Circa ’21 Looks Back on Crazy Year, a 100-Year-Old Home, and Forward to First Mainstage Musical in a Year
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Two days after Broadway theaters shut down last March, Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse held the last performance of the colorful, high-energy “Kinky Boots,” on March 14, 2020. It would be the last mainstage musical there until next week’s “Church Basement Ladies in You Smell Barn” – opening in previews Wednesday, March 17.
It’s been a long, frustrating road, with a lot of bumps and detours along the way.
“The Bootleggers are so excited to come back and it’s not just because they miss making money,” Brad Hauskins (head Bootlegger, who’s been at Circa since 1987) said recently, noting he won’t be serving on the performing wait staff for “You Smell Barn,” since he’s in the show. “It’s the performing outlet for them. I know to a person, they miss it so much.”
“Every single one of them cannot wait to come back and that’s really exciting for me,” he said, noting six will start when they reopen, rotating shifts to serve the reduced capacity audience (two to six work at a time, depending on crowd size).
“They’re a great group of performers and they’ve been denied that opportunity as well.”
When Circa reopened in the fall for two months, “it was amazing to see those people again and to remember,” Hauskins said. “It was like nothing had changed. It was so amazing to see them again. I hope that feeling will return when we see them again.”
Circa hasn’t decided if the six CBL mainstage actors will wear masks when performing; the four in “Savannah Sipping Society” (which ran early September to early November 2020) did not.
Running through May 15, the seventh installment in the popular CBL series will have limited seating in the 330-seat theater (the building marks its 100th anniversary this year), and plated dinners will be served in lieu of the traditional buffet meals. For the safety of guests and staff members, face masks must be worn to enter the theater, when interacting with the staff and whenever guests are away from their tables.
In “You Smell Barn” (which premiered in 2018), the ladies are back and getting busy with life outside the kitchen, and this musical comedy answers the burning question: What do Church Basement Ladies do when they’re not in the basement?
After the last of the hot dish is served, the coffee pot is emptied and the Jell-O molds are put away, these steadfast, sturdy women head home
to their farms, peel off their girdles and get on with their daily chores. “You Smell Barn” celebrates rural life in the 1950s and introduces other lovable folks who inhabit the community: Earl, who delivers the mail on Rural Route One; Fergus, the hired man and Tillie, who chronicles the action for the Fish County Weekly.
Like Hauskins, veteran Bootlegger Jennifer Diab (since 1996, including a six-year hiatus) is thrilled to be back at Circa after working with Sara Daggett for the Southern comedy “Savannah Sipping Society” in the fall.
“We spent every minute together, like, five days a week. And then we didn’t see each other for a year,” Diab said of the 11 Bootleggers. “It was just so hard.”
For “Savannah Sipping Society,” Diab did a two-person preshow (which had never been done before); she sang “Lean on Me,” and the audience loved it.
“The excitement was unreal. They were so surprised that there was a pre-show,” she said. “They walked in and they said, Oh, we’re gonna miss that. And we said, Oh, no. We’re gonna get up there and we’re gonna be staying.
“For my song, I would take the microphone and put it out to the audience, and they would sing my song with me,” Diab said. “So it was very intimate, and it was very different.”
“You have to understand, I walked into this place in 1996 and we have never not had a buffet. And we were just so glad to be back,” she said. “We were gonna make it work no matter what. And, Brad, he had ideas, and I had ideas, and we just kind of did it and we had the system. And then November 8th, that was it. We were shut down again and had to walk out and not knowing if we were gonna be back.”
In the past week, Diab has treasured hearing the cast rehearsing again, including Hauskins and Autumn O’Ryan.
“I would hear Brad and Autumn and all those guys rehearsing downstairs. I couldn’t believe we were there. It’s very emotional for all of us,” she said. “It’s very emotional. And my theater friends, I’ve just been talking to them all year, from different cities and states. And we all just
have just — I don’t know. I always say, if you’re gonna take away my voice, it’s like I cut my arm off. “This year has been so weird,” Diab said, loving seeing the other Bootleggers. “It was so awesome to hear their voices again. I hadn’t heard Nick Munson sing in a year, and he was singing in front of me. I’m telling you what — I didn’t realize how emotional it was gonna be. Tristan has been amazing with keeping everything going and just keeping Circa in people’s minds so they don’t forget.”
In December, Diab sang for an online cabaret, and there were tears at their rehearsal. They all had masks on and were upset to not be able to hug each other.
“We couldn’t hug each other so we were jumping up and down and screaming,” she said. “It was so emotional. We’re very close. You have to understand – we work literally on top of each other.”
After their last “Saturday Night Fever” tech rehearsal last March 15 (which didn’t get to perform at all because of the pandemic), Diab never went back to Circa until September, with three other Bootleggers – Hauskins, Daggett and Kirsten Sindelar. She was thrilled.
“Our first show was a matinee for ‘Savannah Supping Society’ and we had no idea what we were doing. And those people came in and all of a
sudden we waited on them and we said, Oh, my gosh, did that just happen?” Diab recalled. “Speaking personally, I cannot wait to see my subscribers. I know these people like I’ve known these people since 1996.
“I know their kids. I know their grandchildren. I know their families. I know about them” she said. “I’ve grown up with these people and so I miss them. I can’t wait to see them. Just walking into the theater yesterday, the energy just hits you like a like a brick. I mean, the smells are the same. And I hear Autumn singing downstairs and Brad talking and laughing and, you know, it’s just like we need that, like, a theater person needs that to survive.
“And we’ve been surviving without it, and it’s been awful. It’s very sad,” Diab said. “It’s part of who I am. It is who I am. It’s exactly who I am. This is what I do, you know? And would I wait on tables if I couldn’t perform? Absolutely not. I do love waiting on tables too. I’m very comfortable doing it. So I like that part too. But it’s all a package — I wouldn’t do one without the other.”
