Sullivan's Little Theatre on the Square has had quite a run

SULLIVAN – Guy Little Jr. seemed destined to have a life in theater, as well as his own theater.

A son of an English teacher, he was 5 when he saw his first professional production, "The Merry Widow." As a boy, he had his own marionette touring theater and produced "Hansel and Gretel" in his backyard.

As a teenager, he was performing in summer stock, received his Equity card when he was 18 and then went to the University of Miami on a full scholarship from the Opera Guild. He then took graduate courses in theater at Columbia University and the American Theatre Wing in New York before returning, at age 21, to his hometown of Sullivan.

He wanted to fulfill his lifelong dream of operating a professional theater. He looked into opening one in Danville, Decatur, Champaign or Springfield, with no success due to union and other issues. Then the owner of the 1920s-era movie theater in Sullivan offered to lease the building to Little.

"I thought my life would pass me by if I didn't do it." he said last week. "Since movies were dying in small towns, I took him up on it. I opened the summer musicals in 1957 and produced and directed nine musicals in nine weeks." He rattled off the titles in quick succession, starting with the opening production, "Brigadoon."

Little, now 72 years old and living in his ancestral home just south of Sullivan, said he wouldn't have opened the Little Theatre on the Square if he didn't think it would last.

And it has.

The producing Equity theater, the only one between Chicago and St. Louis and Indianapolis and Kansas City, marks its 50th anniversary this summer. To celebrate, it will bring back some of the stars who performed there during Little's tenure there through 1978, to appear in four presentations of the Stephen Sondheim musical, "Follies in Concert." The opening Friday evening will be followed by a gala reception. (Please see sidebar.)

Among the marquee names in "Follies" is Ann B. Davis, best-known as Alice the maid on the hit TV series, "The Brady Bunch." Her resume includes musical theater: She took over Carol Burnett's role in the '60s Broadway production of "Once Upon a Mattress," toured in "No, No, Nanette" in the '80s and appeared on Broadway in "Crazy for You" in the '90s.

Davis acted in "Everybody Loves Opal" in 1963 at the Little Theatre, when it was known as a "star theater" and tagged by one critic as "Broadway in the Cornfields." Among other major entertainers who graced the stage in the Moultrie County seat were Alan Alda, Ann Miller, Don Ameche, Betty Grable, Leonard Nimoy, Cesar Romero and Mickey Rooney.

Little, who for some time now has not been involved with the theater financially or operationally, persuaded Davis and the other stars to return to appear in "Follies." And Seth Reines, artistic director of the Little Theatre, talked Little into taking the role of Dimitri Weismann, the theater owner whose theater is closing and who has invited all his showgirls and stars back for a reunion before the building is razed for a parking lot.

Also part of the cast is Glory Kissel, an Equity actress in Chicago who became a member of the Little Theatre resident summer company last year. (The theater has a small Equity contract, meaning it hires four or five Equity actors for each show.) Before arriving in Sullivan, a farm community of 4,400 some 65 miles southwest of Champaign, she had not known what to expect. She was more than pleasantly surprised.

"This is the most wonderful venue," she said last week. "You don't find venues like this, especially in small towns. People here are so supportive. It's unique. It's really run by a great group of people who love the arts and want the theater to succeed and work 24 hours a day."

Kissel called Little "pretty phenomenal," a "self-made man of all trades" and a great supporter of the arts who made the Little Theatre happen. "It's a miracle," said executive director Leonard Anderson. "It couldn't be done again, for somebody to come into a small town of this size and to start a theater and for it to survive for 50 years."

Over the past half century, the theater was dark only two seasons, in 1980, and in 2004, when it underwent a $2 million renovation. After the 1978 season, Little left to pursue other regional theater opportunities – as a director, producer and stage manager. He also acted and sang.

A group from Charleston took over but closed the Little Theatre after the 1979 season, after losing money, Anderson said. In 1981, a nonprofit corporation, governed by a 40-member board of trustees, formed to operate the 428-seat Little Theatre on the Square. The group has since expanded its physical space and other offerings.

After heating was installed in 1995, the Little Theatre remained open year-round, rather than just over the summers, producing fall, spring and holiday musical theater, too. The corporation also purchased in Sullivan buildings for rehearsal and technical production, a dance studio and apartments to house company members.

The board started educational outreach in 1997 and touring programs seven years later, when the theater was closed for remodeling. The outreach started with 16 classes in dance, for 65 students. After drama classes were added, the total number of classes numbered 44 and students, 350. Since it started, the touring program has visited 180 schools in 130 communities, performing for 185,000 students.

Thousands of theatergoers have visited the Little Theatre itself. Last year, it had 24,000 paid admissions to its summer main stage shows, another 8,000 for its Theater for Young Audiences program and 21,000 admissions to its fall, spring and holiday shows. All musicals.

"We have grown so much that at this point, we need to sort of refine what we've created," said Anderson, whom Little recruited 20 years ago.

As for its roughly $1 million budget, Anderson said 85 to 90 percent comes from earned income, compared to an average of 60 to 65 percent for U.S. nonprofit producing theaters. The rest of the Little Theatre budget is made up of donations and grants. One is from the Illinois Arts Council; it increased its annual contribution to the Little Theatre in 1996 after formally recognizing it as a "Partner in Excellence," along with the Steppenwolf and Goodman, both producing theaters in Chicago.

"Now they have a great deal of support and subsidy, and that's terrific," Little said. "Very few regional commercial theaters exist anymore. They're a thing of the past. The cost of production and dealing with unions, actors' wages and administration is prohibitively expensive. It's a changing world, but it's still here."

The theater in Sullivan is still recognized nationally, with USA Today listing it a couple of years ago as being among the top regional theaters in the country. "Tab Hunter wrote in his autobiography that it was the best or one of the best regional theaters he ever worked in, and he worked all over the country," Little said.

In recent weeks, Little has received calls from stars who worked with him, congratulating him on the 50th anniversary of the theater he started. As a patron, he continues to support the theater that bears his name. And he continues to travel to see as much theater as he can. In June, he will return to New York, which he visits three or four times a year, to attend the memorial for Kitty Carlisle Hart, a "dear friend" who died April 17 at age 96. Hart acted at the Little Theatre in 1978.

"I'm kind of slowing down a little bit," Little said from his home, which he operated as the Little House on the Prairie bed and breakfast for 14 years, until 2004. "But the last few weeks have been hectic. I'm trying to get the house in top shape for the stars that are going to be staying here."

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