“I didn’t really see him at first,” Joan said with a chuckle. “But I had been involved in classes in high school and did some theater in Milwaukee. When I moved here, I had to do something. So I tried out for ‘My Fair Lady,’ and I got the part!”
They were married two years later and have been frequent show participants, ardent supporters of and big hits with Lakeland Players Ltd. ever since.
Walworth County theatergoers are glad, and they will help celebrate as the organization kicks off its 40th anniversary season later this month (see accompanying graphic) and nears the 150-production plateau.
This season’s schedule at the Sprague Theatre in downtown Elkhorn opens with “The Rocky Horror Show,” which the theater group did in 2008-’09, and includes “Sweet Charity” (1989-’90).
One person who has been around since that first season of 1973-’74 and the initial performance of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” is Linda Kouzes.
“We’ve always had a strong core group of people who’ve stuck with it,” Joan Hay said. “We have wandered off here and there, but it’s hard to overemphasize Linda’s importance. She directs and is always here. She never takes a hiatus … she’s the lifeblood.”
Kouzes downplayed her numerous contributions, but needless to say, she wouldn’t know what to do without the theater.
She has directed more than 100 plays, mostly musicals, but she got her start in acting at the Belfry Theater in Williams Bay in the 1960s, playing opposite Harrison Ford in “Damn Yankees” and Gary Burghoff in “Mame.”
“I always liked to direct, because it’s usually an eight-week project to put on a show … it’s a short-term goal,” Kouzes said. “I love sitting back and watching the actors and dancers and how everything progresses from beginning to end. But I gave up directing about 10 years ago, and then last Christmas we didn’t have anybody else available, so I came out of retirement for that.”
Mostly, the La Crosse native handles publicity and remains the organization’s leading lady in promoting the beloved community theater.
“It’s a big undertaking … we have friends and volunteers who usher, clean up, help with costumes,” said Kouzes, who was a physical education teacher for 33 years, 27 of them at the elementary school in Waterford.
LPL did plays in the old auditorium at the municipal building, the old middle school and the high school before purchasing the current property on West Walworth Street in 1990.
“Peter Kouzes, Linda’s late husband, was instrumental in getting the theater,” Steve Hay said. “It was always his dream. But it has so much history, from back when Dan Kelliher owned it and the old Vaudeville acts and things they did from the 1920s through the ’50s.
“But when we bought it, it had no heat, the pipes were so bad, there was a hole in the roof, so we got active with fundraisers and made tremendous repairs,” he said. “Volunteers did pretty much all of the work except for in the bathroom,” he added. “Our big thing was that we didn’t want to carry any debt, so we worked like demons to raise funds. And we were able to put in a new furnace and fix the roof.”
They’ve also replaced all of the seats, put in new carpeting, done a lot of painting, constructed a new concession stand and have added on to the stage four times. One thing the theater doesn’t have is air conditioning, so summer productions are nonexistent at this point.
The group also rents the theater out for class reunions, dance productions, meetings and even events such as an Elvis impersonator.
“It’s been hard to keep afloat, but we’ve hung on,” Kouzes said. “We try to keep prices reasonable, but royalties for musicals are expensive. We’ve been close, but we’ve never been in the red. So, we need to raise money any way we can.”
However, those struggles have not prevented Lakeland Players from doing what it does best — put on quality productions.
“We have offered Lakeland Players Juniors and do workshops for kids and try to do one children’s play every year, usually around Christmastime,” Kouzes said. “We also do a free concert with the Holton Band during the holidays. We used to do one dinner theater production a year, from 1983 through 2012, at the Monte Carlo Room.”
Joan Hay, a longtime nurse at Aurora Lakeland Medical Center in her full-time job, agreed that tenacity has been a lifeblood for the theater group.
“We’ve always been smart about the money and made do, while a lot of other smaller theater groups borrow money and don’t last long,” Joan Hay said. “We’re proud of what we’ve been able to do with that building. This theater has undergone an absolutely wondrous transformation. What David Whitney and others have done with the decoration … it’s gorgeous. I just love to walk into the place. I’m amazed every time.”
Steve Hay also said he has cherished his time with Lakeland Players and applauds those who have helped along the way.
“I love acting because you can immerse yourself and are living in the moment,” he said. “It’s been a great experience, and I’ve had really great parts, partly because there aren’t nearly as many men involved in community theater groups. I would say my playing Don Quixote in ‘Man of La Mancha’ was my favorite role. It’s a great part and challenge.”
Another person who has watched the theater and its performers grow is Beth Sukala, the current vice president of the board. The longtime art teacher has been involved with the theater for nearly 12 years, and her talents are often used in preparing the sets.
“I have been onstage in a crisis (situation), but I prefer to be in the crowd,” Sukala said. “We’ve had to rebuild the stage and slowly have been refurbishing the theater. We try not to do all musicals, but they are our best sellers and our big thing.
“We think we have one of the best little theaters in the country.”
Kouzes won’t argue with that.
“It’s been a lot of hard work, but we’ve been blessed with a lot of dedicated, hard-working folks,” Kouzes said. “The most exciting thing for me is to have people come in who haven’t been in here in a long time and the surprise on their faces to see all of the work we’ve done.”