Mills County residents looking for good entertainment don’t need to look far from home. The Mills Masquers community theater group has entertained southwest Iowa residents for 35 years.
The theater troupe began in 1977, when resident Marge Smith wanted to put on a play for Mills County residents. That play, a melodrama, was called No Opry at the Opera House Tonight.
“After that point, we (the people involved in that melodrama) decided to form a community theater group,” said Glenwood resident Bill Rowe, who played the villain in the show. “Our original productions were run kind of hand to mouth. I did everything from building sets to acting and directing. I designed a set of lights that could be taken from place to place.”
Clarold Rogers came up with the name Mills Masquers, and for the first three years, the group performed low-budget, non-musical dramas and comedies. The group’s funding was helped in 1979 when they were hired to perform a melodrama for Silver City’s centennial pageant.
“We got the melodrama free because it was written by a friend of Terry’s (Barton) for the community of Fontenelle,” Rowe said. “The fellow that wrote it used a lot of local names, so we changed a lot of the names to names that would be local to our community."
The entire payment of $1,600 went to the Masquers. The money gave them the ability to buy the rights to a popular musical. In 1980, the group staged Annie Get Your Gun, which attracted 1,600 people to four performances.
The money that was made, and the popularity of this first musical, consequently evolved into the Mills Masquers annual tradition of performing a winter musical. The group has always been run entirely by community members.
“This is pure community theater,” said Mary Barton, another founding member and Terry Barton’s widow. “We wanted people from Mills County to be involved. Our intention was that this should be a place where everyone could develop his or her own talent on a local level.”
While the theater group was a place for people to develop their talents, the group continued to produce straight plays and musicals in a variety of venues for seven years. Performances were staged at the Sundown Supper Club, the American Legion Hall, the Glenwood State Hospital-School Auditorium, and then in the loft of a barn owned by the Junger family.
“The barn was great,” Barton said. “The only problem was that you had to climb a ladder to get to the loft, and some of the older people had a hard time with that.”
When the Junger family sold their property, it became even more apparent that the group needed a permanent home, and in 1984 Rogers donated the land on which the Mills Masquers home, Barton Theater, now sits. The theater was named for Mary and Terry Barton, who were involved in early fundraising efforts as well as a variety of other jobs.
Once the land was acquired, the group bought a pole building for $23,000, and Rowe took over the job of designing the interior.
“We had done a production over at Bellevue Little Theater, and we had seen a lot of shortcomings in their building,” Rowe said. “They didn't have a way to get from the front of the building to the stage without going through the audience. So I decided to have a side hallway both upstairs and downstairs from what we call the Green Room (the theater term for the area where people get dressed and wait to go onstage) so we can get to the stage easily.”
The doors of the theater opened in October 1984 for their performance of Oklahoma! The country-themed musical was fitting, as the building itself was only a shell.
“We had built the kitchen and the bathrooms, but those were the only facilities we had,” Rowe said. “We were sitting on hay bales. We had a temporary stage we had used in the barn made of 4 x 8 platforms that we brought to the pole building. A number of years later we actually dug out a basement and built a real stage.
“There was no heat in the building,” Barton commented. “It was October, so we had lots of blankets on hand. Fortunately it wasn’t terribly cold.”
The Mills Masquers have grown and changed over the years. The current members include several people who joined in their youth and as second-generation community theater performers.
Current board president Nancy Wright was one of the cast members of “Annie Get Your Gun.”
As board president, she said she “helps tie up loose ends.” Her role is to make sure people are doing the jobs for which they volunteered. She sells ads for the programs and does anything needed for the theater.
Wright has been on the board for more than 25 years. There is no term limit for board members, but there is a three-year consecutive term limit for the presidency, following which a president must give up the position for at least one year to prevent any one person becoming overburdened.
The season starts when the selection committee meets in August or September, so by the time of the November board meeting, the plays for the year are selected. The next step is to acquire the productions, which requires fees.
“Royalties on a musical are about $1400 to $2000, depending on the show,” Wright said. “Straight shows are around $400. We almost always use pre-written material because we don't have anyone who really does playwriting.”
Money is raised through ticket sales, advertisements in the program books and patrons. Patrons can donate as little as $25 per year. The group also applies for a grant from the Mills County Foundation.
Wright estimated the group's annual budget to be $12,000. The money from ticket sales and advertisements go to production costs, which includes everything from royalties to sets. The money from patrons and grants go mostly to utilities and repairs on the building, plus some royalty fees if necessary.
Once the performances have been selected and the schedule set, the group casts the roles and begins rehearsals.
Musicals are more popular, but take more time and effort.
A musical takes six to eight weeks of rehearsals, because of larger casts, singing, dancing, and orchestration. These performances take casts of 25 to 50 people.
“If you audition for a musical, we will have a spot for you,” Wright said. “If nothing else, we always need people in the chorus.”
A straight play takes six weeks of rehearsals, sometimes seven if the show involves youth, and often has a cast of 10 to 12 people.
“We do consciously try to add new people who are interested in acting, and we do try to cast new people each time,” Wright said. “If we are doing some difficult roles, we might go with a regular because he or she will be more experienced. We are always in need of adult male cast members, and it's also harder to find cast members in their twenties.”
The shows not only involve casting, acting and directing, but also lots of work behind the scenes as well.
“We consult Scott Hite and Ken Whittaker for a lot of the technical direction,” said Craig Florian, director of the group’s current production, Bye Bye Birdie.
“For example, for this show, I designed a lot of the set, and then went to Scott and said ‘I need this ... and this ... and this,’” Florian continued.
Hite, who started performing with the theater in 1989 as a youth and started designing sets as a college student, spends one or two weeks creating sets for shows.
“I ask for a concept, how big they want it, and then I build it,” Hite said. “I have to brace it and make sure there are no safety concerns.”
Like everything else in this theater, the set design also relies on donations.
“I reuse a lot of things,” Hite said. “Some things I just buy and keep at my house. I have the back seat of a car in my living room. A set of lockers is being used as a dresser. I keep it all, because you just never know when it may be needed.”
Hite also works with the lighting, asking the director about the mood of the play and whether the scenes take place during the day or night.
Becky (Rowe) Neff is relied upon for her costuming expertise. Neff is Bill Rowe's daughter, and her first performance with Mills Masquers was a walk-on role as a gypsy accordionist in No Opry at the Opera House Tonight.
“I probably started sewing when I was 9 or 10,” Neff said. “When I got to college, I worked in the theater costuming department. I really like to research and make sure costumes are from the right era. Because of that, I organized things upstairs (in the costume department) so we can find things easily.
“How much time is spent on costuming depends on the show,” Neff said. “There are a lot of things around from the 1950s and 1960s. If it’s even more modern we can go to thrift stores. Shakespeare was challenging because the women's costumes were a lot of work. We started sewing the same time we started rehearsals.”
Once the stage is set, the costumes are completed and the actors have perfected their roles, the lights come on, and Mills County residents can watch a live theater performance lovingly produced by their friends and neighbors.
“Like all theater people, we are hams deep inside, and we love being onstage,” Neff said. “We want to give people the best show possible.”
Bye, Bye Birdie is being performed at Barton Theater, 56543 221st St., through Sunday, March 11. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m. and the Sunday matinee is scheduled for 2 p.m.