October 15, 2018

Webster theatre a landmark of Webster history

Nestled on a narrow street in a quiet neighborhood sits a 104 year-old house. Inside that house is the longest continuously running community theatre west of the Mississippi River, treasurer of the Theatre Guild of Webster Groves Debbie Love said.
She said the organization has offered generations of Webster Groves residents the chance to attend and participate in a local performing arts venue.
Pictures of cast members from past plays line the halls inside the theatre and date back to 1952.
“We have people come in and look at the pictures and go ‘there’s my grandma or great uncle,’” Love said. “It’s really cool. People just love to do that.”
Love said running the theatre is a community-supported effort; it relies on donations, season ticket sales and membership dues. The actors are volunteers from around the St. Louis and Illinois area.
Webster Groves building commissioner Mike Harney, said the abundance of historic buildings in Webster is what gives the city its character. The city’s historic preservation commission (HPC) evaluated the theatre’s current location at 517 Theatre Lane and nominated it to be designated as a historic landmark. The Webster Groves City Council named the Theatre Guild a city-designated historic landmark in a final vote on Nov. 5.
“Webster Groves is a community where 5 to 7 percent of its building stock is over 100 years old and two buildings are 200 years old,” Harney said. “One of the city’s most dominant features is its historic buildings.”
According to Harney, the HPC has a list of “at risk” buildings to evaluate and determine if they meet the standards to become a historic landmark. Certain criteria must be met before the HPC can nominate a structure for designation. A property only needs to meet a few of the 13 guidelines to qualify for nomination.
The Theatre Guild building met four of the guidelines, including being reasonably well-maintained, having reasonable expectation of restoration, possessing historical character and being associated with people of interest.
“Many people who live in the neighborhood did not know the theatre existed,” Love said. “The designation might bring the theatre to everybody’s attention, and they might come and enjoy the plays.”
Award-winning playwright Tennessee Williams who’s known for plays like “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” won the Theatre Guild’s one-act play contest in 1936. Williams attended the ceremony and was presented a commemorative dish among other items. The theatre held a performance of the winning play, with which Williams was also involved.

Love said another award winning playwright emerged several years later. William Inge, also won the one-act play contest. Inge is known for his play “Picnic,” which won a Pulitzer Prize and was Paul Newman’s stage debut.
The theatre no longer hosts the one-act play contest, but when the contest was well known several decades ago, playwrights would send scripts from all around the world.
The great, great niece of Williams was a stage manager at the theatre years ago. She brought the commemorative items given to Williams for winning the contest for the staff to view.
Love said some believe the theatre is haunted. She said paranormal research teams have investigated the house. Several teams have also researched the site, including some from Jefferson County, St. Louis County and Chicago.
“People hear footsteps on the stairs when nobody is there. We call the spirit on stage Bud Gus Charlie,” Love said. “He likes to pick on young ladies backstage by tapping them on the shoulder and scaring them.”
Harney said a historical landmark designation allows the city to protect properties from being demolished. The designation can benefit both the city and the theatre by attracting people to the area.
“When people think of Webster Groves, the first thing they think of is elegant homes, the well-maintained community, and the trees, all those hings,” Harney said. “This is a very important marketing tool for the city to have because it is what gives Webster Groves its personality and its draw.”
Love said the Theatre Guild dates back to 1927. But it didn’t have a permanent home at that time. People performed plays in places like local churches and school auditoriums. The theatre purchased its current location in 1952, but the property needed attention and repair after sitting vacant for years. The structure was originally used as a music school when it was built in 1909.
Love said the entire neighborhood came out to help when the theatre bought the property. Everyone pitched in and donated their time and skills to help make repairs to help the structure meet city building codes, Love said.
“It was a community thing that came together,” Love said. “It is just really neat to know that the City of Webster Groves supported us and came out and helped.”
More information about the current play, tickets or audition schedules can be found on the theatre’s website, theatreguildwg.org.

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