Founder of Little Theatre in Sullivan dies at 82

Founder of Little Theatre in Sullivan dies at 82

SULLIVAN — Guy Little Jr., the founder of the Little Theatre on the Square, an economic engine for the Moultrie County seat, has died.

His handyman found him earlier today on the floor of his den in his family home in Sullivan. The coroner set the time of death at 11:30 a.m. today.

Mr. Little, a raconteur with thousands of stories to tell about his life in theater in New York, Chicago, Sullivan and elsewhere, had been in failing health in recent years. His best friend, Lee York, said Mr. Little had used two canes when they went out to dinner last Sunday.

McMullin-Young Funeral Home in Sullivan is in charge of arrangements. Graveside services are pending.

“He was a super-nice guy,” said Alex Young, a funeral director at the business. “We always enjoyed seeing him. He had so many stories about everything he’s done or seen. We never had time to get to all the stories.”

Mr. Little had founded the Little Theatre on the Square in 1957. In a far-ranging interview last year with The News-Gazette, he recalled how he was told the theater would never go over in Sullivan.

But, using contacts he had made while working in theater, Mr. Little began to bring to the theater some of the biggest stars of the mid-20th century.

His theater continues to operate today as an Equity theater, using a mix of regional and local actors but none with the star power of those in Mr. Little’s casts.

His 1892 home is full of photographs of the many well-known actors who acted on the Little Theatre stage, among them Kitty Carlyle Hart, Margaret Hamilton, Ann Sothern, Vivian Vance, Mickey Rooney, Van Johnson, Cesar Romero, June Allyson, Betty Grable, Linda Darnell, Ray Milland and the great character actor Edward Everett Horton.

One photograph that enjoys a place of prominence in his “den,” where his body was found, was that of Tab Hunter, the blond teen idol of the 1950s who starred in more than 40 films.

Hunter graciously took over at the Little Theatre a role Robert Wagner had accepted but couldn’t do after he landed a movie role.

“He’s one of my very best friends, one of my favorite stars,” Little said last year of Hunter. “He’s one of the kindest, nicest fellows that ever existed. I’m 81 and he’s 84 and I still hear from him.”

Over his career, mainly as a producer and director, Little worked, by his estimation, with 700 big-name actors.

Asked how he attracted them to Sullivan, he replied, “I had a very good reputation. I would have stars here and they would tell other stars, ‘Oh, you’ll love it out there. Guy is wonderful. He’ll take good care of you.’”

After Mr. Little “kind of ran out of stars and shows to do” in Sullivan, he sold the theater to a local group. He continued to work in theater in Milwaukee and would drive home to see his parents, who were in failing health. He eventually moved back to Sullivan to help them.

Even after he was no longer involved in the Little Theatre, 60 miles southwest of Champaign, Mr. Little continued to attend shows there.

“I sit in the front row, where I can see what’s going on and every wrinkle,” he said.

Though he knew many stars, Mr. Little said last year that his parents, Guy and Inis, were the biggest influences on his life. “They were the most beloved, wonderful parents anyone could have,” he said.

Both helped their son with the Little Theatre. Dad, a land owner who operated various businesses, took care of the payroll and Social Security. Mom worked the box office.

He credited his mother, an English teacher, for introducing him to theater when he was 5, taking him to see “The Merry Widow” in Decatur. He was hooked.

Another major influence was Winifred Titus Sentel, his childhood voice teacher. Mrs. Sentel turned Mr. Little on to grand opera — her father had opened the Titus Opera House in Sullivan.

He called her his dearest friend; he was with her the day before she died, at age 99. He had studied with her from age 10 through high school.

Mr. Little went on to college, winning a scholarship to study voice and musical theater at the University of Miami. There, he met Jerili Romeo, another music student from Chicago who had transferred from the UI. The two later married.

A multi-talented performer, she helped her husband in the early years of the Little Theatre. They divorced after 21 years of marriage. They have two children, Guy Sean Little, and Vanessa Little.