She was looking forward to the “Saturday Night Fever” preshow of fun ‘70s hits like “Kung Fu Fighting.” Diab kept in touch with Bootleggers on Facebook and by phone.
“We miss each other and we cry and it’s just awful. Nobody understands us like us.”
A “Saturday Night Fever” that never was
Right after “Kinky Boots,” “Saturday Night Fever” was ready to go — highly anticipated by its cast, crew and audiences, but was originally closed down Monday, March 16 (the day before the staff preview), and planned to reopen mid-April.
“That was a show a lot of people wanted to see,” Circa founder, owner and producer Denny Hitchcock said recently. “Actors wanted to do it; the staff was excited about it, and that’s why we’re keeping it in our season. We have three small shows coming up and that big show.”
Last year, that was to be the area premiere of “Saturday Night Fever” (a 1998 jukebox musical based on the blockbuster 1977 disco-fueled film), and it was postponed several times, finally rescheduled for this July. “Everyone knew that something was happening, you know, in the health of the world. But we didn’t know all of the details yet, and at that time, there was definitely a rumbling amongst the cast by this point,” Circa veteran Tristan Tapscott, who was in the cast, said of last March. “We didn’t know if we were gonna finish the ‘Kinky Boots’ run. We had no idea if that was gonna finish. We had no idea what was gonna happen with ‘Saturday Night Fever.’
“But every day we all went to work and we did what we did. The word from the top was we’re just going to press on. We’re just going to keep going,” he said. “But there was a definite unease and there was a definite anxiety within the company that I still can’t explain. And it still kinda hurts me a little bit because and we kind of had to relive it a little bit during the ‘Winter Wonderland’ rehearsal period because we went through that entire rehearsal period before we had to cancel it.”
“There’s just a weird feeling to be working on something you pour your heart into it and having no idea if it’s actually going to happen,” Tapscott said, noting that the holiday “Winter Wonderland” (with a book by Hauskins) had to be shelved in November after Illinois shut down theaters again. That’s also been rescheduled to the 2021 holiday season.
“Saturday Night Fever” was first put off until March 30, 2020, “which was an eternity,” Tapscott (whose daughter, Harper Leigh, is in 1st grade) said. “I remember with my daughter, too, they had announced that her school is gonna be closed to March 30th as well. And then that ended up being forever, too. She just went back to school on Monday.”
“I have been thinking a lot about this right now. As much as you know, a year ago, our mental health was affected by this,” he said. “I think there’s gonna be just as many mental health challenges going back into this new normal because none of us know what that looks like.”
Tapscott hasn’t performed for a live audience since October’s “Rocky Horror Show” (where he again played Frank), in the Speakeasy, with reduced capacity and other restrictions.
The last time he was on the Circa mainstage was for “Kinky Boots” and said, “I enjoyed that final performance because it was just a very meaningful show to do. But I think I would have enjoyed it even more, just knowing that that was the last time I was gonna set foot on Circa’s mainstage.”
Ron May, the veteran Circa music director, who played that role for “Fever” and is back for their mainstage shows this year, was as disappointed as the cast to lose that show. “It was one of the standouts over the years,” he said, noting the choreography was awesome. “It’s just a terrific dance show. People in this community love to see those dance productions — they really turn out for those. This would have
been over the top.”
Bobby Becher also was in “Saturday Night Fever,” playing a number of roles, and can’t wait to get back on the mainstage for the first time in two years – when he and his wife Ashley performed in “Holiday Inn” (which starred Tapscott), in summer 2019.
“As gig workers, we so infrequently have long-term plans, and ‘Saturday Night Fever’ was the beginning some pretty long-term plans we had in the area,” Bobby said recently. “Getting that close to doing anything at any moment is hard when it gets taken away like that,” but knowing so many shows would have to close was also hard, he said.
The show was hotly anticipated by everyone, with the rest of the season (including a “Guys & Dolls” last year). Circa kept “Fever” actors on salary who stayed in the area for many weeks. “It
was very generously handled by Circa,” Bobby said.
He and Ashley were cast as Lumiere and Babette in “Beauty and the Beast” (which didn’t get rescheduled) and she had to cancel directing the kids’ show “Grace for President.”
“We say that we’re creators and this time is definitely a time when we had to create,” Ashley said of the many alternate programs and productions they’ve led or been part of with Circa in the past year. “It’s certainly been a challenge because there isn’t a model to go back to. We’re all learning a lot of new things, like putting together a virtual show.”
The rest of the 2021 mainstage season includes:
- “Beehive,” May 21-July 10
- “Saturday Night Fever,” July 16-Sept. 11
- “Disenchanted,” Sept. 17-Nov. 6
- “Winter Wonderland,” Nov. 12-Dec. 29
First time without a holiday show
“Winter Wonderland” was also ready to go when it got pulled in early November – forcing Circa to be closed for the first time during the popular holiday season since its opening in June 1977 at the former Fort Armstrong Theatre, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
“It was such a cute show too – it really would have played well to the time,” Tapscott (in the cast) said. “It was a great cast, and it was that warm, fuzzy holiday show that everyone needed. It was really sad that nobody could see it because it was ready to go.”
The holiday show is also a special time for Circa.
“There’s something about the holidays at Circa, with just the way the outside is decorated, the inside decorated,” he said. “here’s a certain buzz in there and, you know, it’s a family tradition. You know, it’s a tradition for a lot of families. And I have a friend who lives out in L.A., is an actor out there. He comes back every holiday season to visit his family, and they go to Circa every year, and it’s just a very special time to be there.”
“When you go from, this is what you do every single day, this is how you make your living – and part of what you do is go on stage every night and entertain – and then you go from that to you cannot do that and you’re just stuck at home.
“Actors are just a certain breed, and we crave community, and we crave being around other humans. That’s what we do. And even in a virtual
setting, at least we still got to be part of something, albeit from our own homes or with something like, we did it in person.
