As the fire spread, so did word of it, and the children came.
With black smoke all about and red lights flashing in the night, Dorianne Rees gathered them around her.
“Let’s be a family,” she told the youngsters.
Their tears rolled as the walls and roof of the Great Plains Theatre crashed to the ground across the street.
Gone. Just like that. The place, built in 1882 as a church but now with props and lights and sound, had become any town’s Main Street, a school, courtroom, carnival midway or a Brooklyn living room.
The people of Abilene watched in silence when it all came down about 8 p.m. July 23. They had something special, and now it lay in rubble. Few towns of roughly 7,000 people have professional theater.
And the Great Plains Theatre, according to its officials, was the only equity theater between Overland Park and Denver. Performers who came through stayed in “the actors’ house” downtown, and folks came from all over on opening nights.
To the children, the old theater had always been there, standing like a stone castle at Third and Mulberry streets. Ordinary kids, some shy, came to this strong and magical place, and in portraying others on stage they found themselves.
They came after school and to the theater’s summer camp. They had an improv troupe. The youth group Plain Great Players put on its own shows. The kids got to know the professionals and learn from them.
“This was my childhood,” said Sage Tokach, 18, who did her first show — “The Homecoming” — when she was 10. Now, she is headed to Oklahoma City University to study acting.
She spoke earlier this week, her eyes locked on the charred wood, blackened limestone and twisted steel. Somewhere in the smoldering heap were memories and jitters of opening nights.
“This was like a second home for a lot of us,” Tokach said. “We spent so much time in there.”
There is a saying in theater, something about how the show must not be canceled — that the show must go ... well, you get it.
Opening night for “Always ... Patsy Cline” is Aug. 8. Right on schedule for the theater’s 20th season.
The theater’s board of directors met the day after the fire and discussed whether or not to rebuild. That took about three seconds.
“Nobody talked about anything but moving ahead,” said Gina Dalton, the board president.
The pressing matter was where to stage the Cline show. A run of “The Boys Next Door” had wrapped three days earlier. The set for “Always ... Patsy Cline” had been completed shortly before the fire and burned up.
Since this is Kansas, Dalton uses a farmer analogy: No matter what happens, fields still need to be tended and cows cared for.
“We had a show to put on, rehearsals were starting, we had actors coming in,” Dalton said. “We had to go for it.”
The Cline show will now be at Abilene High School. The superintendent told them, “Whatever you need.”
Rehearsals started Tuesday. The play runs through Aug. 17.
“Fortunately, ‘Patsy Cline’ does not require an elaborate set,” said Maggie Hoffman, the theater’s executive director.
Hoffman grew up in Abilene, went off to the University of Kansas, had no intention of coming back, but jumped when the job opened. She did “Godspell” when she was 10. Like a lot of young people around here, she spent much of her youth in the old theater.
“I was on stage, back stage, for one play I was a dresser,” she said. “I know I was a kid doing a job an adult should probably have done.
“And then when I was 17, I was in ‘Quilters’ and got my first paycheck. It wasn’t much, but it was exciting.”
Official cause of the fire: undetermined.
But it likely was due to lightning, according to Rose Rozmiarek, chief of investigations for the Kansas Fire Marshal.
Nobody here much cares why or how, though. They just know it’s gone and they need to bring it back. The theater website is seeking donations. And the Facebook page is filled with fundraising ideas — even bake sales. A man offered a laptop computer.
Actors who had performed at Great Plains posted condolences. A few even called some of the kids.
“It’s a huge family that lives all over the country,” Dalton said.
She knows what the theater means to Abilene, which not long ago lost another historic building when the Kirby House restaurant burned. The town still has the Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum. The Greyhound Hall of Fame (dog, not bus) is also here.
Those are great, Dalton said. They bring in thousands of visitors. But they don’t have the excitement of opening night, and they don’t stir the fire in a child’s heart.
“The theater wasn’t for the jocks or the cool kids,” Dalton said. “Some of them may have been there, too, but this was for the normal kids. It was like family to them. They were recognized around town.
“Those kids have been going down there since the fire.”
Her son being one. Brendon Dalton is 16, a junior at Abilene High School. He started at Great Plains in 2007.
“School will always be there,” he said. “Same with sports. But the theater gave a lot of us something we couldn’t get anywhere else.”
Rees hears that a lot. She’s the education director for the theater, known as GPT. At any time, she is likely to have 80 or so kids involved in a class, workshop or play. The best part of her job, she said, is the first time she sees the excitement of live theater in a child’s eyes.
“I’m so glad you love this,” Rees would think to herself.
The night of the fire, one of her kids called her. Rees stepped outside. The plume of smoke could be seen for miles. She went there and found several of the children gathered across the street.
“That was the hard part — watching them,” Rees said.
A week later, sure enough, kids were still coming to look at what’s left. Some rode bikes. They stood and talked and pointed. Whether they noticed or not, high on a still-standing pillar a steel plaque says, “GPT.”
Hopefully for the kids of Abilene, a “marque” of things to come.
To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.