Grosse Pointe Theatre – Celebrating 70 Years…and going strong!
History and Legacy
In 1947, Grosse Pointe Theatre’s founder, the late Russel Werneken, had a vision to create a community theater that would offer quality theatrical productions to the community. He went door to door in hopes of securing funds to achieve his goal and secure a permanent home for the theater group’s productions that would foster excitement and a love for the performing arts.
Werneken was just 22 years old and a drama teacher at the time he established Grosse Pointe Theatre as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) community theater. His passion to bring the highest standard of theater to audiences while also serving as a dynamic community force for artistic excellence through large stage productions, workshops and educational opportunities is a legacy that continues today.
“High-time we have a real community theatre in our own backyard, where all the people – miss and matron, teacher and teenager, carpenter and corporation lawyer – might join together in creative recreation….good theatre at low prices right here at home. A force for good that could be good fun, too!” – Russel Werneken
Grosse Pointe Theatre had 30 members at its start and their first meeting was held at the Alger House. Today, 70 years later, the group’s membership has risen to over 400 members – volunteers of all ages, from all backgrounds and walks of life from across our region who are united in their passion and love for the performing arts.
Grosse Pointe Theatre performed its first production in 1948 titled Clarence. To pay tribute to its beginnings, Grosse Pointe Theatre named its annual awards recognition the Clarence Award. From 1948 to May 2017, Grosse Pointe Theatre has produced 318 main stage productions.
For many years, Grosse Pointe Theatre members rehearsed in basements, churches and storefronts and performed in whatever space was available.
In the early 1960s, the Fries Auditorium was built as part of the Grosse Pointe War Memorial. Grosse Pointe Theatre was invited to perform as part of the dedication ceremony of Fries Auditorium in 1962. That was the start of Grosse Pointe Theatre’s nearly 55-year relationship with the War Memorial which allowed the theater group to lease the auditorium for its main-stage productions, serving as the group’s ongoing performance venue.
To serve its patrons as well as other visitors to the War Memorial, Grosse Pointe Theatre held several fundraisers to contribute $50,000 for the War Memorial elevator fund. The group also raised thousands of dollars for several other upgrades to the auditorium throughout the years.
Due to the War Memorial’s leadership decision to renovate and downsize the auditorium for other purposes, Grosse Pointe Theatre’s final performance at that venue was the sold-out Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in May 2017. Grosse Pointe Theatre will continue its legacy of providing quality theatrical performances at other venues throughout the community starting with its 70th production season.
In 1981, a long search for the theater group’s own rehearsal space resulted in the acquisition of an abandoned area nursing home located at 315 Fisher Road in Grosse Pointe. The building was built in 1913 as a boarding house and later housed other business establishments before it became a nursing home.
Renovations, many by GPT members themselves who donated both financial and sweat-equity resources, transformed the building into what is now home to Grosse Pointe Theatre’s rehearsal space, scene shop, costume/sewing room, props storage, and administrative and ticket offices.
In 2017, Grosse Pointe Theatre celebrates its 70th season. Today, more than 400 members – all volunteers – with a passion for theater take pride in belonging to one of the finest quality community theaters in Michigan. Members devote countless hours to achieve the highest standard of quality in each aspect of theater arts: set design and construction; costumes; props and set dressing; lighting; vocal and orchestra; choreography; directing and producing. Members rehearse for months to perfect each performance and countess additional volunteers are needed in all capacities to help create the magic for GPT audiences.
Potential shows are thoughtfully reviewed before the selection of productions is finalized for each season. Each show takes approximately two-years to plan and implement before it reaches the stage. Grosse Pointe Theatre’s attention to detail in each area of production is an effort to inspire and entertain audiences.
In addition to Grosse Pointe Theatre’s main-stage productions, it also has a vibrant and successful Youth on Stage (YOS) program. Grosse Pointe Theatre’s YOS started in 2000 as an educational opportunity for children and teens to learn about theater and stagecraft. The program serves youth from 8 to 14 years-of-age who meet, learn about and experience theater arts while also learning life skills in the process. Through the creative process, the program helps youth become self-confident, teaches problem-solving skills, establishes friendships and helps participant’s reach their full potential – both individually and collaboratively as a team.