“I think about that a lot,” he said. “We’re not OK, even though we’ve gotten to do some things. I can’t imagine people that haven’t been able to do anything.”
Tapscott has an agent, and expects to do more film projects, since that may be coming back faster than theater, he said.
“If this last year has taught us anything, you really just implicitly trust the process,” Hauskins (who directed “Rocky Horror” this past fall) said. In pre-pandemic times, rehearsal and production schedules were set in stone, but the pandemic has thrown a wrench (and often the whole toolbox) in, to mess with the best-laid plans.
“Now, it does feel different – it feels like you have to appreciate the possibilities that you won’t get there, and just keep working hard at it,” Hauskins said. “That’s a new feeling and I’m still getting used to it.”
He had revamped his original holiday musical, “Winter Wonderland” last year. “We realized a big Christmas show was not going to work,” Hauskins said. “We quickly set to work on a smaller scale show that we could produce and get up really quickly.
“My big concern was, I wasn’t excited about doing a really happy sort of, thoughtless Christmas revue, that would work any other year, but I wanted something different,” he said. “We worked really quickly, putting the show together, getting it arranged – getting the script written and the score put together, all within probably two months, so it was ready to go into rehearsals.”
They rehearsed (with a cast of nine) and got to the Saturday before their first audience, before the state forced Circa to shut that one down.
This was a completely different version of “Winter Wonderland,” Hauskins said. “I just felt, what everybody had been through in the year 2020, and what they were going through — we wrote that show knowing it would open shortly after the presidential election.”
“We really just had no idea what the world was gonna be like,” he said. “We didn’t know what the Covid situation was going to be. Were we going to do a show where things were gonna loosen up and everyone was starting to feel comfortable again?”
As it turned out, they never had a chance to open, as that holiday show was put off to this 2021 holiday season, with similar questions to ponder eight months from now.
“It has to be what the audience really needs it to be for this Christmas, so we’re going to rethink it again,” Hauskins said. “I want to make sure these characters are experiencing Christmas 2021.”
“It was so very strange,” actress Savannah Bay Strandin said last November of rehearsing “Winter Wonderland” through Nov. 6, including recording a video of the show for Circa to have for late 2021 when they reunite. “It was weird rehearsing a show you know is not going to open for another year.”
Diab said it was odd not having a Christmas show for the first time in Circa’s history.
“I can’t explain to you how weird that was. That probably out of the whole year, that was the weirdest, most surreal,” she said. “I was just looking at my husband like and saying, I would say goodbye to my husband at the end of October, and I would see him again in January. And if you think I’m kidding, I’m not.”
“There was nothing. I was just walking around my house in November,” she said. “Like, I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
Diab didn’t know if Circa would close, and she was not surprised it didn’t.
“I’m not, because the love for that – Brett and Denny weren’t going to let that happen, there’s no way,” she said of Denny’s son Brett, director of audience development, who’s worked there since 1993. “I knew they were gonna do everything in their power. Denny — I’ve never seen a 78-year-old guy with more energy in my entire life. Nobody’s ever met anybody who can run down those lobby stairs at 78 like he does. He goes there every day. He doesn’t just show up when it’s convenient.
“He’s there all the time. And it’s the love for the theater. So I’m not surprised,” Diab said.
“Obviously, financially, this is a big hit,” actress Ashley Becher, who was to be in the show with her husband Bobby, said of scrapping “Winter Wonderland” in November. “This is our profession, to be actors and creators. It’s how we make all our money, from the arts. So this year has
been really tough for us financially, as I know it’s been really tough for the theater as well.
“Obviously, people’s lives are more important, so while it’s certainly difficult to have to deal with these financial setbacks, we feel it’s important to make sure we’re taking care of the community,” she said, praising Circa owner/producer Denny Hitchcock.
“His priority is for the safety and the well-being of his actors and his staff and the patrons of the theater. He cares so deeply about the community that Circa has created and they provide for.
“He treats us all as if we’re family and really cares about everyone,” Ashley said. “He’s really led with that, even in the midst of the huge setbacks the theater is facing, he’s been really kind to us and maintained the messaging that the people are what’s important to him.”
By early November in Rock Island County, there had been a total of 4,674 positive Covid cases and 103 deaths related to the virus; as of March 12, there were 13,303 cases and 332 Covid-related deaths. In Scott County, by early November there were 5,317 positive cases and 46 Covid deaths; on March 12, there were 17,299 total cases and 215 deaths.
The last time Hauskins was in a Circa mainstage show was “Shear Madness” in summer 2019. “I don’t do a lot of mainstage shows anyway, and when I do, I’m generally doing small roles,” he said.
He was in the new outdoor “Music on the Marquee” events last year, starting in June, where people sang from atop the marquee and customers sat at tables on a blocked off 3rd Avenue.
“I was very skeptical of it,” Hauskins said of the first one. “I worried about it more than I felt this great joy of doing it, until I started performing and the nerves started going away. I realized that, it was the
first time I performed in front of an audience in months and so the after-effect of it for me was more emotional. I walked away from it and went, ‘Wow, I really did miss that,’ and I wish I would have enjoyed it a little more.”
“When I did the second one, I enjoyed it more,” Hauskins said. Within a day of announcing the first outdoor show, the theater sold out all tables (totaling about 140 people) for its unique “Music on the Marquee” cabaret on June 21.
As an audience member, Denny Hitchcock said he was ecstatic to be back with an audience, for the first time in three months.
“They were really happy; the cast was happy to be performing again in front of an audience,” he said. “And we had a lot of people in the cast, some of whom had not been able to do a mainstage show because of the time involved. So it brought together lots of people and audience members were craving to come back for an entertainment experience.
“A lot of them said they hoped we’d do it again even after we reopened, like an annual thing,” Hitchcock said.
