Those infamous letters, TOTL, but those in the inner circle know it stands for one thing and one thing only, Theatre on the Lake. I’ll never forget that May day when I got the call. It was from my boss at the time, Bob Reddington, who was calling me to to say there was a staff position available at the theatre and would I be interested. I remember all of his warnings:
“You will be working nights all through the summer”
“You will be working every Saturday night throughout the summer.”
“The theatre is an open air environment at the mercy of the weather so at times working conditions will be tough.”
“The first few weeks will entail strenuous physical work getting the theatre ready for the summer patrons.”
“We will close down the theatre in one week at the end of the season and that will be a monumental task.”
It almost sounded like he was trying to talk me out of it but I would not be swayed. The thought of working at a theatre versus being a recreational leader for summer camp was a no brainer decision. Theatre on the Lake here I come. And it was a decision that wound up shaping my life.
The first summer I was there I met this very engaging gentleman named Elmer Geden. He was an iron worker for the Chicago Park District (CPD) and his job, along with some of his colleagues, was to make sure the theatre was in good structural shape, make any necessary repairs and provide support for moving in and setting up the seating platforms and rows of theatre seats. TOTL was theatre-in-the-round seating 288 people so doing that was no small task. Every once in a while Elmer would bring in some goodies like donuts or sweets and we would chat in the kitchen that served as the green room for the actors during the regular season. I soon found out that Elmer had a son who worked for the CPD and he was the head of the “drama shop”, a facility used to house costumes and sets for the many drama instructors who worked for the district and produced plays during the school year. It wasn’t until a few years later that I met Elmer’s oldest son Nick and eventually married him. I will never forget when Nick told Elmer he was dating someone from TOTL. “I hope it’s Jan” was all he said. I developed a very special relationship with my husband’s father before I even knew my husband thanks to TOTL.
And there were so many other gifts I received from working at TOTL, lifelong friends, gut splitting laughter, an array of talented community theatre actors and directors, awe inspiring productions, flops that were so bad you were embarrassed to face the audience when they left (one I regrettably directed), the flickering of the hallway lights to signal the end of intermissions, the eccentric patrons who got the brunt of our unforgiving witticisms, the loss of my fear of spiders, romances and heartbreak that had nothing to do with the shows, the place we were when we learned of the death of Elvis Presley, and all those insider quotes only memorable to those of us who worked there: “Do you have tickets or reservations” and “Curtain going up, curtain going up…” Precious times and even more precious memories.
But like all things, times have changed and TOTL is no exception. No longer does it provide the venue for community theatre actors and directors to showcase their talents. Now professional companies rule the hallowed halls and the mecca for community theatre has gone to the ‘burbs. That’s not to say this change is bad, it is just so very different from when me and my colleagues were on staff. Times change, people change and although TOTL has changed it still provides one of the more unique and memorable venues for theatre that one will ever experience in the city of Chicago.
And so every May I take a trip in my mind back to those summer days many years ago. We were young, we were full of ourselves and we had so much fun providing top notch community theatre productions to our patrons (ten shows in twelve weeks to be exact which included both an opening and closing musical). It was the best way to spend summers in Chicago. And as I look back I realize that TOTL was much more than a job, it was and will always be the time of my life!