It was built during the turbulent aftermath of the Civil War and revived with old Hollywood glamour during the disco days.
But to most drivers passing by, the unassuming beige building simply looks like an old church.
For nearly four decades, the Olathe Civic Theatre Association had made the Buddy Rogers Playhouse, located at 500 E. Loula St., its home. It was built in 1870 as a church and in 1977, Olathe native and silent film icon Buddy Rogers helped financially convert it into a small community theater. OCTA, established in 1974, had held productions at various gymnasiums around town before the change was made.
Since 1977, OCTA has produced more than 200 shows from its small, cozy sanctuary-turned-auditorium.
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Although Rogers died in 1999, remnants of his legacy remain in the playhouse.
A pair of his worn brown boots from “Wings,” the first movie to win an Oscar for best motion picture, stand prominently in a glass display case in the lobby.
A painting of the silver screen icon, and his legendary wife, Mary Pickford, hangs in the back of the auditorium. The couple, who were married for 42 years, gaze lovingly at each other in the illustration, in shades of black and white and gray. The striking red lips of America’s first sweetheart form the angelic smile that made her famous a century ago.
In the midst of the past, the present is very much in full swing, however.
The theater, now in its 40th season, is buzzing with actors and crew anxiously preparing for its next production, “The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!),” a parody of showstoppers from the past that runs Feb. 13 through March 1.
Shows put on by OCTA range from family-friendly to downright edgy. Some shows will feature seasoned performers, others introduce new talent.
The association runs five shows per year, each one running three weeks.
As a nonprofit, it runs mostly on donations and volunteers.
Board members, in addition to their usual duties of fundraising and marketing, cheerfully find themselves rushing around the theater, doing everything from cleaning toilets before a show to manning the ticket booth.
Fundraisers usually bring in a couple thousand dollars each.
“It sounds like nickel and dime stuff, but each dollar goes towards a lot,” said Peter Leondedis, a member of the OCTA board. “It all goes back into maintaining this historical building and insurance and purchasing the rights for shows. Sometimes we even have to decide between turning up the air conditioner for rehearsals or running an ad. It’s the “Sophie’s choice” of community theater.”
Although it might seem strenuous, it’s more fun than stressful, he said. After all, everyone involved with the theater is there for one main reason: They love it.
“There’s something about putting on a story and reaching an audience that is very hard to describe,” said Leondedis of Overland Park. “It’s rewarding, but it’s a lot of hard work. Every time you do it, you can’t wait for the next time around.”
His fellow thespians agree.
Tracy Fox of Olathe has been performing in OCTA-produced shows for almost a decade. She volunteers several hours of her evenings for lengthy rehearsals.
“With each show, you meet new members of your family,” she said. “When you spend hours in a very close, intimate environment with people, you get to know them pretty well.”
The hard work has been paying off. The theater has 150 season ticket holders this year.
“I’m always flabbergasted by how far people drive to see shows here, or even to be in shows here,” Fox said. “We have people come from as far as St. Joseph. That says a lot.”
Down a narrow spiral staircase in the auditorium, leading to the theater’s “backstage,” is a treasure trove of OCTA history.
Etched in sharpies on the walls of the changing, makeup and storage rooms are goofy cartoon drawings and dated signatures from cast and crew from the past four decades.
Upstairs, the future of the theater is always in the forefront of board members’ minds.
The board is raising money to replace its 40-year-old stage lights with energy-efficient LED ones. They still need $1,000.
Another goal is to one day restore the original stained glass windows in the church’s sanctuary.
And, of course, a never-ending goal is to continue making great community theater.
“There have been stories about theater dying for the past fifty years and guess what, it’s not,” Leondedis said. “People are still drawn to the theater because it’s unexpected and there’s an energy that’s electrifying. It’s a feeling you can’t get anywhere else.”
On the Web
For more information about OCTA or the upcoming production, “The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!),” go to olathetheatre.org.