First Nighters (FN) was organized November 15, 1965. Irene Burget was the leading light and founder of First Nighters. As CT box office chairman, she had deplored the poor attendance on opening nights and, being an activist, Irene did something about it. With the support of her daughter, Dorothy Boone, and Jane Hazledine, she launched this CT women’s auxiliary to stimulate attendance on opening nights and promote Community Theatre in general, encouraging participation in all areas.
Response was excellent. Membership was open to all women who were ticket holders in CT. Dessert meetings were held in private homes the third Wednesday of the month preceding each play. Dues were two dollars per year plus a 25-cent fee for attendance at dessert meetings. First Nighters hosted and financed receptions for the audience, the cast, and the crews following each opening night performance. These were held in the lower level, on stage, or in the warehouse as circumstances dictated.
Soon the activities expanded to include soliciting floral donations for the lobby, organizing theatre parties, hosting receptions following the awards night, and providing interesting theatre-related programs at the dessert meetings.
The following April, under the leadership of Mary Curcio, a field trip was arranged to Clowes Hall in Indianapolis to see Helen Hayes in Somerset Maugham’s The Circle. Irene, through her diligent efforts, received a phone call: “This is Miss Hayes’ secretary calling. I have arranged for the First Nighters to meet Miss Hayes after the performance of April 13, 1966.” The anticipation of such a wonderful opportunity assured that the chartered bus was filled to capacity to share this exciting adventure. An interesting corollary came later when FN member Eva Fender related her experiences as a childhood playmate of Helen Hayes.
At the end of their first season, in celebration of CT’s 40th anniversary, FN hosted receptions following every performance of “The Desperate Hours”, when the Gilbert Wilson murals and the new warehouse were dedicated. June 30, 1966, FN journeyed to Sullivan, Illinois, to see “The World of Susie Wong”, starring Robert Reed. The first very busy year had been a success, and foretold many years of productive and satisfying activity.
In 1967, FN initiated the “Angel” award to be given at the annual meeting to an individual who had rendered unusual service to the theatre in a non-acting capacity. The first Angel award went to Elmer Porter. Following dissolution of First Nighters, the Angel award was suspended, then later awarded by CT officers. The list of recipients appears with the Awards chapter.
First Nighters organized a period style show under the direction of Peggy Thornton using some of the very beautiful period clothing given the theatre over the years. This proved to be an excellent source of income and was presented to other organizations, some as far distant as Turkey Run. “Women of all Ages” was a program created by Ruth Melloh, and Jane Hazledine presented a “Hat Show” numerous times.
As a Bicentennial project, FN created a handmade quilt for a raffle project. Thirty five members embroidered the individual blocks which represented historical places or events in the United States. Connie Ratcliffe and Mary Ann Keko assembled and completed the project with the help of Jeanne Keko and Sally Moulton. Financing for the fabric was donated by Betty Blumberg, Mary Jane Hegeman and Skeeter Holdren. The drawing was held during the awards dinner of, the Wabash Valley Bicentennial Celebration at the Holiday Inn. The project netted $720.
Two other raffles were held for prints of D. Omer (Salty) Seamon. Stationery was sold several years. Twice they raised money with dinners and entertainment; the latter was provided by talented CT people. On two occasions, the members created and staffed a craft booth at the Honey Creek Square Craft Fair weekend under the chairmanship of Gay Crum.
In addition to providing attractive refreshments for the opening nights, soon FN were called upon to offer reception teas prior to the Sunday matinee performances. They also served punch and cookies during the judging days when CT participated in the First National Bank Christmas decoration contests. FN staffed the refreshment booth for the four Banks of the Wabash Melodramas presented by CT. They implemented florists’ contributions for the lobby.
The funds earned were used to finance needed projects for the theatre and their contributions were considerable.
Large projects included redecorating the lobby rest rooms, the gallery/lounge, painting the front doors, and assisting with total renovation of the costume loft. FN member Barbara Miescher cleaned and supervised repair of the auditorium seats. FN financed and implemented the addition of two closets in the loft The carpentry was provided by husbands, Ralph Mason, Jerry Maddy and Jack Booth.
Having a special interest in the lower level where the receptions were most often held, FN implemented the creation of a separate kitchen there, with periodic improvements such as cabinets, walls, and furnishings. Other attention to that area included purchase of drapes and doors for the prop shelves and later the enclosure of a corner of the lower level for large prop storage. An early project was covering the steps to the lower level. Other improvements there included purchase of tables, chair cushions and large trash containers. FN members framed many of the CT show pictures and hung them in the lower level.
First Nighters donated $1,000 toward the purchase of new carpeting for the theatre and later cleaned it. They contributed to the purchase of a spinet piano and financed the tuning, on occasion. For several years, FN funded an award for the “most authentic” costume at the Beaux Arts Ball.
Following the very active 1985-86 season, you might say First Nighters went out in a blaze of glory. They turned over their assets to the CT Auxiliary, a smaller group of the members who hoped for a resurrection of FN. Unfortunately, not enough interest could be generated so this latter group also had to bow to the inevitable. May 20, 1987, six hearty souls voted to disband. Their $1,000 certificate of deposit, plus interest, was “placed in joint tenancy with Community Theatre for a period not to exceed three years, after which, if First Nighters did not reorganize, said monies shall revert to Community Theatre.” First Nighters certainly are missed.
Presidents of First Nighters were: Irene Burget, Dorothy Boone, Margaret Beecher, Chris Swan, Norma Hetherington, Peggy Thornton, Jean Shutt, Mary Curcio, Lois Danner, Ann Mason, Jeanne Keko, Barbara Miescher, Connie Ratcliffe, Dede Schindel, Ruth Melloh, Mary Jane Modesitt, and Deloris Silverman.
Since First Nighters is not now in existence, we look back on its accomplishments with admiration. We are indebted to both Irene Burget and Ann Mason who lest comprehensive accounts of the First Nighters activities in their time. It was truly a viable arm of CT and gave both money and measurable service and spirit to the theatre.