, but opinions are unanimous that it was well over 1,000. ''George was singing and dancing and celebrating,'' Harriet would later say, ''And I was sitting in the corner, crying my eyes out, because now I had to do it.'' So, the Players Club became the formally incorporated Little Theatre of Jamestown.
During 1939, their third season of performances, Marshall Dahlin was walking along Third St., when he was approached by George Warren. ''He walked right up to me, pushed a script into my hand, and told me I had just won a part in a production of ''Of Thee I Sing,'' Dahlin told me. ''I was to play a Supreme Court Justice.'' He said rehearsal was at 7:30 p.m., and the young man wasn't busy, so he showed up. He has been there, ever since.
By this time, the company had purchased a former Howard Johnson's Restaurant, at the intersection of Fairmount Ave. and McDaniel Ave. The building presently houses Brigiotta's Market. Having acted on stage, Dahlin found the Warrens full of plans for him, from building sets to serving as stage manager. ''I was stuck, and I loved it,'' he said.
At first the company had hopes of building a theater of their own, using the former restaurant as a lobby and a large outbuilding for the construction of sets. Unfortunately the Great Depression was still going on and it was becoming more and more obvious that the country would soon be involved in World War II. Postponing their hopes, the company continued rehearsing and building scenery in their former restaurant, but they performed in the theater of the Scottish Rite Consistory, at the intersection of Prendergast Ave., and Fifth St. a professional scene designer, Leland B Ward, had recently moved back to his native Jamestown to care for his ailing father, and he volunteered his services to the young company.
That theater is now the Carl Cappa Theater, part of the Robert H. Jackson Center.
During the war, Lucille Ball, now a star of smaller feature films, returned from Hollywood to sell war bonds in Jamestown. She agreed to act in a series of skits written by Harriet Warren, with a company from Little Theatre, in Chautauqua's Smith-Wilkes Hall.
By 1945, the company was selling 5,400 season memberships, making it the largest membership theater company in the nation.
In 1955, the Warrens resigned from the Little Theatre, and accepted similar positions with the Community Theatre of Rochester. Dahlin was working as Business Manager for a school district, and he stepped into George Warren's shoes as the company's business manager. For many years, he donated his services.
The greatest stress on the company at that time, was the need to rehearse and build sets at one site, then to move everything across town for performances, then to move everything back, as soon as the last performance ended.
In 1968, the company decided to purchase what used to be Shea's Jamestown Performing Arts Center, on East Second St., near the intersection of Pine St. The vaudeville facility had 1,600 seats, with elaborate balconies, stage boxes, and domes. The theater had been closed for five years, and the roof had begun to leak, damaging the interior. The company was able to revise the giant auditorium into a more practical 400-seat facility with good acoustics for spoken words.
Many people have attended plays for decades at the theater and never dreamed that they were surrounded by the remnants of a palace, for that the facility stretched several floors below the stage, to make rooms for a green room, a dance studio, dressing rooms, costume storage, and much more.
In 1990, Lucille Ball died, and in the following year, Lucie Arnaz, her daughter, was present for the re-dedication of the Little Theatre of Jamestown into the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown.
We asked the man himself about his long, long tenure with the company. He said, ''I've just loved working here. That included acting and directing and working lights and sound and the fund raising and all the many things I've done here over the years.''
Dahlin's wife, Virginia, was working in the box office of the company when the Warrens resigned, which made it easy for him to get more involved. The couple shared a love for the theater, and the company has named the auditorium where the public attends performances ''The Marshall and Virginia Dahlin Auditorium,'' in their honor.
Not only did they do the work of funding and presenting plays in Jamestown, they frequently travelled to New York City, to the Shaw Festival, and to other sites, to see what they were presenting and see if they could get ideas for presentations in Jamestown.
Why has he announced his retirement? He answered, ''I'm 88 years old, and I've had some health problems. I have a lot of things I've always wanted to do, and I'd like to do them.''
For example? ''My father was born in Sweden, and my mother's parents were both born in Sweden. I've never been there, and I'd love to see it,'' he offered.
When he leaves his post in early June, he said there is a strong possibility for him to move to Wooster,Ohio, where his daughter lives, although he hopes to come back from time to time to see how the theater is running. ''My daughter is involved with a community theater down there, so there might be an opportunity to share my experience with them,'' he said. ''I'm willing to answer questions or make suggestions here, but only if they ask, and only in a momentary role.''
We hope it turns out to be everything good he has envisioned.
One of the most active and energetic elements of the Jamestown company today is Helen Merrill. In addition to acting and directing many of the musical productions by the company, Mrs. Merrill has begun and directed the huge company of children's programming which is preparing another generation for appreciation of and participation in theater.
She said she first met Marshall in 1963, when she and her husband moved to Jamestown. That was in the day when the company still performed at the Scottish Rite Consistory. As she became more and more involved, working on costumes and building scenery and selling tickets and heading up fund drives, she came to appreciate Dahlin and his whole-hearted devotion to the company.
''Many people don't know that it isn't possible to just decide to perform a particular play or show,'' Mrs. Merrill said. ''You have to ask permission from the playwright, or from the person to whom he has willed the control of the script, if he's dead,'' she said.
''I'm full of ideas and energy, and I get ideas of what I want to do. Recently I was so eager to direct 'Beauty and the Beast,' for example. Marshall would negotiate patiently with the owners of the rights and when he succeeded in getting the rights to something I wanted, he would blend it into a long list of minor facts, and watch me get all excited,'' she said.
