By SUE WEBBER
A one-of-a-kind theatrical gem is celebrating its 46th anniversary this year, due in large part to some longtime hard-working volunteers determined to keep it going.
Since 1971, the Off Broadway Musical Theater in New Hope has been one of the only outdoor summer theaters in the state.
The City of New Hope, a major sponsor of the event, added a “castle” in the park in 1986, which has become the home to Off Broadway Musical Theater.
Located in Civic Center Park at 43rd and Xylon Avenues, the theater has nurtured the acting ambitions of scores of young people and adults in a steady stream of musical productions.
Favorite productions have included “The Music Man,” “Grease,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Oliver,” “L’il Abner,” and “Godspell,” plus many others.
John and Jeanne Tracy are examples of the longtime volunteers who have kept the theater going. Jeanne has been on the theater board for 19 years; John joined the board six years ago.
“The board is very hands on,” Jeanne said. “John is the treasurer, and he helps with set-building. I’m the current board president, so I conduct the meetings and run the front of the house during productions. This year, I’m helping with props. It’s a good creative outlet. I’m a paralegal in my real life.”
John grew up in New Hope, one block from Civic Center, Jeanne said. “He spent a lot of time at the park and he saw a lot of plays.”
When their daughter Laura, now 26, was 7, she played a Munchkin in “The Wizard of Oz,” Jeanne said.
“I was there almost every day and I haven’t left since,” Jeanne said. “I’m strictly behind the scenes.”
Laura went on to act in 10 OBMT shows and subsequently went to the University of Wisconsin–LaCrosse. Now she’s a member of the OBMT board, too, and is designing the set for this year’s production of “Beauty and the Beast.”
Daughter Megan, 23, appeared in two shows growing up and is in charge of making popcorn for the concession stand.
The eight-member OBMT board selects each year’s summer musical. “We certainly choose something appropriate for kids,” Jeanne said. “Last year we did ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,’ which was a much smaller show. This year’s show is huge.”
Aided by a stipend from the city, fundraisers and sponsors, the board is able to hire the staff: director, musical director, choreographer, stage manager and set designer. Orchestra members and actors are all volunteers. The staff sells its own concessions.
All of the volunteers have full-time jobs during the day. John Tracy, a graduate of Cooper High School who has a business degree from St. John’s College, has been in the hotel industry for 25 years and currently is director of sales for Maple Grove-based TPI, owner and manager of hotels.
The board also conducts auditions for roles in each summer’s production. This year, 80 people showed up for “Beauty and the Beast” auditions, Jeanne said. “There’s a lot of interest this year in the orchestra,” she said. “Twenty-four people have said they’re interested. A lot of people come back each year.”
This year’s show, as always, will be staged nine times – at 8 p.m. on three weekends (Thursday, Friday and Saturday) beginning July 20 and continuing through Aug. 5.
“We put everything we have into the show,” Jeanne said. “For a couple of months, it’s pretty intense. To see people go from reading their lines to seeing it all shape up is a miracle. It’s all so much fun.”
Her favorite shows are “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and “Wizard of Oz,” a favorite of hers since childhood, Jeanne said.
“It’s really fun,” said John, who helps build sets for the musical at the park on Saturday mornings.
“The summer goes quickly,” John said. “We’ve moved our family vacations to August.”
He also serves on a New Hope planning committee that is looking at how the theater can be included when a new city hall is built at Civic Center Park.
“They’ll have to take down the castle and build a new one,” John said.
Connie Lillibridge of Plymouth joined the OBMT board in 1999.
“I had been going to the shows since I was a teen, in the 1970s,” she said. “I had a theater background. I was in productions as a student at Cooper High School and in college, and I was in plays with Crystal’s traveling stagecoach theater. I had been a volunteer with Armstrong High School theater, too.”
She helps with props and recruits volunteers, and also works the front of the house.
“We’re a very active working board,” Lillibridge said. “Our heart is in this theater. We have put in countless hours. We’re so thrilled the city wants to continue it [when the new city hall is built]. It’s the real gem of New Hope.”
Lillibridge retired in December from her full-time career as a licensed family daycare provider. “I loved my career,” she said. “This year will be the first summer since I was 15 that I won’t be working.”
Bob Schreiner is a retired OBMT board member, having served on the board for 25 years.
“I worked on lighting and sound,” he said.
He discovered the theater after he and his wife moved to New Hope 40 years ago and were looking for something to do. “We went to the outdoor play one evening, and I got hooked,” Schreiner said. “My wife, Linda, helped make costumes. I’ve still got a box full of T-shirts from the shows.”
He’d previously had some exposure to theater when he was a student at Robbinsdale High School. “They dragged me on stage once, for a musical revue,” he said.
Schreiner, who retired in 2009 after 25 years with Century Link, says he still attends the plays.