100 years of theater history
The Fort Armstrong Theatre (at 3rd Avenue and 19th Street) was built during the grand years of movie palaces, when big theaters across the country were designed with a theme, usually centering on an exotic place, according to a history of the building by Diane Oestreich, Rock Island Preservation Society.
The Rock Island theater was designed around our Illinois Indian and prairie heritage, the dream of Walter Rosenfield, a prominent businessman who would become mayor of Rock Island.
William H. Lautz, an instructor of architecture at the Chicago Art Institute, worked on the proscenium – the tall arch above the stage – which depicts plaster relief details of Indian life and pioneer days.
The Fort — which seated 1,800 (including 700 in the balcony) – was built by Moline contractor Brissman & Company, and at its grand opening on Jan. 19, 1921, The Rock Island Argus published a special supplement dedicated to it.
On opening night, a 10-piece orchestra played from the pit, then several silent movies were shown, with the new pipe organ providing background music. Patrons could have a snack at the corner cigar store and soda fountain operated by Hickey Brothers or go to Hickey’s upstairs tearoom that was accessible both directly from the theater as well as from the cigar shop. In later years, the Garden Shop occupied the old Hickey Brothers shop.
Films were popular at the Fort, but by the 1960s suburban movie complexes drew patronage from downtown theaters, the RIPS history says. The Fort fell on hard times, showing second-run and children’s movies, and then was closed. After it had been vacant for several months in 1972, rumors arose of its impending demolition.
Owned by Rosenfield’s children, the Fort was again rented and reopened, but less than a year later, the film management company began to show adult films.
Denny Hitchcock, described at the time as a “young dark haired man from Minnesota” and his Dinner Theatre Associates, Ltd. arrived on the scene just in the nick of time. His company purchased the building from the Rosenfield heirs in 1976, then undertook renovation and remodeling to adapt the interior for dining as well as theater.
“When we started looking into it, in 1974, I attended a theater conference in
Minneapolis, and I went to one on dinner theater,” Hitchcock said recently. At the time, musical theater was looked down upon. He went to another conference in New York just on dinner theater and they discussed markets where it was successful, and Denny thought they sounded like the Quad-Cities.
He went to five local banks before finding one who would support a dinner theater, which was Ted Miller at First National Bank, Rock Island.
Hitchcock first proposed the former Oaks restaurant in Milan as a location; hired a New York theatrical architect, and the 1976 plan came in $1 million over their planned budget, he said. Hitchcock bought the former Fort Theatre from the children of the original owner.
Another proposed buyer wanted to raze the building and put in a parking lot, he said.
“They were happy to see us take it over,” Hitchcock said of the Rosenfield kids. “They saw it as a monument to their late father. We also were able to offer more money.”
The renovations to remodel the building for Circa cost $400,000, he said, which also was over budget and they had to borrow more money.
At the start, “it was incredible,” Hitchcock said. “People loved it; of course it was brand new to the Quad-Cities. We had a great response and people wanted to buy subscriptions.”
It was named Circa ‘21 to honor its original 1921 opening. And on June 10, 1977, the theater gloriously reopened as a dinner playhouse, featuring “I Do! I Do!” as its first offering, and soon after, Circa was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Fittingly, Ron May and his wife Cindy were married (at Davenport’s Trinity Cathedral) the same night as the debut of Circa’s inaugural production.
Many years ago (before music directing), May arranged music for the Bootleggers pre-show and Cindy would do choreography. “I just think it’s great to work with them — many of them are young performers who are starting their careers and to see their success after this, you know, working at Circa and then moving up the ladder and getting their Equity card and going on to other great things,” Ron, who’s now 68 (and got
his Covid vaccine), said. “I just love working with the young performers. They’re so eager to do a good job and to build a career,” he said. “And when they walk into the theater for the first time when they go, wow, I didn’t think a dinner theater in Rock Island, Illinois, would be this awesome. They see that old theater and the architecture, and it’s just stunning, and they just have a whole new appreciation for it.
“That’s kind of fun, just working with eager young professionals. And of course, there’s lots of veterans that come back time and time again,” May said. “There’s some veterans that have been all over the country. I’m thinking of Autumn O’Ryan. She’s been all over the country and toured, and she just loves coming back to Circa. She’s such a gem of a person.”
He’s been to a few other dinner theaters and treasures what Circa has done here. “I think Denny and Brett have found a rhythm of what the public enjoys and presenting it with a good product,” May said. “And I think the community here in the Quad-Cities has supported it. It’s tremendous. I think it’s a very important, vital component of the entertainment sector here in the Quad-Cities.
In the mid-1930s, the theater name was shortened to just “Fort,” to avoid confusion with the nearby Fort Armstrong hotel, which had been built in the mid-1920s.
Soon after opening Circa, the massive 1930s marquee and sign were removed, leaving a simple framework. In honor of Circa ‘21’s 25th year, the marquee was recreated, without the original vertical sign. At the same time, a tremendous amount of restoration occurred on the inside of the theater.
They had to borrow more money to make it through the collapse of the farm economy in the ‘80s. “Through that time, we were so lucky our audiences stayed with us,” Denny said. “People aren’t going to go out as much as they used to, but they still came out. That’s one of the heartwarming things since we opened the theater in ’77, the support we had and continue to have through all these difficult times, including where we are right now.”
The Bootleggers performing wait staff have been part of Circa since the start. Hitchcock went to 15 dinner theaters before opening his and saw that concept just once, in Kansas City, and really liked it.
“I like the warmth that it provided – people who were waiting on me at the theater gave,” Hitchcock said. “Everyone was so nice and friendly. Every waiter is a performer, no matter what the venue is. If you have public contact, you have to be a performer.”
“We auditioned about 100 people to get our first 12,” he said. “Having taught at Augie before, we had some Augie people come over for us.” Longtime set designer Susie Holgersson was one of the first Bootleggers.
This past year was far from the first time Hitchcock considered closing the doors to the business.