The Merrills often travelled with the Dahlins to performances in professional venues, in the hope of gaining ideas for productions in Jamestown.
What is her outstanding memory of their years of working together? She replied, ''I remember the day we first started moving into the theater we have now. The plaster was crumbling off the walls, the carpet was wet and moldy, the whole place smelled bad, and I know many of us were thinking, 'What have we done?'
But Marshall just said, 'This is going to be great!' and it has been,'' she said.
Although the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown is filled with dozens upon dozens of people who have worked with Marshall for many years, few go back as far as Sam Paladino.
Currently a member of the Board of Directors, Paladino said he first met Dahlin when he returned to Jamestown following military service in World War II. ''Marshall loves that theater, and he always gave it 100 percent,'' he told me. ''Whenever I see him, he's always trying to think of a way to put in 36 hours per day.''
As owner and operator of Dorian's Plus Salon, on North Main St. in Jamestown, Paladino said he knows business, and he believes that one of the main reason for the many years of success the Little Theatre Co. has enjoyed has been Dahlin's remarkable business sense.
''I know there are a lot of people who think that artists are beyond the rules and can't be bothered with deadlines and costs,'' Paladino said. ''But, in my observation, if you want to build a house that will stand, you put it on a good, solid foundation. Part of being an artist is supporting yourself with the things you need. Marshall paid the bills. He might need to borrow some money to cover a rough spot, but he budgeted the payments, and he paid it right back. Businesses who sold us things got paid.
''We've had some lean times, over the years, but we've never had the wolf at the door,'' he said.
Paladino has worked and worked hard for the company, over the years, but he says his contribution pales beside that of Dahlin. ''Nobody was phoning me at 2 a.m. and telling me that someone had broken into the theater or a pipe had burst under the street,'' he said. ''Marshall has lived and breathed for this company. When he leaves, it's going to leave a big hole in our organizations.''
Like the Merrills, the Paladinos have travelled with the Dahlins to see theater in other cities. ''Marshall was always a serious guy, but he was a lot of fun to be with,'' Paladino said. ''Even when my wife and I were working long into the night with Marshall and Virginia on some campaign or some planning project, it was work, but it worthwhile and enjoyable work.''
Local radio personality Jim Roselle came a bit later to the stage at LBLTJ. ''I used to got to plays quite a bit, and I got to know Marshall casually,'' Roselle said.
By the 1970s, the company had hired a new couple to be their professional directors: Dan and Fredericka Woodard. Like the Warrens, Fredericka did most of the stage directing, while Dan specialized in sets, lights, sound and the technical needs of the theater.
''When the Woodards first moved to town, we had them on a program for an interview,'' Roselle said. ''But, I soon noticed that whenever I went to a business or a community function, they would show up, and we would give them a chance to announce whatever their new project was.'' A theater company is always short on money, and the couple couldn't pass up the free publicity.
''One day, I was on the air and the door of the control room opened. Dan threw in a copy of the script to''Dracula'' and closed the door. I was talking on an open microphone, so I couldn't run after him.,'' Roselle said. ''The script had marked, for the part of Renfield, Dracula's eerie assistant. It had a schedule of rehearsals written on the back page.''
So the announcer showed up to rehearsal and became the insect-eating second banana to Paladino's best-known role as the murderous count. He's still on the company's board of directors, and still performs with the company, from time to time.
''Marshall has guided this theater through good times and bad, and he's kept it on a steady course,'' Roselle concluded. ''No matter what needed to be done, his first instinct is to plan to do it himself. He never tries to push work off on others, unless he thinks they'll do it better than he will. You want to volunteer to work with someone like that.''
And in the future?
Like the folks who were kind enough to talk with me for this column, I've worked with Marshall Dahlin for many years. And if I had to guess what I could say which would please him the most, I would guess that I should tell you about the next play on the schedule of the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown.
So, March 27-29 and April 2-4, you can see ''Same Time Next Year,'' in the Marshall and Virginia Dahlin Auditorium. It was written by Bernard Slade, and tells the story of a love affair between two people who lead completely separate lives, but who meet together, one day per year. As the play progresses through 25 years, their clothes and hairstyles change, their conversation deals with the concerns of different periods, but their devotion to one another remains real.
All performances are at 8 p.m. except March 29, which is a 2 p.m. matinee. The company encourages you to bring with you to the theater a donation of a food item, which will be donated to the Joint Neighborhood Project. In this time of need, you can share with your neighbors.
Once again, the theater is located at 18 E. Second St., in downtown Jamestown. Phone for reservations at 483-1095.
The company is always looking for volunteers, not only for on-stage jobs, but for backstage ones, as well. Some involve as much as six evenings per week, while others involve just an hour or two. They're looking for you.
I recently attended the open house in celebration of the re-design and re-opening of the Lakewood Public Library. It is a splendid facility.
How forward thinking is a community which puts so much support and so much thought behind a facility which can enrich both the working and private lives of its residents.
Helen Ebersole has prepared a striking exhibit of photographs, memorabilia and documents, detailing the history of the community. The building is beautiful, welcoming, and comforting. You never get that old fashioned idea that someone with her hair in a big bun is going make a censorious judgement of you, and to put her fingers to her lips and order you out the door.
Congratulations to everyone involved.