The History of Greenville Theatre
The year was 1926 and some iconic things were taking place in the country. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's musical Girl Friend premiered in NYC, the play Chicago (which would become the well-known musical Chicago) was on Broadway, Harry Houdini was delighting audiences with his daring feats of magic, the weather map made its premier on national television - and here in Greenville, SC, seventy-five devoted men and women were working hard to “develop the art, culture, and drama which for so long has lain dormant". These progressive citizens enlisted the help of Columbia’s Town Theatre, which had only just begun 7 years earlier, and the groups gathered at the Greenville Library on Main Street to discuss the process involved with the creation of Greenville's own local theatre. The goal of these civic-minded artists was the creation of fine art, focused not on commercial purposes, but rather, on artistic, historical, or political content. Just a few months after that fateful discussion, the "Greenville Artists Guild" presented its first performance in the Ramsey Fine Arts Auditorium on the campus of the Greenville Woman's College.
Two years later the theatre group renamed itself "Community Little Theatre" and later, "Greenville Little Theatre." They presented one to four plays annually for the next several years, rehearsing in either the Poinsett Hotel or the Christ Church Parish House. They performed in any local auditorium boasting a stage, such as Greenville High School and the Carolina Movie Theatre, but most frequently on the stage of the Woman's College.
After WWII, the Greenville Little Theatre reorganized with renewed vigor and began presenting plays in the Greenville High School Auditorium, where Robert McLane, head of Speech, Art, and Drama, directed several plays. In 1946, Mr. McLane directed the family drama, I Remember Mama, featuring a talented young high school student. A local critic at the time said, "I don't know what Joanne Woodward's artistic ambitions are, but she is a born actress."
With steadily increasing attendance, scheduling at the high school became difficult. The perfect solution came with the purchase of an Air Force Glider Base movie theatre on Lowndes Hill Road, vacant since the end of the war. Greenville responded generously, raising $25,000 for renovations, as well as volunteering countless hours to refurbish the facility. In 1948, Mr. McLane was persuaded to give up his high school job and become the full-time director of the theatre, and on March 8, 1948, the doors swung wide as 450 audience members entered the theatre's new home.
The theatre flourished over the next decade and a half, gaining a national reputation and attracting visitors from all across the region. Talented local performers were joined by New York professionals, such as John Randolph, Murray Matheson, George Matthews, Renato Cibelli, Gene Hollmann, and Mary Ann Cannon. Productions such as Life With Father, South Pacific, You Can’t Take It With You, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, The King and I, and The Miracle Worker helped establish the theatre’s reputation for excellence.
Home on Heritage Green
After 15 years, it became clear that GLT had outgrown the makeshift facility on Lowndes Hill Road, so the Board of Directors began a search for land to build a new theatre. The Greenville Woman’s College, where the theatre had first performed, had since merged with Furman University in 1955 and moved to its current site north of town. The old college campus had been left vacant and was falling into disrepair. City leaders envisioned a cultural campus taking the place of the old college and with great fanfare, fundraising soon began for the reimagining of the campus. The theatre's Board of Directors purchased the very land of its first performance, and on April 11, 1967 GLT staged a spectacular opening of the Lerner & Lowe musical Camelot in its new, state-of-the-art theatre. This cultural campus, now named Heritage Green took shape when the Public Library moved in the next year, and the County Museum of Art followed in 1972.
Over the next 10 years, the theatre’s reputation grew with stellar productions of shows such as Hello Dolly, The Odd Couple, Man of La Mancha, and Showboat. The theatre was selected to showcase two professional world premiere productions: Will Rogers USA starring James Whitmore and Eleanor starring Eileen Heckart.
Before retiring, Bob McLane convinced his former student, now Academy Award-winning actress, Joanne Woodward to return to GLT and play Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. The production became a huge hit for the theatre and proved integral in retiring the debt on the nine-year-old building.
In 1976, J. Lake Williams became the new Artistic Director and took the theatre to unprecedented heights with productions including Gypsy, Same Time – Next Year, Peter Pan, Grease, and A Chorus Line. By 1983, the theatre had grown to 9,000 subscribers as it presented the first regional production of the recent Broadway sensation Annie. Mr. Williams hired the canine actor who portrayed Sandy in the original Broadway production, and to the delight of Greenville residents and our media, Sandy disembarked at the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport to a red carpet welcome. The play was presented for 20 sold-out performances.
Greenville Theatre In The Present
After the tragic death of Mr. Williams, the theatre struggled for six years with no long-term goals and several interim directors. In 1993, the Board of Directors hired Allen and Suzanne McCalla to lead the theatre back to prominence. The McCalla's brought considerable professional experience having performed and directed across the country at some of America’s most prestigious theatres. The McCalla's immediately brought professional-quality back to GLT and reaffirmed the theatre’s mission by showcasing talented local performers in hits such as Fiddler on the Roof, A Flea In Her Ear, The Foreigner, My Fair Lady, The Little Foxes, Into the Woods, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, To Kill a Mockingbird, Noises Off, Les Miserables, Mary Poppins, and Hairspray.
Since 1993, attendance has grown from 24,000 to more than 82,000 annual patrons, and a name modification to Greenville Theatre was made in 2019 to better reflect the size and influence of the Theatre. Significant capital improvements have been made to the lobby, the sound system, the exterior of the building, the fly system, and the lighting infrastructure. GT now produces six full-length mainstage productions and two Theatre for Young Audience productions annually. GT also presents national touring tribute concerts and is home to GT On Tour, an outreach program that brings the magic of live theatre to elementary students throughout the Upstate.
Now celebrating 96 years, Greenville Theatre is proud to sit at the helm of the Upstate's thriving theatre scene, entertaining more audience members than any other locally producing theatre in the state of South Carolina and attracting visitors to the Upstate from all across the region.