The Making of Strollers

From St. James to Strollers…

For over 5 decades, Strollers Theatre has been honored to serve local Madison audiences by producing high quality productions with reasonably priced tickets.  However, the methods and means in which we accomplished this goal evolved through the years.  We began as the St. James Players, established in 1957, and the first show, A Fantasy of the Passion, was produced in 1958.  A handful of energized and talented volunteers recognized the potential for a great theatre company to emerge and petitioned for non-profit status, writing the Articles of Incorporation on September 27, 1967.

As the company left the St. James Church and “strolled” through various Madison venues, it became clear the name need to be changed.  Leo Cooper recommended changing it to “Madison Repertory Theatre,” but Carol Dietmeyer suggested “Strollers Theatre, Ltd.”  And on April 16, 1968, the Articles of Incorporation officially reflected the new name.  Jack Blake, husband to Sarah Whelan Blake, created the “walking legs” brand that can still be seen in our logo today.  Both the new name and logo were inspired by the strolling minstrels who toured the countryside during Medieval theatre when performers were exiled from the church and other public venues, finding secret locations to continue their craft.  This name, reflecting a strong will and drive to create theatre, still inspires the company today.  And in the spirit of service, on August 14, 1975, the company became a tax exempt organization.

Any port in the storm…

After leaving St. James Church, Strollers could be seen at the Pres. House, MATC, and the Monona Library until settling in at the Madison Christian Community Center from 1970 to 1989.  In 1987, we began producing shows at the Oakwood Village Theatre, as well, which we continued to do sporadically until 1998.  We also performed at Edgewood College, the Civic Center, and Brave Hearts during this period.

Then Leo and Lee Ann Copper realized that it was time to find a true place for Strollers to call home.  After Leo and Karen Tusack noticed that Urban Land was developing Block 89, they approached Tom Haig to see if he would be willing to talk to them.  He did, and at that meeting Urban Land said that a theatre could not be included in the Block 89 project, but they would be willing to lease the Esquire building to us.  It was at that point that Tom began raising the money to renovate the building under the name The Gerald Bartell Theatre. Both Tom & Leo had admired Gerald Bartell as a supporter of the arts, so it seemed to be the perfect name for the new venue. Tom personally raised $1.2 million toward the project! All agreed that “it would take a village” to successfully launch this new theatre venue, so Tom suggested that we contact other theatre groups to join us, both to help with the renovations and to raise money.  And so, with Mazomanie R&R Company, Millenium Theater, Madison Theatre Guild, Mercury Players Theatre, Reprise Theatre, and Strollers Theatre, Ltd., the first 6 participating theatre companies (PTC’s) became residents at the new space.  [The original 6 company quilts still hang in the Tom & Bobbie Haig Lobby today.]  The renovations, which began in 1997, took over a year to complete.  The Cooper’s, along with several other local community theatre members, could be found every night at the Esquire Movie Theater, tearing out the old sound proofing, clearing out the rubble, painting…making a theatre.  “We spent an entire summer [after our day jobs] from 6PM to Midnight, working to make the Bartell a reality,” said Gloria Myer.  In addition to the enthusiastic theatre members, local construction companies assisted in the painstaking efforts.  Findorff Construction sent their crew over to remove the old seats and balcony rubble free of charge.  And the remodeling of the Esquire Theater into the Bartell Theatre was Tri-North Construction’s first theatre project of what would become many more!

When Strollers produced its first production in the Drury Theatre at the Bartell in September of 1998, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, the Evjue still wasn’t complete.

A match made in Strollers…

Our most influential members were Leo and Lee Ann Cooper.  Leo first came on the scene when his brothers, Dennis and Mark, and sister, Cathy, (who had been involved with St. James Players for years) finally convinced him to get involved in 1965.  He stage managed his first production, “because no one else volunteered to do it.”  But if you ask him why he joined, he’d probably tell you it had something to do with girls and after-show parties!  Well, the “girl” part was right, because later in 1965, Leo met his wife Lee Ann (Stirn) Cooper when she was cast in The Loud Red Patrick.  Lee Ann had moved to Madison from Lansing, Iowa with her sister Cathy, and when her friend, Pat Thorton, invited her to come to a St. James Players’ rehearsal, she said “sure.”  And Leo was certainly glad she did as this couple became an integral part of developing this company for 43 years.  Leo claims that Strollers is the key to a happy marriage as he and ALL of his brothers, Dennis, Mark, & Joe, met their wives here and are still happily married!

Strollers gets political…

The Cooper’s influence didn’t stop with Strollers as their interest in local politics and supporting local arts drew them to be Chairs of the Membership Committee of the Dane County Democratic Party.  From 1976 to 1982, Leo served on the City and County Bicentennial Commissions.  Upon completing the bicentennial project, Leo noticed that there was money left over and he and other members of the Bicentennial Commission thought the money could be used to develop a county arts commission.  Leo authored the legislation, it passed, and Lynne (Eich) Watrous was hired as the first director of the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission (DCCAC).

Strollers’ production value…

We’ve become known for our high production value; making sure our patrons not only see strong performances, but well developed designs as well.  Lee Ann Cooper said that this focus evolved over time.  In the 1950’s realistic sets were the accepted practice, but in the 1960’s and 1970’s originality was the new design movement and we saw the trends of minimalism and fantasy on stages across the country.  The unexpected result:  community theatres could produce professional-looking shows without large budgets.  Strollers certainly explored this new design movement.  Eventually our patrons began to expect a higher design standard from us, and we felt obligated to provide it for them.  After all, you paid for a ticket, so you deserve to see high production value.

As we stroll forward…

As members of Strollers Theatre, Ltd., we have an obligation to continue the tradition of providing high quality, reasonably priced theatre for our patrons and fellow members of the theatre community.  Not only do we serve our audience, but we also strive to be an incubator for future designers and theatre technicians.  Tony Trout describes our philosophy as, “We’re not only a theatre company, we’re a company for people who love theatre.”  We value our volunteers and we do our best to make their experience with us positive and fulfilling.  We also do what we can to support other theatre companies in our community and have truly benefited from those relationships.  Our season subscribers and donors continue to be a marvelous support for our efforts and, over the years, have become more like members of our family.  We look back to those who have paved the way for Strollers, and we look forward to continuing their legacy for years to come.  So come and visit us at the Bartell, and witness the “power of good theatre!”

Article by:     Erin S. Baal
based on an interview of Leo & Lee Ann Cooper
Edited by:    Miranda Hawk