Ever wonder where James Earl Jones got his start in theatre? It was at the Ramsdell Theatre, an old-fashioned brick playhouse on the corner of Maple Street and First Street in Manistee, Michigan. His first role? Carpenter. Oh, he would later go on to play Othello there, in 1956, but he started out as a carpenter, and over his time there, with the Manistee Civic Players, he would also serve as a stage manager, an assistant stage manager, and even director of a children’s play. He was known as Todd Jones among the Manistee Civic Players, and though he has gone on to Broadway, television, movies, and legend, he still returns to the place where it all started every now and again for fundraising. When he wrote his autobiography, Voices and Silences, written with Penelope Niven, his first public signing was at the Ramsdell. If you’ve ever heard of the Ramsdell before now, it was probably through your fascination with Jones.
But the Ramsdell is fascinating all on its own.
Nearly every summer that I can remember, I have visited Maple Street in Manistee. It is where my mom grew up, and my brothers and cousins and I spent many a summer walking, running, biking, and even marching along it. As I got older, the street started to take shape, and I could recognize the buildings lining it as a library, a school, etc. One of these buildings was the Ramsdell Theatre, a beautiful old building I had taken for granted until I developed my own interest in theatre. Then it was just a matter of time before I would have to pay it a visit. And the right time came along the summer after I discovered Gilbert and Sullivan, when the Manistee Civic Players were putting on The Pirates of Penzance. I bought a ticket, took my seat in the balcony, and pretty much laughed non-stop throughout. There was, at the top of Act II, a moment when I nearly grabbed a phone out of the hand of a woman sitting near me and talking loudly, and tossed it across the house. I’m glad I didn’t, it would have been disruptive and possibly injured someone, but that was a small issue in an otherwise great experience, with an unexpected and very amusing dance break.
The inside of the Ramsdell Theatre is just as charming as the outside. Primarily green and gold colored in the house, the lower balcony is horseshoe-shaped, and supported by pillars. The original capacity was over a thousand, but is now only 462, for fire safety reasons. The front drop is a large painting, with a tiny little hole if you look closely, called A Grove Near Athens, by Walter Burridge, who painted the sets for the original theatrical production of The Wizard of Oz in Chicago. Three other paintings, one in the domed part of the ceiling and two in the lobby, were done by Frederic Winthrop Ramsdell, the son of Thomas Jefferson Ramsdell, the lawyer, philanthropist, and former state legislator who put up the theatre at the turn of the century. The younger Ramsdell had studied art in Paris and Venice, and it is supposed that the nude goddesses he painted in the lobby bear facial resemblances to local women who had insulted his father. The theatre was designed in the Colonial style by the prominent Chicago architect Solon Spencer Beman, and is now a National Historic Building, kept up and cared for by the city of Manistee and the Manistee Civic Players.
When the Ramsdell first opened on September 4th, 1903, with the George Dance’s A Chinese Honeymoon, it was the third performance space to be built in Manistee, the other two having burned down in 1882 and 1900. The Ramsdell came close to a similar fate around the time of World War II, when the Civic Players stopped performing and there were no productions in the theatre for nine years, during which time there was no upkeep either, which took its toll on the structure. The Civic Betterment Committee was formed in 1949 by several women’s groups to restore the Ramsdell Theatre to its original glory. As with most playhouses, the Ramsdell also did some time as a movie house, but has mostly been used for theatrical productions, perhaps in part because Manistee has another historic theatre, the Vogue, which is exclusively for movies.
Today, the Ramsdell Theatre is home not only to the Manistee Civic Players, but also the Manistee Arts Institute and the Ingrid Bond School of Dance, not to mention, supposedly, a couple of ghosts. There have been reports, over the years, of strange activity concerning doors and lighting fixtures, and the ghost of Thomas Jefferson Ramsdell himself is said to make the occasional appearance, probably to check that his theatre is being taken care of given what happened to those two older performance spaces. A long-haired young girl in a white dress known as The White Lady is supposed to be Ramsdell’s daughter, though which of his four daughters I could not find out. The man who saw her while he was working in the basement of the theatre reported that she had told him to follow her to his fortune, but then she disappeared.
I have never seen any ghosts there, even when I took the tour of the theatre that is occasionally available. I did see Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite there, and had a great time, and I hope to make it back as often as possible. Going to the theatre is often like stepping back in time for a number of reasons: the material is usually an older play or musical that captures the time in which it was written, and everything that happens is physically happening right in front of you, not on a screen a year or so later. When the experience also includes going into a building that was constructed to maximize the experience of being at a live performance without artificial amplification, and that has been as well kept up as the Ramsdell has for over a hundred years, then you know you’re part of a great tradition, you can feel the history of what you’re experiencing. This is why the quote on the front of the Ramsdell Theatre’s pamphlet is very appropriate: “Where the past has an exciting future.”
Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog on tumblr ( http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com). Come and see if your favorite musical was included in the first three months, or learn about obscure musicals you never knew existed.