“There was one point we couldn’t borrow money from anybody – the banks, everybody turned us down,” he said. One lady, an attorney who
practiced law from 23 until her death at 99 and a longtime subscriber, loaned Circa $10,000 in the mid-‘80s, Hitchcock said, noting she later dropped their interest rate.
Tapscott, 37, has performed on the mainstage since 2007 and appreciates being in a building with such historic significance.
“To look over that theater from the stage, you don’t get to do that in a lot of places because you don’t get to perform in theaters like that often,” he said.
“There’s just there’s something extremely charming about being able to go to work every day and know that you’re setting foot inside a historic building where, you know, a lot of the vaudeville greats have played, and that’s something that stays with me a lot,” Tapscott said. “I have a lot of passion for the place.”
As big as the theater is, “there’s still a sense of community within,” he said. “There’s a sense of relationship between the audience and the performer that I still can’t quite figure out because I’ve always felt connected to the to the audience, despite how big it is.”
“It tugs at your heartstrings because of it. So, having to shut down this last year has been pretty tough on most of us. I love it. So it’s not been an easy year.”
Part of what makes Circa special is the meal aspect, he said, as dinner theaters have dwindled nationwide since the ‘70s. “It’s kind of a one-stop shop entertainment.” While some people may complain of the hefty ticket price, it’s worth it since people likely would pay the same for dinner and a show separately, Tapscott said.
The regular patrons also make Circa unique, he added.
“They’re always the sweetest people. And they treat you like they’re part of your family, because they’ve gotten so used to you being part of their special occasions,” Tapscott said. “That’s something really special, too, since you get to really know the people that are watching you and some of them I know by name now. And some of them I have personal friendships with them.”
“I have not encountered that really anywhere else, especially in town. There’s just a level of connection that audiences and the performers have there that, it’s really special.”
Longtime actors reminisce
Tom Walljasper of Moline and Kim Kurtenbach of Bettendorf are Circa favorites, involved with the theater for nearly 30 years, and each makes their living nearly full-time from theater and film.
Walljasper – who’s been in about 100 Circa productions since his theater debut in 1992, but not the new CBL – said he’s a distant second to Hauskins in number of performances, if you include all Bootlegger pre-shows, his days at ComedySportz, and all his mainstage and children’s shows.
Walljasper related an indelible experience he had from CBL, as a genuine reminder for artists of all types: “Be humble. Or suddenly, and without notice, your viewership will make you humble.”
After every CBL show, there’s a “Joyed It Line,” he said, where actors greet the audience, and patrons quickly scurry up and utter “We enjoyed it,” which always comes out as “joyed it,” Walljasper said. One time, after CBL 2 (after he had already played the pastor in the original CBL twice), a lady in her 90s approached with tears streaming down her face.
“I just knew she had had an extremely powerful reaction to the show,” he said. “As she approached, she reached her hands out and grabbed mine. Wow, her hands were cold. I totally remember that. She then cupped my face in her hands and hugged me for a long, long, uncomfortably LONG time.
“She then just gazed at me…and in so many elegant words, told me how wonderful she thought I was. She went on and on and then she had a secret to tell me,” Walljasper said. “So I leaned down and…she hit me with the zinger. Beautifully concise and enunciated at perfection. She
whispered, ‘you were WAY better than the guy last time.” He noted that he WAS that guy last time.
One of Tom’s favorite parts of being part of Circa has been working with his wife Shelley, who’s also been in many shows, and they met doing theater at the former Marycrest College, Davenport. She’s in “You Smell Barn.”
“Shelley and I have been together personally, and artistically since we were teenagers,” Tom said. “The best part, for me, when Shelley and I are sharing an artistic experience, is the downtime — the drive to and from rehearsals. Drive to and from performances. Seeing her backstage. Stuff like that.”
“Trust. We just easily connected that way. Ever since Acting I our freshmen year,” he said. “It probably helped a little bit that I was in love with her.
Walljasper hasn’t done anything with Circa over the past year, after having been in “Saturday Night Fever” (he and Shelley were the Manero parents). “To tell you the truth, it was much more confusing than upsetting,” he said of last March’s shutdown. “The situation just evolved so quickly, and so much information and…ugh, it still seems so bizarre.”
He didn’t do the Circa cabarets because he doesn’t really consider himself a singer.
“Believe it or not, when I do musical theater, I let “the character” “sing” the song,” Walljasper said by e-mail. “It’s much easier for me to just pass it off to them and get out of the way. They’re confident with singing. I’m not! I need a story. I need a reason. There are MUCH better qualified singers to handle those shows. Those folks are brilliant at it.”
He said he’s not sure many artists could say they’re making a living at all now.
“Everyone is trying their absolute best to create during what seems to be categorized as the absolute WORST times,” Walljasper wrote. “Denny is doing everything he can. He should be applauded for ANYTHING!”
Kim Kurtenbach first got involved with Circa in the early ‘90s for a lunchtime revue for riverboat casino customers. Her first play was in 1993’s “Steel Magnolias” (as Shelby) and first musical was “Fiddler on the Roof” (double cast as Chava and Fruma Sarah). She’s been part of 50-plus productions – including acting in and directing children’s shows (the latter which she began about 10 years ago).
“Circa ’21 is such a huge part of the joyful memories that I have in my life, because of the relationships,” Kurtenbach said. “For an artist, we
collaborate with each other and it’s an emotionally bonding experience, any time you’re creating art with people.”
Among performing highlights for her are Anna in “The King & I,” “Fiddler,” and shows with Brad Hauskins and Tom Walljasper.
“Any time I get to act with Brad I love it,” Kurtenbach said. Another peak role was in “On Golden Pond,” directed by Denny, with Michael Kennedy as Norman and she was his daughter. “That was a great experience for me.”
She’s done as many straight plays there as musicals (including “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” “Ring of Fire,” “Southern Crossroads,” and “The Sound of Music”). One of her favorites was a John Denver revue, “Almost Heaven.”