Mr. Little also was an accomplished cook who would sometimes make food for parties of up to 100 at  his home. Later in life, he was a tour guide in Rome, Paris and London for a local travel agency, and with his partner, Kirk McNamer, operated a bed-and-breakfast, The Little House on the Prairie, in Mr. Little’s home. Mr. McNamer died in 2008.

He said last year he had no regrets, saying he had a wonderful life, magnificent parents and great friends from high school.

Topics (1):Theater

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pnpnelson wrote on March 03, 2017 at 5:03 pm

My wife and I first met Guy and his companion Kirk when we booked a room at their Little House On The Prairie Bed & Breakfast in Sullivan 17 years ago this coming April 29.  We had just married and wanted to spend our honeymoon in a nice B & B.  Their place looked like just the ticket!  Little did we realize what an unforgetable treat was in store for us.  We were the only guests that weekend, so we had the run of not only the house (except for Guy's and Kirk's private quarters) but also the entire grounds and pond and trees and flowers - an amazing horticultural enclave.

Guy gave us the grand tour of the house, including his den and all the books and pictures of great Broadway and film stars he had come to know.  Regaling us with his exploits and theatrical endeavors, he literally beamed a radiance of proud past acomplishments - story after story after story, some perhaps better left untold.

That first year, we chose an upstairs suite which included a hot tub.  Sounded very decadent to us, so we of course, lavished in its luxury.  Trying to sleep, however, was a different story.  The humidity in the bedroom turned out to be a bit much.  Next year, we decided, we'll try a different room...

In the morning, and this is where it got so interesting and amazing, we were treated to a breakfast (Guy as the chef) of blueberry pancakes, our choice of eggs, Canadian bacon, english muffins, juice, and champagne.  My God what a feast!  Kirk served us, and as we were about to relish this repast, Guy saunters out of the kitchen, and in his full Broadway baritone voice, proceeds to serenade us at the table with "Oh What A Beautiful Morning" from the musical "Oklahoma"!  We were stunned, jaws on the floor!  Gordon Macrae could not have done a better performance!  Applause from us proceeded for minutes!  Does he do this for all his guests?  No matter, we were almost in tears, for it was indeed, a beautiful April morning with a bright golden haze on the meadow.

The next year, we booked a room on the main floor that opened out onto their sunroom, which also had a hot tub/jacuzzi.  One other guest was there somewhere, but he/she/they were not around much so we had a wonderful private champagne and cheese and crackers la-la-la in the warm waters right outside our bedroom door.

For our third anniversary, we chose the same room again and impishly left little handwritten secret notes stuffed into some cubbyholes of the armoire for future guests to possibly discover.  We vowed to return every year on our anniversary.  But alas, when it came time to book our room for our 4th anniversary, their website sadly informed us they were no longer going to be a B & B.

C'est la vie...

And that's our unforgettable remembrance of Guy Little.  May he rest in peace.

Or more likely, Guy is having a wonderful time singing and acting with departed friends and colleagues in that Great Theatre in the sky.

Richard Stephens Ely wrote on March 06, 2017 at 2:03 am

Very saddened to learn of the death of Guy.

I don't usually write comments or opinions but in this case I would like to because of the close relationship I enjoyed with Guy.

I am originally from Decatur and was one of the very first apprentices in the first season of "Summer of Musicals". I always laugh about how Guy always referred to me as the person who pulled open that heavy old green curtain on the first production of that summer. My claim to fame!!

I did seven seasons at the theater before going to New York City to continue my life in the theater. 

For over 50 years I enjoyed the friendship and generousity of Guy Little and we continued to correspond even after I relocated to Spain where I have spent most of my life. 

My trips home always included a visit to Guy at his home "on the prairie" where we laughed and cried at shared experiences. I will never forget his hospitality during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the theater.

Thank you, Guy, for letting me be part of the wonderful memories you have left us after your more-than-usual life. 

Richard (Dick) Stephens