Can a home-grown theater help keep a village relevant and looking toward the future? The proof may be in the line of cars parked outside the Opera House in Ellisville, Illinois, on performance day.
Ellisville, Illinois, is a place that does not wish to be forgotten. If people around the area have their way, it won’t be. Sitting just across the Spoon River from the landmark Forgottonia barn in the west central part of the state, the town’s population sits at an estimated at 95. In 2000, the population was 87. That’s approximately a 9% increase in a decade.
How does a relatively isolated village on a county road actually grow? Here’s part of the story from an occasional visitor who goes through Ellisville on the way to Peoria or while driving the back roads of the area.
Imagine a long, straight road heading downhill through farm fields. As the road levels out in the Spoon River Valley, the speed limit drops with no warning, and then you are in the middle of a group of old buildings. The stop sign forces you to pause in the center of the village, a good thing, because these are lovely store fronts from the 1800s that are being stabilized and restored by the Historic Ellisville Restoration Organization (HERO).
On this sunny afternoon in June, Ellisville is our destination. We have stopped here before, during the annual autumn Spoon River scenic drive. I have marveled while passing through early on a cold spring Saturday morning to see 20 or more cars parked along the street for a pancake and sausage breakfast.
So, what’s the attraction on this Sunday afternoon? The Spoon River Rascals, a youth theater group, are doing Oklahoma! in the historic Opera House. We don’t know what to expect.
The streets are full of parked cars. The Opera House entrance is not in front, but far down the side of the building. A set of long, worn, wooded stairs leads to the second story theater space above a small shop. As we walk up, the smell of popcorn is tantalizing.
Inside, the theater is old style, a large room with iron pillars down the middle, a large cast-iron stove up front and a narrow proscenium. Seats are old (and hard) bentwood chairs. There are perhaps 150 guests in the mostly filled house. A hand-painted set by volunteer Kea Runyan that is simple but beautifully done to match the perspective of the small stage.
The lights come up and a voice rises from the back of the house. “Oh what a beautiful morning! … ” Oh, what a beautiful voice. If Curly’s singing (Ryan Spangler, 18) is any sample of what’s to come, this show is going to be a treat.
And so it is. Kaity Spangler, 17, plays Ado Annie. Her rendition of “I Cain’t Say No” is a show stopper. When Brittany Chatterton, 18, sings as Laurie Williams, it is breathtaking.
Fast forward to October. It’s time for the Jr. Spoon River Rascals to perform the “Rascals Radio Hour,” with performers aged 4 to 13. The program, on “WSRR,” opens with an 11-year-old “local celebrity,” complete with fedora and necktie, introducing the show, which includes old commercials, big-band era music, a tribute to the WLS/WGN Barn Dance (1924-1968), and an audience sing along. “A Tisket, A Tasket,” sung by a 7-year-old girl, showed spunk and humor. “Buttons and Bows,” sung by a 10-year-old, had polish beyond the singer’s young age.
Directing young singers and actors takes a certain type of person who is capable of focusing high energy and drawing out and developing talent. Paula Helle lives in Ellisville and teaches music at Galesburg High School, 30 miles away. She is the chief organizer who makes it all work, with significant assistance from volunteers around the area who help with sound, costumes, props, lighting, carpentry, painting, promotion, concessions and all of the other things needed to put on a stage production.
Helle’s motivation for this work, which is taxing and time consuming, comes from her evident passion and two other sources. First, her great grandfather helped build the Opera House as an Odd Fellows Hall. The Opera House used to be a place of “fine times,” according to Helle’s grandmother. For Helle, the theater is a connection across generations.
Second, Helle wants to give the kids an opportunity to perform and learn. She recognizes that area schools have limited resources. The talented youth are out there: 27 of them for “Rascals Radio Hour” and 17 for Oklahoma! Now, she has the energy and drive to bring them together to do wondrous, magical theatre.
The Spoon River Rascals have finished their 11th year. Their first show in 2003 was “The Wizard of Oz.” In 2007, as the original group of blossoming actors entered their teens, the Senior Rascals premiered with “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” The troupe now does two shows a year in the Opera House, something of a grueling schedule when you think about everything that goes into producing a play, including fitting rehearsals into the schedules of active kids and teens who can live 15 to 20 miles away from the tiny village and the coordination of perhaps 15 other volunteers who help make the show go on.
The Rascals represent something vital in rural Ellisville, part of the spirit of a small settlement in a beautiful setting that is determined to preserve its history and share it with others in the area and from elsewhere.
The charming place is there, nestled on the iconic Spoon River. The buildings are being protected and improved by HERO, which has preserved the Opera House, installed air conditioning and drilled a well so plumbing can be installed. The Fulton County Arts Council also provides support.
Paula Helle’s Spoon River Rascals are a reminder of the joy that live theater can bring to a rural area. They show how important volunteers are in helping to keep a place alive in the hearts and minds of children and adults.
Small towns, even those with a population under 100, can be more than dying memories if they choose to do so. Ellisville is making that choice.
Let’s have a round of applause.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.