A personal highlight at Circa was a star-studded cabaret done in her honor in May 2014, just one night, to raise money for her ovarian cancer treatment.
“The place was packed,” Kurtenbach said. “That will always be one of my top three best memories of my life, was that night. So many people in the arts community came together to sing, do skits, jokes. It was a remarkable evening and everybody was so talented.”
“The greatest thing that Circa has been – besides launching my professional career – is the friendships,” she said. “All these people, they’re family to me. That theater makes a close friendship.”
Kurtenbach is not surprised Denny is still so involved. “I really think it’s what keeps Denny going. Denny loves, with a huge heart, the people who work for him,” she said. “You can always count on him. I love Denny.”
“I don’t know how he does it,” Kurtenbach said of keeping Circa going. “It’s a blessing because it helps those of us who are professional performers, it’s one of the only places to be able to earn a livable income as an actor, designer, technician.”
Being one of the four female actors in last fall’s “Savannah Sipping Society” (including Shelley Walljasper) was a great experience, she said, noting they were tested regularly for Covid.
“Audiences were wonderful. They kept to very good safety guidelines. Even during the rehearsal process, I never felt like it wasn’t safe. I was just amazed. I was very proud to have been in that show, because it was the one show that went on during Covid. We barely made it; they shut it down at the very end.”
“It was a great show to be a part of, and they were wonderful girls to be working with,” Kurtenbach said, worried that Circa would have to close permanently.
“I think it made everyone also appreciate what we have in Circa,” she said. “Sometimes we take it for granted. It brought an appreciation for how blessed we are to have Circa. I hope the community realizes that as well – it really is a jewel. There are not many like it in the country, let alone having it in our backyard. It is such a gift.”
The small audiences loved the fall play. “Audiences were so hungry for something that wasn’t staring at a screen,” Kurtenbach said. “It was a delight — the audiences were a delight. Nothing in the process never felt like we shouldn’t be here. We were doing everything we were asked to do. We were keeping it safe for people and still entertaining people during a time when they desperately needed it.”
Becher together at Circa
Bobby and Ashley Becher are a big reason Circa has been able to stay “open” in varying ways over the past year, including offering shows in the Circa Speakeasy next door (with audiences of 50 maximum), and filmed online shows (like Tapscott’s original “Big Rock Candy
Mountain”) and cabarets involving many performers, either filmed from the stage or other locations.
Growing up in Bettendorf (graduating high school in 2003), Ashley went to many Circa kids’ shows.
“When I was in middle school, we had to do a career project, and I knew that I wanted to be an actor, so I called Circa and they gave the phone number for the cast house and I interviewed one of the actors when I was in 7th grade,” she said recently.
“It’s so great to grow up in a community where there’s a professional theater and you can see modeled in front of you, that it can be a career,” she said.
Circa’s longevity speaks to its connection to the community, Ashley said. “That speaks to what an important pillar of the community it is.”
She directed the “Three Little Pigs” kids’ show the same summer they were in “Holiday Inn” in 2019. That was their only time being in a
mainstage Circa show so far.
“It’s such a fun show to do, especially in the ensemble,” Ashley said, noting the great costumes and being in many numbers. Bobby enjoyed getting to dance with Ashley in the Valentine’s song.
“It was actually really special because my grandmother, who passed away last May, she was able to come and see me in the show then,” Ashley said. “That was special since I grew up going with her and my mom to Circa.”
The Bechers were in another production of “Holiday Inn” at the Dutch Apple dinner theater in Pennsylvania during “Kinky Boots” here.
Some professional actors look down on dinner theaters, but Circa does a good job of doing quality productions in a real, historic theater (not a charmless big room), Bobby said. “It is really neat to perform in that building that feels like it has so much history,” Ashley agreed.
“Circa put a lot of faith in us and Tristan Tapscott,” Bobby said. They’ve given us many opportunities to create – green lights over and over again.”
“Especially for us, we’ve really only performed for them once, to have faith put into us they have, has been another really positive experience
and sign to us that we’ve been in the right place to do the right things during this time,” he said.
It’s preferable for them to have an audience, but for a virtual show, it’s better to be able to create something than not at all, Ashley said. The Broadway Backwards cabaret was done before an audience, and a new concept to the area.
“We’re hoping to be able to make that an annual thing,” she said. “It’s fun to get silly things that you wouldn’t normally get to do.”
The two of them will be back for “Winter Wonderland” for next holiday season, and Ashley will direct and choreograph “Seussical,” which also was postponed from last November.
At North Scott High School, Bobby is now music directing their production of “Descendants,” and Ashley is directing/choreographing “Newsies” for Countryside at North Scott for June. “Descendants” is about the children of Disney heroes and villains.
Last spring, Bobby music directed North Scott’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which also got canceled due to Covid before opening in April.
At Circa, they continue to provide “Rising Stars” classes for students, meeting on Saturday, and have a combined total of 15 kids between two classes. They’ll have a final performance mid-April. The Bechers teach private lessons through the Circa Rising Stars program and will announce upcoming workshops and programming for the summer in early May.
“The other thing that’s special to us at this time is the Rising Stars program we’ve been able to partner with Circa on, especially being a kid who grew up in the area, that inspired me to be an actor,” Ashley said.
“It’s really special to work with the kids and give back in that way,” she said.
“We were really fortunate to have really creative people like Ashley and Bobby, and Tristan and Brad, that did these online shows,” Brett Hitchcock said. “They said, let’s put some online content together for people to stream from their homes.”
“It was wonderful in that sense, to still provide some content to people and still have them be able to jump on,” he said. “For us, it was about
staying in contact – that we’re here, we’re going to be here. We’re going to reopen, as you hear so many small business across the country were closing last year. It was reinforcing the fact that we were going to be here long-term and reopening as soon as we could.”
He couldn’t judge how successful the online shows were financially (not having anything to compare to), but they appreciated making money at a time when they desperately needed it.
