The year was 1944. FDR was president. A new house cost $3,450, a loaf of bread 10 cents, a gallon of gas 15 cents, an average yearly salary was $2,400 and the WW II D-Day invasion was about to begin.
In April of 1944, the St. Aloysius Club of St. George and St. Andrew’s Churches combined their talents in a presentation of the play, Meet Uncle Sally, at the Fairfax High School auditorium.
Ella (Ziegler) Biebl performed in the three- act comedy 70 years ago when she portrayed the character Elaine Durant. Except for the laughter, things have changed a bit from the time of the original performance, when seats cost just 20 cents or 40 cents for the “best seats.”
But the play came full circle last month when history repeated itself at the St. George Holy Land Dinner Theater, with a repeat performance of Meet Uncle Sally in honor of Ella, the last surviving cast member of the 1944 production.
Ann Iverson, who played the same character of Elaine Durant as Ella once did seven decades ago, represented the cast and presented Ella with a bouquet of flowers before the start of the two-hour dinner shows held on consecutive weekends.
“I was 17 or 18 years old when I was in that play,” said Ella. “It was real funny back then, and I’m glad it’s a success again. Everything turned out okay, the parish tries real hard, and we appreciate the support.”
Spring Fever is the yearly event at which the performers put on their fundraising play for the church in tiny St. George, across the only street in town from the church in the former school building social hall.
The event began 17 years ago as a variety show with no play held the first four years until someone got the idea to start doing performances, and it’s been going strong ever since.
Under the direction of Marianne Bianchi the past 13 years, the actors for the Holy Land Dinner Theater are mostly St. George parishioners. Year after year a core group of six actors, including Ron Forst, Frank Bianchi, Tom Brown, Bonnie Brandel, Alma Forst and Bob Schwab, have appeared in all 13 comedy productions.
Bianchi recalls the first play, Take Your Medicine, was kind of like the “blind leading the blind.” “I went knocking on doors to recruit cast members,” she said. “One guy told me he’d never been in a play before, and I told him that I’ve never directed one either,” she laughed. She added: “It takes a lot of dedication for the cast spending many nights practicing and hours of memorizing their characters’ lines.”
It was after the first play 13 years ago that Ella first mentioned she once was in a play too. “Ella and I were washing dishes in the kitchen when she told me about the play she was in and that it was a comedy. She remembered her good experiences and suggested we do it once more, but I knew it was going to be tough to find copies of a play from 1944 in order for us to do it,” said Bianchi.
And so the hunt was on to find the original work by Jay Tobias. The play was no longer in circulation, but Bianchi continued her search until discovering an archived copy at a production library in Indiana and received permission to make copies of the material.
“After I got a copy of the play, I read it and put it aside, and each year we continued to do a different comedy, and each year Ella kept asking me about Meet Uncle Sally, Bianchi explained. She would say, ‘you never did find that play did you?’ and I’d always shrug my shoulders. But after last year’s show I went home, dug around, found it and decided this was the year to do it.”
Since the play hadn’t been performed for so long, Bianchi wanted to learn some more background about it and during her research found an advertisement for the playbill in a 1944 edition of a local newspaper. Later, she obtained a copy from the Minnesota Historical Society and reprinted the names of the original cast members and characters to be part of the tabletop programs.
She discovered that in addition to Ella, the original cast included her brother, Frank Ziegler Jr., who also performed magic acts between Acts I and II. Other cast members were Cyril Dording, Virginia Meurer, Marie Inhofer, Patricia Merkel, Donald F. Dummer, Herbert Anton, Marion Meurer, Laurence Nosbush, Delores Altman and Francis Brandel.
A Parish Tradition
The beginning roots of Spring Fever date back to 1997 as a fundraiser for the church, which mainly consisted of musical entertainment or short skits. “I remember we had some musicians coming over from Searles but that was the year the river was so high and they didn’t know if they’d get across the bridge to go home, but they made it and we had a good time,” said Bianchi.
She thinks there has only been one time that a performance had to be canceled in 13 years due to bad weather conditions and moved to another night. She said the church also is very appreciative of the matching funds provided by Catholic Order of Foresters.
Ticket manager Jackie Forst said the dinner theater is always well received. “People know the food will always be good and our cast of veteran actors always perform well,” she said. She added that ticket sales actually begin before Christmas when gift certificates are purchased. This year approximately 600 tickets were sold for the three performances held over two weekends, including a record capacity crowd of 250 on March 9.
“It’s been a wonderful experience each year, but it requires big sacrifices of time with nearly two months of rehearsal,” said Bianchi. “As we all get older memorizing lines isn’t as easy and a lot of our actors come right to practice from jobs without eating supper. Or, they deal with bad weather or illness, but overall it’s been a gratifying experience,” she noted.
“We’ve become a close-knit family for two months out of every year, and Ella, who lives in St. George, usually comes over to bring us some donuts for practice,” Bianchi stated. She said some of the occupations of the Holy Land Theater actors include a farmer, salesman, teacher, janitor, construction, manufacturing and an anesthesiologist.
“Every year cast members are asked as to how many are doing it again, and the majority of them return, which helps us keep going,” said Bianchi.
Bob Schwab, who portrayed the William Hawkins character in the play, stated his enjoy-ment on stage comes from the challenge of doing his part well, and it’s rewarding for the entire cast when “they know we nailed a good performance.”
“We don’t do drama, but focus on comedy and that seems to fit better for our audiences,” he said. “People like to laugh’ and if we can do that we’ve accomplished what we set out to do,” he added.
“It’s not only the actors, but an entire parish function too,” added Bianchi. “We have so many volunteers and individuals who do the programs, lighting, sewing, makeup and hair, table and auditorium decorations, flower arrangements, run the bar and cater the food,” she explained.
This year the auditorium was decorated in a 1940s theme, indicative of the year the play originated. A trailer load of items from that era was brought in from a lady who owned an antique business.
“I like to think that if it takes a community to raise a child, then it takes a whole parish to put this together too,” Bianchi commented.
“We’re pretty much old school here, but it’s a lot of fun, and our audiences are special…a lot of them come back year after year,” she stated.