The stage lights have temporarily dimmed, but the creativity of its members continues to spark the Players Guild of Dearborn, as it has throughout its 93-year history of creating onstage magic.
The non-profit community theater, founded in 1927, which has survived the challenges of the Great Depression, World War II and the post-war quest of building its own theater, remains resolute, if not entirely patient, in its quest to wait out the pandemic and return to its passion of creating theatrical enchantment.
The coronavirus, which darkened theaters worldwide, closed the Guild’s run of Tennessee Williams’ “Glass Menagerie” after its opening weekend. It also cut short its season, leaving its members anxious to tread the boards and build a show.
The Guild has grown from an exclusive group, for which even a seat in the audience was by invitation only, to a diverse cadre of members with color-blind casting and a handicap-accessible building.
Throughout, its mission has remained constant: to sponsor and promote an active interest in theater and play production.
Four years before the Guild was formed, the Men’s Club of Christ Episcopal Church of Dearborn raised money to repair its church through minstrel shows. As the popularity of the shows increased, a women’s group from the University of Michigan enlisted the performers to help them with their fundraising efforts.
In November 1927, Gordon Eldredge and Fred Black invited a hand-picked group of people who had participated in local one-act plays to discuss the feasibility of forming their own theater group. They held their first meeting at 8:30 p.m. Nov. 22, 1927, at Christ Episcopal Church, and before the year was out, they presented their first play on Dec. 30, 1927, “The Prince Who Wore a Red Feather,” in the auditorium of the original Dearborn High School, which later became Ray H. Adams Junior High School, and is now known as the Dearborn Atrium Office Center, 835 Mason, Dearborn.
The newly formed Players Guild of Dearborn then shifted its performances to Dearborn’s Masonic Temple, where Henry and Clara Ford were among its patrons. The group performed there throughout the Depression years, and admission to the shows, as well as its membership, was by invitation only. New members had to be sponsored by a current member, and because the membership was limited, there was a years-long waiting list to be accepted.
When the John Hancock Insurance Co. took over the Dearborn Masonic Temple building in 1940, the Guild lost its access to the stage, but found a new home in the large auditorium within the Wayne County Hospital at Eloise. However, the Guild had no access to Eloise to build or store its sets, and while the group dreamed of constructing its own theater, the restrictions of World War II prevented the group from pursuing that dream. PGD performed through 1949 at Eloise.
After World War II, PGD approached the Sisters of St. Joseph’s Retreat, in an attempt to lease the old two-story cow barn at the northwest corner of Michigan and Outer Drive. However, the Guild’s offer was rejected.
In 1945, then-Guild president Floyd Arnold led the group to purchase the Guild’s current property at 21730 Madison, southeast of the intersection of Monroe Street and Outer Drive. Initially, a workshop for set construction and storage was built on the land, until in 1948 the group had an architect create plans for a playhouse.
Fundraising took on a new urgency, and included a bond sale, and in June 1949, the group broke ground for the playhouse, with its first show presented Nov. 12, 1949, in the new building.
As the Guild approached its 25th year, in 1952, it received a donation of 310 seats, as well as a curtain, from the Ford Motor Co’s. Rotunda, which was being remodeled. PGD just had to supply the manpower to remove the donations from the Rotunda.
The seats were in place in time for the opening night of “Rain,” which featured in its cast future film star George Peppard, who was born in Detroit, and who is interred in Dearborn’s Northview Cemetery.
In 1953, the Guild sold more bonds to finance the construction of a clubroom and kitchen. Those bonds were retired by June 1963, and in October 1963, a board was elected to govern the community theater.
A bond sale in 1969 funded the renovation of the theater, with the addition of a new lighting system, an improved air circulation system and a new lighting deck. For the first time, during the 1969-70 season, seats were reserved, and season tickets were offered.
In 1993, the Guild expanded again, adding much-needed first floor restrooms, with handicap-accessibility, and adding extensive costume and property storage. Ground was broken in September 1995, and in May 1996, the ribbon cutting took place before the opening performance of the musical “Dames at Sea.”
In 1999, a three-phased expansion was begun, with a handicapped-accessible west entrance completed in 2002, and, by May 2005, the set construction shop expanded to five times its original size. This freed up the stage for rehearsals, since sets could be built off-stage.
In 2013, the Guild had to change its renovation plans to respond to the slowly sinking clubroom floor, which had to be shored up to stabilize the structure. At the same time, the auditorium was renovated.
The Guild lobby, with an east handicap-accessible ramp, and an expanded lobby, with a bigger ticket booth, followed.
The building, though, is only one part of the Guild’s story. Its members and productions, from its youth theater, to its one acts, to its musicals, dramas and mysteries, make up much more of the story, and add another rich chapter to the colorful chronicle of the Players Guild of Dearborn. Stay tuned for the curtain to rise soon on another chapter of the Guild’s story.
For more information about the Players Guild of Dearborn, call 313-561-TKTS or go to playersguildofdearborn.org.