“Being a for-profit entity, usually we don’t take donations from customers, we don’t have people approach us,” Brett said. “But over the past year, people have been so generous, calling and making donations, sending in random checks. We’ve gotten support from the business community; Gas & Electric Credit Union had some money they gave out last year. The city’s been helpful, and from an individual standpoint, it’s been really great — we’ve had hundreds of people who have donated.”
Balancing opening, safety and uncertain future
Tapscott is cautiously optimistic about Circa’s future, since this has been such a crazy, unprecedented time.
“For me, it’s hard to even look ahead right now and look forward to things because you’re like, well, is it gonna happen? I don’t know, because I’ve been let down so many times,” he said. “I had six or seven contracts pulled from me this past year, and that’s a big blow to not only my artistic spirit, but also my financial spirit and it’s hard to like pretend like everything is fine, too.”
“That’s the thing that people are like, ‘Well, it’s gonna be fine.’ You’re like, yeah, you don’t know what we’ve gone through the last year, though,” Tapscott said. Homeschooling his daughter was a blessing in disguise, and he’s grateful to be with his girlfriend, Savannah Bay
Strandin (whom he met at Circa doing “Singin’ In the Rain”), who’s done several of the theater projects this past year.
“You know, even without a global pandemic, because you measure worth on, you know what you’re able to do,” he said. “And so if you’re not able to do anything, even though everybody in this industry is affected by it right now, including Broadway performers, it doesn’t matter. You weren’t immune to this.
“Even though it’s everybody, you still feel like a failure because I know I deal with this myself — like I’m not in a show right now,” he said.
Tapscott (who’s run his own company, the former District Theatre) has done 40-plus productions on the mainstage.
“I’ve been able to do a lot of rules that outside of Circa, I would not get cast in,” he said. “I’ve been able to play kind of a wide variety of things there, which is really a credit to Denny Hitchcock and trusting of me to play like a goofy sidekick. But then also a leading man.”
“A good thing that came out a lot of this — artists are vibrant, and they’re scrappy, and they know how to make things work for themselves,”
Tapscott said of dealing with Covid. “You know, we have to problem solve all the time.
“Luckily, a lot of us were like, this sucks, but we still want to create and do something. We can’t wait for someone to open the door for us. So we’re gonna bust the door down with some innovative and creative things so that we can still do something,” he said. “No one was going to give us the opportunity or the ball, so we might as well take it and run.”
Creating online shows isn’t going to replace live performance, Tapscott said. “There’s no way it can do what you get with a live performance,” he said. “I think streaming is going to be an important piece of the puzzle moving forward, but I think that piece is going to be a very important marketing tool.”
Streaming shows won’t save the organization financially, “but we can at least keep Circa in the public eye,” he said. “The Music on the Marquee thing, I think should be an annual event. I think that was really fun.”
“I found so much good in all of this and I’m thankful for that. I also found a will to create independently again and that rocks.
Diab, who is 52, became a first-time grandma this past fall, as her son Nick’s wife had a boy, Isaac, on Oct. 8 and she drove to Colorado to see them. Her older son Adam and his wife are due to have a baby girl any day. “I am not ready to leave – that was a huge takeaway from this year,” she said of Circa. “I still have it in me, I still want to be there.” When Diab’s sons were little, she took a six-year hiatus from Circa, working as a teller manager for US Bank. “Oh, my God, I cried. I cried every day.”
She came back in 2006 for “Cats” and never left. “It’s home for me,” Diab said. “Like Denny’s my dad, and Brett’s my brother. I love them.”
“It’s not an easy job. If somebody would ask me, I’d have to tell them it’s not,” she said of Bootlegging. “You have to know what you’re doing. You have to be focused. You have to be on and you have to act like you love it and I don’t have to act. But I know some people that do. I won’t say names, but I don’t have to act. What you see is what you get of me –what you see on stage, you get the same thing off stage.”
Between March and September, Diab and her husband (who works in construction) were renovating the East Moline house they bought a few years ago. She also got stimulus money and unemployment.
She feels very safe with the Covid health and safety protocols, including wait staff wearing masks and gloves, and keeping everything extra clean. Diab said she doesn’t work there for the money.
“I’m a people person. The money isn’t why I do this job,” she said. “I do it because I love it. I do it because I’m a performer. I do it because that’s what I do.”
With fewer than two weeks of rehearsals, Circa casts begin with the book and score mostly memorized. They typically rehearse eight-hour days, which can go longer during production week, when the show opens.
“With costumes and lights and sound and putting all of those details together, then those days can get a little bit longer,” Ron May said, noting the CBL cast rehearses in masks.
“We are being very cautious and being very considerate of the situation. Some of the cast members have had at least one vaccination. Some have had both. They’re quite comfortable,” he said.
The protocol for singing is to rehearse for 30 minutes, take a break for the room to ventilate, and return for another half hour at a time. “Taking that 30 minutes on and 15 minute air break, you almost have time to more absorb what you just rehearsed and retain it better,” May said. “It almost worked out as an advantage to do it that way.”
He accompanied “Broadway Backwards” cabaret at the Speakeasy last year, and felt safe wearing a mask during performances when most singers did not.
“Everything was fine. We were all we were so considerate of each other that I felt quite comfortable,” May said.
“I know it’s been a challenge. I just think Denny has been so conscientious about everyone’s safety that I’m very happy that when I go over
there to rehearse,” he said. “We can see how all the tables have been designated, where patrons can sit and where they can’t. The space is so huge that it’s quite spread out, even more so than perhaps a regular restaurant would be, and they’ve staggered times to arrive and leave,” May said. “I’m very comfortable going over there. Cindy and I have just started going out to dinner occasionally, and we’ll go someplace where we know this space properly and we’ll probably go in an odd time so that we know that they’re not gonna be a lot of patrons in a restaurant,” he said.