Grosse Pointe Theatre’s Purdon Studio Theatre presents non-traditional theatre, also known as black-box theater productions. A small cast performs in an intimate setting which offers both performers and audiences the opportunity to connect in a unique way that’s different from larger stage productions. This expands Grosse Pointe Theatre’s performance repertoire, offering theatrical experiences beyond its main-stage productions. Purdon Studio Theatre was created by the bequest of the late Carol and Jac Purdon, two gifted artists who shared their incredible talents with GPT for many years. Purdon Studio Theatre productions are performed at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores and Grosse Pointe Woods Presbyterian Church.
Giving Back to Community
Grosse Pointe Theatre has a long history of giving back to the community – it’s part of the groups DNA that members continue to embrace today. Whether it’s taking part in community outreach/engagement; donating funds to other charities throughout the region; adopting families during the holiday season; or helping to provide opportunities and resources to young aspiring actors, musicians and those wishing to further their education in theater production, Grosse Pointe Theatre has generously supported the community and has felt it a privilege to help others succeed.
Grosse Pointe Theatre started its Scholarship Program more than 40 years ago. The program raises funds through concession sales at Grosse Pointe Theatre performances and through donations from members and other supporters. Each spring, high school students compete for scholarships to fund a portion of their tuition to performing arts schools and camps or a college of their choice. Since 2006, there have been approximately136 high school students who have auditioned and applied for scholarships. As a result, Grosse Pointe Theatre awarded scholarships to 71 winners – granting more than $60,800.
Looking back with Gratitude – Moving forward with Excitement
As Grosse Pointe Theatre prepares for its 70th season, there is a lot the group is thankful for:
- The vision and dedication of the group’s founding-members who built the foundation for GPT.
- The incredible commitment of its membership, all volunteers, who donate their time, money and talent to do whatever it takes to help GPT succeed, provide outstanding theatrical experiences for its audiences and contribute to the community.
- The wonderful season ticket holders and other patrons who have and continue to support Grosse Pointe Theatre production.
- The many generous donors, sponsors and community partners who recognize the gifts Grosse Pointe Theatre has to offer that benefit our community and region.
Grosse Pointe Theatre’s mission: To engage and enrich the community by continuing a tradition of exceptional theatrical experiences.
Each year, Grosse Pointe Theatre members work tirelessly to bring the group’s mission to life for approximately 20,000 theater patrons, as well as other program participants. That commitment remains stronger than ever as GPT prepares for its exciting upcoming season of main-stage productions which will be presented at different venues, thanks to the cooperation of Grosse Pointe Schools and University Liggett School.
Grosse Pointe Theatre’s 2017-2018 Season of main-stage productions and performance locations are as follows:
• The Pirates of Penzance, Sept. 17-30, University Liggett School
• The 1940s Radio Hour, Dec. 3-16, University Liggett School
• Peter and the Starcatcher, Jan. 21-28, 2018, Pierce Middle School
• How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, March 11-24, Pierce Middle School
• 42nd Street, June 17-30, Christian A. Fenton Performing Arts Center at Grosse Pointe North
Grosse Pointe Theatre looks forward to serving the community and region for many years to come and invites everyone to join them as they continue to entertain, educate, inspire and engage through the performing arts.
For information on season tickets, volunteer opportunities, sponsorships or others ways to support, call 313-881-4004.
Composed by Patricia Ellis. 2017
Board of Directors
President, Jef Fisk
Vice-President, Marie Reinman
Secretary, Terri- Turpin-Amato
Treasurer, Marianne Casey
Production, Eddie Tujaka
Technical, Eric Leszczynski
Tickets, Arlene Schoenherr
Communications, Kevin Fitzhenry
Youth on Stage / Outreach, EmmaJean Evans
Member at Large, Dale Pegg
Member at Large, Danielle Caralis
Immediate Past President, Theresa Selvaggio