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!
12 thoughts on “TOTL…”
What a superb memoir. You made my whole body tingle, Jan. Lovely. Just lovely. No one has written more tellingly about Theatre on the Lake.
Thanks Dan. Every May I remember being in my apartment on Harlem Avenue and getting that call from Bob Reddington. You never know when the next phone call will change your life forever.
What a wonderful article. I go the chills, I remember everything about that place. When I get a chance to run by it, or an event near it I have such fond memories of my parents truly enjoying their lives with life long friends. It provided culture and romance and a window into what theater was really about. I remember people whispering when “Bob Reddington” was attending a show, everything was kicked up notch. I was only in one show as an oprhan (someone with mercy gave me a part) I remember feeling like I was part of something big. And I was.
Jan you have shaped so many lives.
Thanks Rebecca. You are so sweet. It was a very special time and something that today could probably not be replicated, and I cherish every single memory as you do.
Dan sent this to me and as I read it SO many memories a flooded in! I loved TOTL as a season subscriber; as the mother of young cast members and the wife of my favorite cast member; as a designer who made slides for a production and many sweatshirt designs for various shows … and especially as the source for some of my life-long very bestEST friends ever. Thanks, Jan, for this portal to MANY wonderful memories.
TOTL was a huge force in all of our lives and although it is a very different venue now, the shadows of the past will always prevail.
Jan- My thoughts also turn to TOTL every May as I remember the wonderful times there over the years, especially my friendships with.you, Bob, Dick Sitt, and Morley in particular…I also remember the bats (flying not baseball) that had wintered there and flew around the lights on stage chasing insects at the start of the season, an incident with you, me. Morley and a sink in the Ladies Lounge and those famous last words, “I would.” There is so much more, but like you say, those days are gone, but live on in our hearts…
Unlike most of you ( I can only imagine) I was 10 years old when I had the awesome experience of doing “Annie” at TOTL. Dick Sitt directed and Wayne Worley choreographed. To me it could’ve been Broadway. The caliber of performers was top notch. Even the kids were amazing. They say memories are brought up most with the sense of smell. When I think of TOTL, I close my eyes and think humid, dense air. A lovely breeze off the lake and the murmur of people in their seats. (remember I was only 10) I remember being backstage in between scenes waiting to go on and hearing the city zooming by in one ear and waiting for a cue in the other. I remember being up that spiral staircase for makeup and warm ups in the green room. I remember driving all the way to southport and Addison for rehearsals (which I never really thanked my Mom for…I should do that.) I am now 39 yrs old and that show was one of the best experiences of my life.
TOTL provided one of the best experiences in many people’s lives regardless of their age. So many great memories and so many lives touched forever.
I had a lot of fun at TOTL: Fiorello, Annie, South Pacific, Inherit the Wind and crew for Evita. It is too bad we had to “outsource” our community theater.
I agree. But it will always live on in our hearts.
Jan, what a flood of memories you have provided for all of us lucky to have been called to work at TOTL. Indeed, it was a magical place to work. I continue to work as a Drama Instructor for CPD, and started an annual Fall Theatre Festival now in it’s 15th year as a result of the doors of TOTL being closed to Drama Instructors of the Chicago Park District. Thanks again for posting this. Long live Teatro del Lago!