Brown Grand Players Remembered

by Don Lambert

    It was nearly 50 years ago that the Brown Grand Players was born--the brainchild of Sue Sutton.  Its first production was the first time in decades that  live theatre had been seen, heard and felt  at the Brown Grand Opera House.
    With the official reopening of the Theatre on Sunday afternoon, it seems fitting to remember the formation of the Players: a spark  which inspired the entire community to restore Concordia's gem on the Kansas prairie.
    That year, 1967, was an important one.  For better or for worse, the country was changing.  Some things were loosening up, others tightening down in both our nation and our town.
    There were nearly half-a-million men and boys serving in Viet Nam. John McCain was captured. It was law and order vs. flower power. The old vs. the young.
    The arrival of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show three years earlier led boys to grow their hair longer. The arrival of Twiggy led to girls shortening their skirts.  Parents liked neither.
    There was Civil Rights unrest. Black vs. White. Thurgood Marshall, due to his efforts to end school segregation, became the first African-American on the Supreme Court.  Interracial marriage became legal.  
    All of this was unfolding on a national stage being seen on our televisions and in our movie theaters.
    That year, 1967, was also a great one for the movies.  The Graduate.  Bonnie and Clyde.  Cool Hand Luke.  In the Heat of the Night.  Guess Who's Coming To Dinner. To Sir With Love.  In Cold Blood.
Sue Sutton was 19.  She'd gained considerable attention during her teenage years as a jockey.  That year she took up the reins of a different career--theatre.  During her freshman year at Cloud County Community College (back when it had a "Junior" in it and was housed at Concordia High School) Sue took a theatre course from Peggy Doyen.  That summer, with no more racing and, apparently, some time on her hands, she realized there were young people in Concordia who might like to be in a play during the summer between their school activities.
 She began by talking to Jack Roney, owner of the Brown Grand.  Not only did he give permission to put on a play but he seemed to like the idea.  But first, there were questions to be answered.  What play should be chosen?  Who would be in it?  Who would come?  How do you pay for it?  She began by pounding the downtown streets and raised about $50 which, back then, could get you more than it would today.  
 She asked her high school English teacher, Miss Fletcher, what a good play might be. Miss Fletcher recommended "The Heiress."  It began as a story based loosely on real life written by  Henry James 1880. It was converted to a stage play, then a movie. Olivia de Havilland, best known as Melanie in "Gone With the Wind, earned an Academy Award for her portrayal of Catherine in the 1949  movie production. Catherine is being courted by a handsome young man (Montgomery Clift) and they make plans to elope. But her wealthy father intervenes, old vs. young. He tells her that the young man is only after her money and convinces the young man to leave for the good of his daughter. Years later, after the father's death, the two reunite and decide to resume their plans to marry. When the middle-aged suitor returns, the hardened woman has bolted the door. It ends with the suitor frantically banging on the door.
 The Brown Grand, once home to sell-out crowds for theatre and opera, had been converted to a movie theater.  Its once crisp gold, white and green decor painted over with more modern, movie palace colors.  She invited some Concordia young people to be in the cast.  All agreed.  She borrowed Victorian furniture from townspeople and a set from the high school.  Finally, she had a theatre, a script, a cast.  
One more obstacle:  She did not know what she was doing.  Her only experience as a theatre director had been two one-act plays while in 4-H.  And it is a long way from the horse barn to the theatre. She took it all in stride.
 That year, 1967, was also important in Concordia. A June 9 tornado had taken roofs off buildings and flattened others. Even the venerable Brown Grand did not go unscathed. High winds and rain caused extensive water damage to the roof over the stage.
    Concordia's fastest runner ever, Terry Householter, graduated from high school. Two years later, he was the first hometown boy to die in Viet Nam. So groundbreaking was "The Graduate" when shown at the Brown Grand in February that the local Catholic priest led discussions, bringing about the town's first inter-faith gatherings. Nationally and in Concordia, especially around the new college under construction, there were reports of UFOs. The high school principal was forcing girls onto their knees to make sure their skirts touched the floor.
    Concordia had thriving grocery stores, three shoe stores, clothing stores including a fancy one called the Bon Marché, J.C.Penney's, Montgomery Wards, the Igloo Café, two downtown soda fountains (remember the green rivers and cherry phosphates?) and Lester's Sweet Shop with homemade candies and ride the mechanical horse.
    Young and old, men and women were glued to the television. Bonanza. The Beverly Hillbillies. The Newlywed Game. Big Valley. The Lawrence Welk Show. Reruns of the Twilight Zone. And let's not forget Lassie.
    There was, of course, more to do in Concordia than stay home watching TV.  On a good night, DJ's could pack in 600 people, drinking beer and enjoying local bands like The Bluethings and regional bands like The Flippers. There were bowling and dancing at the VFW.  And there was Cloud 9 drive-in where a favorite antic among the boys was to pack themselves into a trunk, allowing them to get in free. It is, however, unknown how many attending the drive-in actually saw a movie there.
    That summer of 1967, Sue Sutton had no time for the movies, TV or even bowling. She had a show to put on. Nagging problems kept coming up. Rehearsals for one. The Brown Grand was open during the week but closed on weekends when all movie-goers went to the drive-in. The problem was that rehearsals could not be conducted while there was a movie showing at the Brown Grand. Actors, therefore, rehearsed on stage both before and after the movie showed on the big silver screen. Which meant that while the movie was showing, actors were left to their own amusements.
    The actors were in awe. While they had seen many movies there, rehearsing for "The Heiress" allowed them to be on the other side where the view from the stage was even more spectacular.
    A big problem occurred the day before the play was to open. The costumes rented from Omaha arrived, including the huge hoop skirts to be worn by the female characters. No one realized quite how big a hoop skirt is: approximately 4 feet across at the hem. That big silver screen, bolted to the Brown Grand floor, was too large to move. Thus, the playing area, while 40 feet wide, was only about five feet deep. It was not possible for two hoop skirted characters to pass each other on stage. Certain scenes had to be re-staged to remedy the problem.
    All involved declared "The Heiress" a success. Its name had been placed on the marquee by Jack Roney himself. Live theatre had returned to the Brown Grand.
    In 1969, two years after "The Heiress," Kansas State University published Peggy Doyen's book chronicling the history of the theatre in Concordia. The citizens of Concordia had begun to see The Brown Grand as a true gem. After thousands of man hours and dollars, the fully restored Brown Grand Opera House reopened in 1980.
    Closed once more for the past two years during renovation of the stage area, the theatre reopens again on Sunday.
    Sue Sutton recently announced her retirement after 39 years of teaching theatre at the college and throughout the community. The Brown Grand Players continue to perform after all these years. These days, however, opera is seldom performed there -- except for the "Grand Ole" variety!

--For more information about the Brown Grand Theatre read Sue Sutton's history located on the Web at www.browngrand.org.
--When Don Lambert was 16, Sue Sutton invited him to be in the Brown Grand Players and the cast of "The Heiress."  He worked at the Blade Empire while at CCCC and while getting a journalism degree from K-State. He now lives in Kansas City.

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