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story.lead_photo.caption Natalie Wittenberger portrays “Ariel” in The Little Theatre production of “The Little Mermaid” in 2016. News Tribune file photo

It was 1969 when The Little Theatre first launched in Jefferson City.

It began when the St. Mary's Hospital Auxiliary sponsored a musical theater production ("Little Mary Sunshine") at the Richardson Auditorium. When many local residents volunteered for both on and off stage work, and the audience response was clear that the show was a hit, The Little Theatre was born.

At that time, there were no other theater groups in the area, and as a retrospective written by Bud O'Malley for the theater group's 25th anniversary in the mid-1990s noted, "the time was right to rekindle the embers of desire for 'live' theatre in the city of Jefferson."

Fifty years later, The Little Theatre is celebrating a milestone with several members from along the way reflecting on the theater's past in Jefferson City and its influence. They are quick to point out that the now thriving theater scene in Jefferson City can be traced back to The Little Theatre. The three other main theater groups in town — Scene One, Capital City Productions and Stained Glass Theatre — essentially formed from The Little Theatre itself.

"These other theater's have broken off from us," Maria Bish said. "The Little Theatre has been the core, the hub."

Bish, who has been involved in The Little Theatre since the late 1990s, joined five others who have been part of TLT over the years at the Miller Performing Arts Center one evening in October to reminisce and discuss the theater's influence over not just themselves, but the community as a whole.

"Any of us around this table would count the number of our involvement in shows in the dozens," Matt Connor said. "Jefferson City has an amazing theater community. It's pretty amazing for a town this size."

Connor noted the different theaters provide a wide variety of shows, adding even the talent pool in the region is wide enough that, at times, there is no crossover between groups. But, it's still common to see people who have worked with at least two of the area's theater groups.

After all, they are part of the same community. That community is never more evident than if one theater is in need of something else.

"It's kind of this mentality that we're stronger the more we support each other," Connor said.

The addition of more theaters has led to an incredible growth in the local theater community, as more opportunities are open for those who want to be involved. Mark Wegman, who founded Scene One Theatre in the early 2000s, began with TLT in 1984 when he got a role in "Annie." It was a big deal, he said, because TLT only put on four shows per year, with only one of them typically being a musical.

"Back in the '80s, TLT was the only game in town," Wegman said, noting that left fewer roles to be cast, leading to a smaller group getting a taste of theater life.

For Connor, his theater involvement began early, as he first auditioned at TLT in 1977 when he was 9 years old.

"I did not get cast, but I did not let it bring me down," Connor said with a chuckle before beginning to tell the story of that first audition. Connor said he was unfamiliar with the concept of pantomime at the time, so when the director asked him to go to the fridge and get a glass of water to drink, "I promptly looked around, walked out of the room and started looking in the kitchen for a refrigerator."

Connor points to his own family as an example of how family-oriented TLT is. His father worked in the orchestra for TLT productions; his brother was involved and now his daughter is, as well.

For long-time costumer Bish, it's no different. She got involved after essentially being volunteered to provide costumes for a show in 1999 by her daughter, Gabrielle Wittenberger. And Wittenberger, who got involved in acting in 1994 and is now often found directing TLT shows, has enlisted the help of her husband in making sets, and her children assist with backstage work.

"These people are extended family for all of us who are involved," Wittenberger said. "That's probably my favorite thing about it."

That family involvement helps not only improve the atmosphere of the productions, but it helps with the theater's needs, as it is an all volunteer effort at every level.

"From the set building to the board," Bish said. "One of the proudest things is that we're all volunteer."

Bish said she's now costumed 72 shows since first joining The Little Theatre, and it's the love of both the theater and the people involved that make it worth doing, especially when there's no pay.

Jack Renner, who has been involved in TLT since its second season in 1970, has acted in and directed a number of TLT productions, providing a perfect example for what Connor described as TLT's ability to develop its own directing pool by encouraging people to take on the challenge after they've been involved in a production.

"They sure developed me with directing," Renner said.

Over the years, the group at TLT has had plenty of success. But for each story of triumph, there's one where everything goes wrong. The group assembled at the Miller Center that fall evening agreed even when things went wrong, most of the time the audience never knew.

Renner recounted one disastrous production of "Noises Off" in the early 1990s. The storyline involves a play within a play, so many of the characters cast were meant to play two roles. Renner said the director of the show did not understand that aspect and wound up casting twice the amount of actors needed. Ultimately, several people had to be dismissed from the show and others, including Renner, stepped in to help with direction.

That one was so traumatic for some of the people involved that when TLT opted to take on the show again, more than 10 years later, several people refused to take part, Connor said.

Wittenberger describes one show where she had to interrupt a performance to retrieve an audience member for the police. And another performance where she accidentally ate food that had been sprayed with a chemical to keep it from decomposing.

Connor proudly states he was the reason behind the creation of a bylaw for TLT — no one can act (in a lead role) and direct the same show. In that show, "Bat Boy: The Musical," Connor said he had a live rock band backstage, and the music was coming through the speakers as well as out into the house.

"I think people's ears were bleeding it was so loud the first two nights of performance," Connor said, noting he was on stage and couldn't tell.

Laramie Thompson, who first became involved with TLT 40 years ago, emphasized the community's support behind The Little Theatre, noting they have some members who have supported them for the entire 50 years it's existed.

Moving forward, TLT is planning to continue providing quality community theater. Wittenberger said she has started working on paperwork to get The Little Theatre designated as a Missouri Historical Theater. To get that designation, a theater must be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, produce a minimum of three shows that are open to the public each year and have been in operation for at least 50 years.

"There's only a handful of theaters in Missouri that can be considered historical theaters so I'm pretty excited," Wittenberger said.

In January, The Little Theatre will officially celebrate its first 50 years with a gala they hope to use as a fundraiser. The event is set for Jan. 11 and will feature a one-night only performance that celebrates its history in Jefferson City. The next production from TLT will be "Steel Magnolias," which will run from Nov. 21-23 at the Miller Performing Arts Center.

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