“But going to Circa, I don’t have any issues. Seeing how it’s all laid out. It should be just fine. “I’m so grateful to be back, and I think they’ve done an exceptional job to do everything they can for the mitigation of Covid – the spacing, the hygiene, the protocols,” May said. “I can’t think they could do any more than what they’re doing.”
Denny (who’s also been vaccinated against Covid) said he’s heard from 13 of the 18 “Saturday Night Fever” cast members who plan to come back this summer.
Theatrical comfort food returns
Of Church Basement Ladies (there are eight plays in the series that launched in 2005 at the Plymouth Playhouse, in a suburb of Minneapolis), May called it “the Lutheran ‘Nunsense.’” He’s director of music for Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Davenport, and a member there.
“Because the stereotypes are present in every congregation. If you’re a church-going person, you can look up at those characters and just identify spot on with somebody you know from your own church community,” he said. “It’s just it’s outstanding to see…It’s just great to identify in real life. That’s what makes it funny, because it’s real.”
Starting rehearsals again was special, May said. “I mean, because all of all of the performers and all of us who were in the performing arts, whether it’s theater or music or dance, have all beendeprived of that opportunity to be expressive,” he said. “The comment we kept hearing from the actors in this production was they’re never gonna complain about rehearsals again because they’re so grateful to be back in the routine in the process of presenting some live performance.
“It’s been a withdrawal, you know, not having that opportunity is like going through withdrawal,” May said. “Your whole body changes; your whole rhythm changes — you’re deprived of that expressive quality that you survive for as a performing artist. That’s their soul to perform. And it was it was gone for over a year now, so wow, to be back…”
The last Circa show May saw was “Savannah Sipping Society” and they loved it. “The performance was outstanding; we liked it more than we
thought we were going to,” he said, noting because of the small seating capacity, the audience reaction was more timid. “Even then, there was a feeling of being so grateful we can have live performances, even when it was limited audience, it was so special.”
Director Curt Wollan – who’s worked at Circa since 1983 – is back helming CBL, as he’s done for all in the series; the first was the biggest seller in Circa’s history.
“We’re appealing to a huge audience of rather underappreciated women who are over 50, who give themselves selflessly to their church,” Wollan said in a 2010 interview. “Looking at my mom, she was a church-basement lady. That was her country club, her outlet in White Bear Lake, Minn.
“There are church-basement ladies everywhere,” he said. “The Methodists love the show; the Catholics love the show — they love to see how naive the Lutherans were. We’ve performed for Catholic-Lutheran conventions. It works on many levels.”
Wollan commissioned the first CBL after learning about the book “Growing Up Lutheran” by Janet Martin and Suzann Nelson. In 1998, the authors received the Minnesota Book Award for Humor, and in 2006 they were awarded Metro Lutheran’s Gold Pen Award by Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
Martin said you don’t have to be Christian to appreciate and identify with the church ladies and their pastor, she noted in 2010.
“It doesn’t matter. I have a son-in law that’s Jewish, and the ladies in the temple are the same,” she said. “It’s been all over the country. They loved it in California, loved it in Florida, loved it in Pennsylvania.”
Martin came to see the show in 2007 and returned in 2010. “You have a gem there,” she said of Circa ’21. “The people should be very proud of that theater.”
“You Smell Barn” started rehearsing March 4. Hauskins was previously in the CBL “Rise Up, O Men” in 2018, the first in the series where they added more men.
Michigan native Erica Bigelow is making her venue debut as Beverly, and besides Hauskins and Shelley Walljasper, the cast includes T.J. Besler (“Fancy Nancy Splendiferous Christmas”), Autumn O’Ryan (“Mama Won’t Fly”), and Jennifer Poarch (“Mamma Mia!”).
“People can relate to them,” Denny Hitchcock said of the series. “Every woman over 40 knows one of those women. Unlike the gospel shows we did, it really has nothing to do with religion.”
“Those characters are so classic,” he said. “Everyone knows an older bossy lady, and the young prom-queen character. They’re so recognizable and I think that’s why people keep coming back for them. And they’re all clean language.”
Wollan’s Circa credits include “Grumpy Old Men: The Musical,” “Ring of Fire” and “Southern Crossroads,” and every “Church Basement Ladies” production since 2007.
In a recent interview, he called the new show “a memory play.”
“Part of the show takes place in 1984, and Beverly has written a book about her life in this small town — all the people that inhabited it, encouraging people to write down the story of their life,” Wollan said, noting she recalls her life in the ‘50s. “The whole thing is that everybody’s life is important and that everybody has a story to tell.
“It’s got a lot of heart, probably more than all the others,” the director said, “exploring just relationships and how people really do need each other.”
Coming back to Circa, “It’s weird because I thought, Oh, boy, can I still do this? And it was nice to get back,” Wollan said. “It was nice to just kind of realize. I mean, I can’t fly up and down the aisles like I used to in rehearsal. Now I kind of hobble up and down the aisles.
“It’s always good to come back to, you know, it’s like coming home,” he said. “I mean, I kind of know the Quad-Cities like I know my own hometown. I think I’ve done, like 26 shows here, plus the tours.”
“You Smell Barn” is not as church-focused, Wollan said. “It’s not really about where they are. It’s about right how they really, truly love each other,” he said. “I’m just so thankful that that this cast is so good,” Wollan said, adding there’s a ninth written in the series, which was due to open this August, but he isn’t sure if that will go ahead. He credited Denny for keeping Circa going through hard times.
“I know he is persistent. He’s bound and determined to make this work,” Wollan said. “He’s dedicated, and he’s dedicated to the area.
“The Church Basement Ladies in You Smell Barn” will be presented Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 7:45 p.m., Sundays at 5:45 p.m. and Wednesday matinées at 1:30 p.m. Tickets are $56.55 for the evening performances and $49.73 for the matinées, available at the ticket office (1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island), or at 309-786-7733, ext. 2. For more information, visit www.circa21.com.