Half a century in business is something to celebrate—especially in the arts world, where companies come and go on a regular basis. But thanks to the determination and talent of the people behind Corn Stock Theatre, the organization celebrates its golden anniversary this season with special events and, of course, quality entertainment.

Growing Corn Stock

When thinking of Corn Stock, the first thing that springs to mind for most people is its famous tent in upper Bradley Park. But Corn Stock started out in much humbler surroundings. In 1954, a small group of friends with a similar interest in quality theatrical productions decided to organize the first outdoor theatre-in-the-round in central Illinois. According to Corn Stock literature, the group’s name was suggested by Helen Louise Young—blending a “stock” theatre company and the “corn stalk” that established the geographic locality of the theatre.

The fledgling group was led by Richard Chandler and instructor/director Gretchen Iben, who later served as the first president of the board of directors. On July 27, 1954, Corn Stock Theatre staged its premiere performance of Gigi in Detweiller Park, where the company also performed another production later that summer. Five performances of Gigi were staged, and more than 200 people attended each show—a successful beginning by anyone’s standards.

During the early days, the Corn Stock mission was created: “The purpose of the organization shall be to study, teach, and promote theater in all phases, to provide a practical yet experimental environment for the creative artist and technician, to create and present productions of quality in a professional manner which will offer a challenge to the talents and skills available, and to entertain and enlighten the viewer through the use of the dramatic arts.”

Seeking a permanent home for the organization, Corn Stock members formed a partnership with the Peoria Park District, and staged their second summer in an area off of Park Road in upper Bradley Park. Covering the area was a 60-foot by 90-foot canvas tent, which would ultimately become the Corn Stock symbol. Over the years, several permanent buildings have sprung up in Bradley Park, but a tent still covers the main performance area.

Other early additions included Corn Stock’s winter activities. Just months after its inception, the company saw the need to address the requests of many company members who were interested in theatre arts but felt the need for instruction. So Corn Stock began a “laboratory for training and performance” in Greeley School in Peoria. Years later, Dr. Leonard Costa asked the Corn Stock board of directors for funding for a winter laboratory theatre, which the board approved, and Corn Stock Lab Theatre was created. The Lab Theatre is now located in the Corn Stock Theatre Center, and, fittingly, the performance area of the Lab Theatre is called the Leonard Costa Theatre.

Corn Stock For Kids was founded in 1997 and is also housed in the Corn Stock Theatre Center. It was created to allow children to participate in productions and expose them to all facets of theatre—acting, singing, costuming, lighting and sound design, set construction, concessions, and more. CSK stages full-fledged shows utilizing youngsters in almost every aspect of the production—both onstage and behind the scenes.

Of course, the budget has grown significantly over the years, which has allowed for the rest of the growth. Corn Stock’s annual budget grew from the $35 with which it started in 1954 to approximately $260,000 in 2003.

Even with this monetary expansion, Corn Stock, like most community theatres, remains an all-volunteer organization. “With the exception of orchestra musicians and choreographers, no one is paid to perform,” said Corn Stock Theatre Manager Cindy Hoey. “All technical positions are also manned by volunteers. There’s one full-time and one part-time paid management position. Everyone else in the front office is a volunteer.”

Still Staging After All These Years

In honor of the organization’s incredible achievements of the past 50 years, Corn Stock hosted a Gala Celebration in May at the Hotel Pere Marquette. According to Hoey, the night was a celebration of the past 49 years and anticipation of the 50th season and beyond. “Founder Richard Chandler was among the 450 people gathered, along with past theatre managers, presidents, board members, and participants. Almost half of the crowd was comprised of season ticket holders, some of whom had been with us from the first season in Detweiller Park. After cocktails and dinner, the Golden Moments show was presented. Written and directed by Pat and Bruce White—and featuring an all-star cast—it was definitely one of the highlights of the evening. The celebration reminded me of an elegant class reunion—greeting old friends and meeting new ones.”

Another special celebration this year is the recently installed Commemorative Brick Garden. “It was the brain child of board member Vic Burnett, envisioned as a permanent celebration of our 50 years as Corn Stock Theatre,” Hoey said. “Members and patrons were encouraged to buy a brick engraved with their own special memory of Corn Stock. Some mention specific shows or people—‘First Fiddler-1973,’ ‘In memory of Mary Tometich.’ Others celebrate a personal event—‘Where we met.’ Some are engraved with memorials to lost friends. All of them are unique memories of Corn Stock and illustrate how important the organization has been in the lives of so many.”

Corn Stock and WTVP-47 are also producing a half-hour video, which will be broadcast during the December pledge drive, she said. “It will focus on the history of the organization and its effect on the lives of those involved. It will feature interviews with Richard Chandler and long-time Corn Stock participants and patrons.”

Of course, the 2003 play season is the ultimate celebration of its 50-year mark—a testament to the company’s longevity. Hoey said Corn Stock purposefully tried to choose shows that hadn’t been presented previously at the tent. “We believe part of Corn Stock’s mission is to produce new and exciting entertainment for the Peoria area. Therefore, the only show which we’ll repeat this year is the comedy My Three Angels.”

Season opener Sugar Babies, running May 30 to June 7, is a fast-paced blend of songs, dances, and gags that brings the best of burlesque to a modern audience.

My Three Angels, running June 20 to 28, is another comedy. Determining who the real crooks are takes some doing as three good-hearted convicts help save a family’s honor and property. My Three Angels is the play on which the Humphrey Bogart movie We’re No Angels was based.

The rise of Jesus and its effect on those around him form the heart of the next production, the Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera Jesus Christ, Superstar. The production, which runs July 11 to 19, features a new, exciting multi-media presentation.

The fourth show of the season is the central Illinois premiere of The Guys, running August 1 to 9. The power of the human spirit is celebrated in this poignant tribute to the heroes of September 11, 2001. A motion picture version of the play, starring Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia, was recently released to movie theaters.

The 50th season closes with the family musical, Meet Me in St. Louis, running August 22 to 30. Based on the MGM movie starring Judy Garland, this production features one family’s experience with life, love, and the excitement of the 1904 World’s Fair.

The Next 50 Years

Time marches on, and Corn Stock anticipates as many changes in the future as it’s had in the past—starting with its signature tent. Hoey said, “This season will be the last year for the present tent. An ad-hoc committee has been formed to investigate a replacement. Many options are being explored, including a clear-span structure—meaning no inner poles.”

Changes to the structure and content of the seasons are also on the menu, though probably not for the summer productions. “The summer season will remain essentially the same from year to year and will always be our main revenue source, but the Winter Lab Theatre could become the creative engine of the organization. It offers more opportunities for experimentation and instruction—and our audience continues to grow,” she said.

And growing is definitely a goal for the future, Hoey said. “We’re always eager to see new faces. If you’re nervous about being onstage, there are lots of backstage positions. It you don’t feel you have the technical expertise to work backstage, we always need help in the box office, concessions, selling program ads, drumming up donations, etc. If you enjoy the theatre and wish to become part of a successful organization, Corn Stock Theatre is the place for you.” AA!