OGDENSBURG – In 1963, a group of eight Ogdensburg residents formed the Ogdensburg Community Players with one goal in mind: to bring culture to the city and the north country.
Led by president Frank Schwartz, the all-volunteer group scouted for traveling theatre troupes, dance and music shows, and performed community productions.
The Players first scheduled performance was Syracuse Universitys production of Samuel Becketts one-act play, End Game. The play was performed in the Ogdensburg City Hall auditorium, now the City Council meeting room.
The show was done on top of a garbage can, Mr. Schwartz said. Anyone who knows or studied Beckett, know hes tough. But we had a full audience, and they stayed for the full two hours. After that, we knew we had to keep it going.
Shows were eventually moved to the Ogdensburg Free Academys George Hall Auditorium to accommodate the larger audiences.
Before long, any Broadway show you can name, it came to Ogdensburg, Mr. Schwartz said. People would stand in line all night for season tickets; some even parked their motor homes. We became the guiding light in the north country. There wasnt anything like us around at the time. We had everyone coming to our shows, including the janitor and the mailman.
What the organization lacked in funds, it made up for in volunteers. Ogdensburg Free Academy students served as supernumeraries; they carried spears in operas, performed alongside the Crane orchestra from SUNY Potsdam, and served as backstage hands.
It was a great opportunity for our children, and a big part of why we formed the organization in first place, said Mr. Schwartz. We would receive letters of gratitude from the students and some would even go on to work on Broadway.
The group became known for the quality performances and troupes they brought to the north country: Winnipeg Ballet, New York City Opera, American Ballet, and productions such as South Pacific and Oklahoma.
Mr. Schwartz said the group never strayed from controversy. The biggest controversy came during mid-season 25 years ago, when the Players booked Ballet Africans, Mr. Schwartz said.
The group was set to perform, but they were to perform topless, he said. I was walking down the street a day before the performance when then Board of Education President Bob Simpson stopped me and asked me to take a ride with him.
Mr. Schwartz said Mr. Simpson told him the players could not perform topless. The next day, Mr. Schwartz purchased 40 bras for the troupe.
I didnt know what sizes to get, so the clerk just gave me an assortment, said Mr. Schwartz. The next day, we told the performers they had to wear the bras or they could not perform.
When the curtain opened, Mr. Schwartz said he and the whole auditorium sat amazed.
The women had put on the bras sideways and backwards and all over everywhere except where they should be, Mr. Schwartz said.
Mr. Schwartz said the bras proved to be an embarrassing and glaring distraction, and at intermission he asked the performers to take them off.
After that, the performance was wonderful and, most surprisingly, one the most beautiful performances we had ever had, he said.
As the shows became more and more popular, the organization became difficult to manage financially. By 1989, the company ended its community productions and many of the board members had quit.
By the late 80s the show had built up a debt, said Cynthia I. Wilson, who was a board member at the time. The show sought an executive director and I thought of Sally Palao, who had headed a couple of other arts organizations at the time.
Sally F. Palao, Ogdensburg Command Performances administrator, initially served as a volunteer consultant.
We wanted so much to salvage it and make it work, so we came up with a plan, said Mrs. Palao. No one submitted expenses for two years. Everything was donated, so all we would have to do is pay the actors.
By 1992, the debt had been paid off and the group had changed their name from Ogdensburg Community Players to Ogdensburg Command Performances. Mrs. Palao began scouting for new talent. While in New York City she discovered TheatreworksUSA, a touring company whose performances target younger audiences. Mrs. Palao decided they would be the start of YouTheatre: Class acts for students in grades K-12.
The board thought I was crazy, said Mrs. Palao. We decided to start with one show, `Hansel and Gretel.
This year, YouTheatre will celebrate its 20th anniversary.
I cannot tell you how much the children have enjoyed it over the years, said Mrs. Palao. After each show, I always ask the children if they enjoyed the performance. One little boy said it was the best three bucks he ever spent. Another boy asked me, Did you know Winnie the Pooh is alive?
OCPs board of directors headquartered its administrative office in Ogdensburg Free Academy in 1997. Mrs. Palao said the board is now working on spreading the YouTheatre performances to other districts. In its 2011-2012 season, YouTheatre performances were held in Massena and Gouverneur school districts.
In 2011, OCP held 12 YouTheatre productions and eight command performances.
OCP celebrates its 50th anniversary with nine command performances in its 2012-2013 season beginning Oct. 3.
Ogdensburg Command Performances has many years of providing really exciting theatre, music, and dance performances for people of all ages, said Hilary M. Oak, executive director for the St. Lawrence County Arts Council. They bring in really high quality productions that people may not have an opportunity to see otherwise. Were very fortunate to have such a dedicated group of people bringing this caliber of talent to the north country.
Over the years, OCP has received numerous accolades, including the Ogdensburg City School Districts Civic Award for its commitment towards students, teachers and curriculum; the St. Lawrence County of Chamber of Commerces Small Business Excellence Award, and it has been ranked by the Central New York Business Journal as one of the top cultural and performing arts organizations in the state.
Mrs. Palao said one of the biggest challenges OCP faces today is raising money for the organization.
Last year production costs were $150,000. The New York Arts Council typically donates $4,000 to $5,000 per year, but much of the organizations funds come from grants and fundraisers. Ticket sales cover only one third of the additional production costs, which include hotel accommodations for performers, rent, set assembly and marketing.
Mrs. Palao said the non-profit remains committed to offering quality performances at an affordable price despite increase in costs and decreases in state funding.
Our mission has been about making the performing arts accessible for everyone, said Mrs. Palao. We want to encourage those who have never been to the theatre before to come out and buy a ticket.
Its a bargain and twice that, said Mr. Schwartz. Tickets cost about $20 to $30 and theyre three times that for shows in Syracuse and New York city. Its a wonderful opportunity for the north country. Id hate to ever see it end.
Season ticket prices range from $232 to $100 for all eight shows and $158 to $68 for five shows. Tickets can be purchased by calling 393-2625, or going online at www.ILoveTheatre.org. The following shows are scheduled for Ogdensburg Command Performances 2012-2013 season:
■ The Blues Brothers Revue on Oct. 3 combines comedy and songs like Soul man, Rubber Biscuit, Sweet Home Chicago and Rawhide from the original movie, and pays homage to Chicagos rich history of blues, gospel and soul music.
■ Pride and Prejudice on Oct. 16.
■ Nunset Boulevard: The Nunsense Hollywood Bowl Show on Nov. 5.
■ Menopause: The Musical on Dec. 9.
■ A Chorus Line on Jan. 10.
■ Hooray for Hollywood - a production featuring songs and film clips from famous movies - on March 19.
■ A Musical Tribute to the Highwaymen pays homage to Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson on April 11.
■ Angel of Music: A Salute to Andrew Lloyd Webber on May 18.
■ A Simply Sinatra Christmas on Nov. 26.