Danville Light Opera: The First 60 Years
by Ron McDaniel
updated by Andrew Peters
In early October 1955, a half dozen individuals interested in both music and theatre met in a downtown Danville office building. Their purpose was to discuss the formation of a group that would allow individuals to display talents in drama, music, and dance while broadening the appreciation of these arts in the community. On October 18, an organizational meeting attended by approximately 75 people was held at First Presbyterian Church, and the seed planted just days before began to grow. Temporary officers were elected: Richard Telling, president; Alan Oster, vice president; Arlene Howard, secretary; and Bonnie Smith, Myrtle Young, and Euva Bracewell, members of the treasury board. William Dorn, production director of WDAN-TV, was named director for performances. Shortly before Christmas of 1955, the framework was completed, and on February 27, 1956, Danville Light Opera Company was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization. The Articles of Incorporation were signed Mrs. Young, Mr. Telling, and Mr. Dorn. The founding board of directors consisted of Mr. Oster, Mrs. Bracewell, Mr. Craig, Miss Howard, and O. D. Mann, Jr., along with Mrs. Young, Mr. Telling, and Mr. Dorn.
Plans were immediately underway for the first production, The Merry Widow. Opening night, April 12, 1956, brought a small but appreciative audience to the gymnasium at Schlarman High School to watch a cast of 29 bring Franz Lahar’s classic operetta to life. No sooner did the curtain close than arrangements began for the next two shows, No, No, Nanette and A Connecticut Yankee. Early DLO shows truly were “light operas,” or operettas.
At first, finances were so limited that board members and other interested citizens lent the group money for scripts and music. Luckily, the company and its appeal to the community grew steadily.
In 1960, at the start of its sixth season, DLO moved from the Schlarman gymnasium to the auditorium at Danville High School for its first staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. There it remained for 10 years, producing 20 shows. The seasons at DHS included a few operettas, but audiences soon showed their preference for popular Broadway musicals. However, the expense of producing such shows was, and still is, staggering. Facility rental fees, royalties based on seating capacity, and costs of building scenery for a huge stage drained financial resources. Consequently, in the fall of 1970, the stage fell dark.
But DLO was not inactive. It sponsored a fund-raising dance. It solicited contributions from local businesses. A special committee searched for a more affordable site and finally recommended Danville’s Masonic Temple. The first production at that site was Hello, Dolly!, which played to three nearly sold-out houses in the spring of 1971. Audiences enjoyed the arena-style staging with its stylized settings.
In May 1975, DLO honored a request from the Danville Scottish Rite to join with it in co-producing the musical 1776 as part of the nation’s Bicentennial Celebration. Danville Light Opera provided technical assistance and publicity personnel, and many of its members took part on stage.
Scheduling conflicts with Masonic groups for use of the Temple resulted in DLO’s moving to the Danville Junior College (now Danville Area Community College) Theater for the spring and fall of 1975. There the organization coped with a facility in disrepair and with major parking problems until it could return to the Masonic Temple in the spring of 1976.
In 1979–80, Danville Light Opera celebrated its silver anniversary season with what remains one of its most ambitious productions, West Side Story, and with a reprise of The King and I. The auditions, casts, crews, and audiences were the largest and most enthusiastic in years.
For more than 25 years, DLO built and stored scenery in unheated buildings, stored costumes at several locations, and rehearsed wherever space was available. In 1981 the organization was able to bring set construction and storage, costume storage, and rehearsals under one roof when it rented the gymnasium of the former St. Joseph’s Catholic School. The new facility was named DLO Backstage.
The summer of 1981 saw Danville Light Opera produce its first children’s musical. Funded in part by the group’s first grant from the Illinois Arts Council, The Wizard of Oz was staged at the Danville Civic Center with a cast of 90 children 6 to 14 years old. The following year DLO presented Hans Christian Andersen as a children’s musical in the theater at Danville Area Community College.
