Mike Gibbons still remembers the first play he saw at the Aiken Community Playhouse.
It was in 1977, and Carol Harris was undertaking the title role in the musical “Peter Pan.”
Now, more than three decades later, Gibbons is the executive director of the Playhouse.
He has performed in and seen several productions, some with his children Parker and Allie.
“I love being in a show as much as I love watching a show,” Gibbons said. “I'm consistently amazed with the talent that is drawn into Playhouse productions.”
Before the 1950s, this “talent” had nowhere to perform in Aiken.
Two men noticed this and thought a change was in order.
Will Cole and Parker Deans, who were both with the Savannah River Plant, now known as the Savannah River Site, came together with other community members. From this collaboration, the Aiken Community Playhouse was born.
In November 1952, “George Washington Slept Here” premiered at the Aiken Municipal Auditorium, according to the Aiken Standard.
Cole was the director.
Today, audiences pile into the URS Center for Performing Arts on Newberry Street to see the plays.
That was not always the case, according to the article Cole wrote.
When the theater company first formed, it performed out at the Aiken Municipal Auditorium and the Aiken Junior High Auditorium.
However, “as the Playhouse neared the end of its second decade, the need for a more permanent home was growing more acute,” Cole wrote.
So, in 1968, Deans joined with Harry Schutte, John Creadick and Fred Ryder to find the funds needed to complete this mission.
In 1974, the project was complete, according to Cole's article. The Aiken Community Playhouse – or ACP – was now in a tin building at Virginia Acres Park, according to ACP board of directors member Thurmond Whatley.
The company stayed at the park for many years, even celebrating its 100th show there, according to an article written by Playhouse volunteer Jamie Turner.
However, with the passing times, Aiken and, thus, the Playhouse were impacted.
“Due to an economic downtown in the early 1990s, the City of Aiken was faced with significant job loss from the Savannah River Site and loss of businesses from the downtown area,” Turner wrote. “Because of that, the City embarked on a ... downtown revitalization campaign.”
The Playhouse was part of that campaign, Whatley said.
At first, the plan was to move into an old movie theatre, he said.
But, a corporation – the Washington Group – was interested in the Playhouse.
Due to this interest, along with the City and community's support, the theater company was able to move into its current location.
In October 2002, the red carpet was rolled out for the opening of the musical “Footloose” at the new Washington Center for the Performing Arts, according to the Aiken Standard.
“Not only was this the first show in the Playhouse's new home, but it was the opening of its 50th season,” Turner wrote.
In the early 1980s, the Playhouse saw another addition – the Youth Wing, Cole wrote.
Jim Moore, the president at the time, and Clara Yarian “brought the Wing into being under the auspices of the Playhouse board of directors.”
According to Youth Wing leader Nancy Hansen, Don, Jean Currier and Angie Fitzgerald French also helped get the group started, with Chuck Shick, Shannon Huey and Lora Rhinehart expanding it later on.
Today, the Youth Wing consists of four groups: Bowman for fourth- and fifth-graders; Silverburg for sixth- to seventh-graders; Dean for eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders and Cole Group for 11th- and 12th-graders. Each of these groups is named after prominent Playhouse participants – Bowman for Marvin Bowman, a former Board member; Silverburg for Joan Silverburg, who was part of the formation of the Playhouse and Dean and Cole for Parker Deans and Will Cole, according to Gibbons.
The theater company believes that the “dramatic arts” can teach more than just how to work a sound board or walk properly across a stage, Hansen said.
“Throughout my years in the Youth Wing, I've grown both in my relationships with other people and my relationship with myself,” Aaron Volpe, Youth Wing vice president, said. “I've grown past my fears of speaking/performing in public. I've become more comfortable in my skin, and I have realized what I enjoy doing ... that I am an actor.”
President Moriah Melvin said the Youth Wing has made her feel “more independent and self-assured,” while Brittany Winans is “in her third year of the Company (an audition section of the Youth Wing) and loving every minute of it.”
The Youth Wing does outreach performances throughout the year, one being its Garden Theatre series in the summer, Hansen said.
Currently at the helm is Hansen, executive director Jim Anderson and Jennifer Gibbons with Shick and Michele Kellrooney.
“Having a group of friends as supportive as my theater friends and mentors like Jim and Nancy have made a world of difference to me,” Melvin said.
Moving into a new age
For more information about the Playhouse, fans can stop by its website, follow it on Twitter or stop by its Facebook.
Those who follow the company's online presence might have noticed some recent changes.
Cory Herbst, who handles the social media, and Lisa Tharp-Bernard, who is over marketing, have recently added features like “Behind the Scenes,” where select actors are pictured and interviewed.
“People enjoy the shows, (but) it's interesting behind the scenes, too,” Gibbons said.
The Playhouse first formed a web presence in 2005, with a “more professional one” forming in 2009, Whatley said.
For more information, visit www.aikencommunityplayhouse.us or call 803-648-1438.
Stephanie Turner has a hand on all areas of production for the Aiken Standard, where she reports, edits and lays out pages.
Aiken Standard File Photo Completion of part of the Aiken Community Playhouse’s first theater was marked by the Playhouse production of “The Fantasticks” in March 1971.×
Aiken Standard File Photo "Miracle on 34th Street" was the Aiken Community Playhouse Christmas show for the 2012-13 season. Surrounded by James Knudsen as Kris Kringle are his helpers Annabelle Clothiaux, Sophia Frank, Lilianne Ross and Mary Meagan Munschy.×
Aiken Standard File Photo In this scene from April's production of "The Nerd," Willum, played by Teddy Kulmala, examines his birthday gift, as his girlfriend Tansy, played by Emily Greene, sits next to him. Also pictured is Axel, played by Bill Kassay.×
Aiken Standard File Photo Jim Moore and Pete Boyle mix it up in "The Star Spangled Girl" in 1974.×
Aiken Standard File Photo The workers of Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory diligently sew at a rehearsal for Youth Wing's February's "Pajama Game" production. Pictured, from left, is Allie Blissit, Victoria Varnedoe, Jessica Kirschner, Mary Cate West, Andrea Essleman and Jenna Evans.×
Aiken Standard File Photo Smotrel, left, and Baker working on "Apple Tree" sets in May 1972.×
Aiken Standard File Photo The Aiken Community Playhouse's season consists of musicals and non-musicals. Pictured here is the cast of "12 Angry Men," performed in June. In the front row, from left, are Michael Anzalone and Jimmy Moore. In the middle row, from left, are Richard Herzog, William Crowder, Garrett Maroney, Worth Swearingen, Lorin Hammond-Ross, Jim Moore Sr., Don Winslow and Russell Snow. In the back row, from left, are Brad King, John Fowler and J.C. Crider.×