Seventy-five years ago this coming Saturday, a small group of dedicated individuals met in Danville to form a local theater company. It took courage to attempt to organize a successful performing arts group at that time. The nation was still gripped by the Great Depression and unemployment was rampant in the nation. But the theater group was fortunate to have among the organizers a dedicated professional with experience in live theater; her name was Kathryn Randolph.
Kathryn was born in 1890 and graduated from Ridge Farm High School. She attended Fargo College in North Dakota and studied theater. Following college she became a member of the Red Path Chautauqua organization. It was with Red Path she gained valuable experience in live performance. The woman who had once borrowed a mule to ride to an engagement in Mississippi was up to the task of being the leader in establishing a theater company.
She was a widow with three children when she directed the first performance of what became Red Mask Players on April 29, 1937. The three one-act plays were performed at the YWCA on Hazel Street in Danville. In the early years, Red Mask performances were held at various places in the community, including the Vermilion County Courthouse.
In the 1940s the theater company entered into an agreement with the management of the Palace Theater on Vermilion Street and for 18 years the Palace was the home of performances. During these years members of Red Mask continued to search for a site where they could have a theater of their own. They found it in 1962 when the Emanuel Presbyterian Church at 601 N. Vermilion was put up for sale.
The church was purchased by Red Mask and converted into a performing arts theater. There was seating for more than 150 people and the theater provided an intimate atmosphere for performers and audience members. It also allowed Red Mask to control every aspect of a production.
The former church was named the Kathryn Randolph Theater. The name honored the woman who was one of the founders of Red Mask and who directed more than 100 plays spanning a period of more than 30 years. She had also enriched the lives of countless individuals, teaching voice and elocution. Randolph died in 1968, a few days after directing her last stage play.
The organization had lost a giant, but there were others to carry on, and carry on they have done. In 75 years Red Mask has canceled only one performance, and that was Nov. 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated. The performance was moved to Sunday.
For three quarters of a century the theater company has enhanced the quality of life in the community. It has given young people an opportunity to gain valuable stage experience, and veteran performers a venue to display their artistic skills. Thousands of individuals have been active Red Mask performers, producers, directors, and stage hands through the years. They build sets, control light and sound systems, sell tickets, maintain the theater, and raise money to support the organization. Tens of thousands have been the beneficiaries of their efforts. The theater is small compared to those in big cities, but Red Mask performances are on a par with those held in major metropolitan areas.
Gary Gardner is an alum of Red Mask and is now the professor of theater arts and chair of Ray Bolger Program in Musical Theater at UCLA. He noted the theater company enhances the cultural profile of the community and pointed out, “Live theater not only provides entertainment, but it educates and elevates the soul.”
Red Mask does that, and much more. Congratulations on 75 wonderful years!
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.