In 1982–83, Danville Light Opera, for the first time, expanded its season from two shows to three. The middle show, Oh Coward!, staged in February at the Danville Civic Center, was presented cabaret-style, with wine and cheese served at intermission.
In 1983, DLO purchased the former St. Joseph’s Catholic Church at 405 Sager Avenue with the intention of turning it into a performance site. However, it proved impossible for the group to meet the myriad of building-code demands imposed upon it. Holy Family Catholic Church, which held the title to the building, graciously let DLO out of its contract. Were it not for this action, the organization’s resources would have been exhausted, and DLO would not exist today.
At almost the same time that Danville Light Opera’s dreams of having its own theater were dashed, the space in the old St. Joseph’s School building became unavailable. In August 1985, the group leased the second floor at 121 North Vermilion Street, which previously housed the Danville Beauty School. Appropriately renamed DLO Upstage, the 6,000-square-foot facility initially contained a 40 x 60 foot rehearsal hall and a smaller rehearsal room, along with an office and space to build and store scenery and to store costumes, props, and lighting equipment.
In December 1984, with the help of a grant from the Danville Area Arts Council, DLO undertook a special project. In cooperation with Laura Lee Fellowship House, it presented D. J. Byrd’s musical production Genesis—The Creation Story, which featured an African-American cast.
The 1986–87 season saw the organization stage its first dinner-theatre production, Pretzels, at the former Danville Ramada Inn. Since then, sites have varied, but the winter show of every season has been presented as dinner theater.
In 1993, Danville Light Opera joined with the Danville Symphony Orchestra and Sunshine II Productions, Ltd., to produce a spectacular presentation of Man of La Mancha at Danville High School.
After an interval of 11 years, in the summer of 1993, DLO resumed production of its children’s musicals with Jack and the Giant. In keeping with the organization’s plans to stage such a show every other year, the next children’s show was presented in 1995, followed by another in 1997. The shows proved so successful, however, that since 1997, a children’s musical has been staged every summer. To reflect the age group involved more accurately, the productions were renamed “youth musicals” in 2005.
In the spring of 2003, DLO leased a new rehearsal hall, named DLO Center Stage, at 3349 N. Vermilion Street. That fall, the rehearsal facility was moved to the east wing of the Village Mall. DLO Upstage, in the downtown area, is currently used primarily for construction and storage.
Over the years, being a group without a permanent home, DLO has moved the sites of its shows many times. To accommodate growing audiences, the organization took two of its 2003–04 productions to the auditorium at Danville High School and staged its fall and spring productions (South Pacific and Annie Get Your Gun) there during its fiftieth season. The winter dinner theater (The Fantasticks) was produced at the Danville Area Community College Theater in Bremer Conference Center.
Over the next 10 years, the auditorium at DHS (which was officially named the Dick Van Dyke Auditorium in 2010) and the Bremer Theater at DACC became the regular venues for DLO’s productions. These years brought many changes to the organization, including hosting the playwright for its youth musicals in 2012 and 2013, Andrea Green from Massachusetts, and presenting edgier shows, such as A…My Name Will Always Be Alice (2011), The Great American Trailer Park Musical (2013), RENT (2013), and La Cage aux Folles (2015). In 2013, to reflect changing tastes and emphasize its commitment to Broadway-style musical theater, Danville Light Opera changed its name to DLO Musical Theatre. The year 2013 also saw the introduction of online ticket sales for DLO, ushering in a new era of convenience for its patrons. DLO undertook another collaboration, this time with the Danville Area Community College theater department, to produce Les Misérables in May 2014, with a cast of more than 60. This beloved show drew audiences in numbers that had not been seen in decades.
Throughout the years, Danville Light Opera Company has been admired for its inventiveness and versatility. Old-fashioned operettas, modern Broadway musicals, familiar shows, unfamiliar ones—DLO has done them all, staging them in every conceivable way—on a proscenium stage, in the round, cabaret-style, and as dinner theater. Truly, DLO Musical Theatre has brought quality and variety to the cultural environment of our community.