A Tale of Two Arts Organizations Preparing For Extended Seasons

Jun 12, 2019

Timber Lake Playhouse Executive Director Dan Danielowski points to electrical work being done on the open lobby of the theater. It will be enclosed and a heating system will be added.
Credit Guy Stephens

Two arts organizations are using state grants to help extend their seasons – in different directions.

On a visit in early June, Timber Lake Playhouse Executive Director Dan Danielowski points to work being done on the lobby – really an open walkway outside its theater – by a team of electricians. The schedule is tight. But so far, so good.

"We should be able to work this project around production," Danielowski said. "Like today we have a two o'clock matinee. So at one o'clock, they'll close up for the day. And off they go."

A fundraising campaign, capped by a matching grant from the Illinois Office of Tourism, is allowing the organization to (as Daniwelowski put it) "winterize" its facility. Once the lobby is enclosed, workers will add a heating system to service it and the theater proper. That will allow Timber Lake to extend its season well into the fall, and someday beyond, he said.

It's been a long time coming. Timber Lake Playhouse was founded in 1961 on this wooded site near Mt. Carroll in northwestern Illinois. That makes it the oldest continuously operating professional and resident summer stock theater company in the state. Danielowski said the first building was rather primitive, as was a replacement that opened in 1975.

"Because it was built as a summer theater," he said, "there's very little insulation, there was no air conditioning, no heat. It was cooled just with fans and cross ventilation. But after a while, they realized that that was just not enough. And they needed to put in air conditioning. But still they didn't have heat."

Along the way, he said, patrons began asking about doing more shows. Local businesses were supportive of the idea, too. 

"There are several restaurants in Mount Carroll and Lanark and even Savanna that add seatings to their evening [on show nights]. And that's kind of what we hear from even our B and B's, and cabins and housing, hotel and motel," he said. "So from the first day that I came here, when I said, "What can TLP do to help the area?' it was always, 'Expand the season.'"

Danielowski said the theater drew about 29,000 people last year. He estimated the longer season now being planned will draw another 4,500 to 6,000 people annually. Even with additional staff and operating costs, he expects the theatre to come out ahead.

Then there's the potential benefit to the regional economy. And despite once calling summer theater "racing at a hundred miles an hour with your hair on fire," he's excited about the opportunity.

While Timber Lake Playhouse continues "winterizing," an organization in DeKalb is looking to "summerize" its facility. The Egyptian Theatre was built 90 years ago with an opulent pseudo-Egyptian theme, but without air conditioning. That's made hosting events in the summer nearly impossible.

Alex Nerad is The Egyptian's executive director. He said a number of age-related issues, including worn out seats, were addressed over the years. But a big push began several years ago to raise money for a real do-over. A recently-awarded $200,000 matching grant from the state Office of Tourism put the topper on the $4.5 million project.

"It's both an expansion of the theater -- a two story expansion, expanding restrooms, and the concession stand's storage," he said. "But probably most importantly, providing the space for new mechanical equipment to air condition the theater for the first time since 1929."

Nerad said upkeep costs run year-round, so he's excited about being able to generate revenue during the summer. That will help the theater's bottom line, and it doesn't stop there.  

"When the Egyptian theater is busy, when we bring 1,400 people downtown, it makes a huge impact," he said. "And you look at the summer months where this huge population -- NIU students for the most part -- is gone through the summer months. And then you take the theater offline through those summer months. It makes it really tough downtown."

It's not just patrons and businesses who welcome the renovations. The Egyptian's Marketing and Communications Director, Jeanine Holcomb, has warm memories of performing in dance recitals here from age 3 through high school.  

"I very much remember the heat and humidity, and being in sequins and feathers up in the balcony and sweating," she said. "And God bless our mothers who had to deal with all of those sweating little children. It's going to make dance recitals much more bearable. It's going to make grandparents that available to come to these shows in June where it's too hot, it's too humid, it's just too much."

Jeanine Holcomb and Alex Nerad
Credit Guy Stephens

Nerad said 40,000 people came through the doors of the The Egyptian last year. He hopes to increase attendance to more than 50,000 within a few years of the project's completion in early 2020. That will have a tremendous economic impact, he said, but also a cultural one -- something very important to the area's largest institution.

"As Northern Illinois University is looking to continue to increase their retention and recruitment of students and faculty," he said, "they're looking to partner with the community and find those community assets that really enhance the quality of life and set DeKalb apart from other communities."

Such as a vibrant, and busy, Egyptian Theatre.

In the end, we're talking about some pretty unglamorous stuff here: plumbing, heating and cooling systems, and the like. But if it brings out more people to appreciate what their respective venues have to offer – and helps their neighbors, to boot – well, that would make Danielowski and Nerad very happy.