Theater Magic
Volunteers, Big Dreams and Talent
Add Up to Success for Footlighters

If it weren’t for her milkman, Freida Houck may have never joined the Footlighters.

“My husband and I own a grocery business and I remember our milkman came in and said, ‘I’m in a show, I want you to come see me.’ From the minute I saw the curtain open and the show started, I knew it was something I had to get into,” she says.

That was 1965. Forty-six years later, Houck is still a proud member of the Footlighters, a small group of community theater volunteers in Newport.

Footlighters, Inc. began in 1963 when a troupe of performers decided to bring more theater opportunities to the Cincinnati area. For their first 24 years, the group performed in area high school auditoriums, eventually settling at Westwood Town Hall in the late ‘70s, where they produced two shows a year.

Their big break came in 1977 with their show What’s a Nice Country Doing in a State Like This? which won regional, state and national competitions. It was in Spokane, Wash., at the American Association of Community Theatre Festival that the group won a chance to perform at an international festival in Monaco. Houck was part of that group.

“We were all holding hands and when we heard the words ‘What’s a nice country,’ we knew we had won,” Houck says. “It was probably the most exciting thing, like electricity going through you.”

When the group returned from Monaco, they performed the show for six more weeks at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park, winning such national attention that they even received a personal letter from then-President Jimmy Carter.

“It was a whole year of a fairy tale,” Houck says.

Everything was perfect — everything, that is, except the Footlighters still didn’t have their own space to practice.

“It’s very important that you can have your own space that you can perform and rehearse in, and have your actors perform on the actual set as they are rehearsing,” Houck says.

In 1986, the group’s dream came true when they moved to Newport to the tornado-damaged Salem United Methodist Church. They converted it to their permanent home and renamed it the Stained Glass Theatre. Moving in wasn’t without work. Though the church congregation had capped the hole in the steeple and removed much of the debris before putting the building up for sale, repairs were estimated at close to $210,000.

That didn’t scare off the Footlighters.

The small group pooled their resources for a down payment.

They converted the first-floor gymnasium into a dance studio, fixed the electrical and plumbing, renovated bathrooms, installed a sprinkler system, painted walls, built a stage and worked on seating and lighting.

In 1988, it was clear their efforts had paid off. In their first season, there were more than 250 season ticket holders and shows including A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum and Grease sold out.

“We’ve done a lot of improvements,” Houck says. “We’re very, very proud. And there’s not a bad seat in the house.”

Despite being an all-volunteer organization, the Footlighters attract outstanding talent and are able to work together.

According to John Langley, who is serving his 10th term as president of the Footlighters, the group’s ability to find people to fill multiple roles makes them so successful. He should know — he acts and directs in addition to his work on the board.

“It’s an all-volunteer organization, so we trade off roles for different productions and help each other’s shows, because obviously we want the whole season to be successful,” he says.

The 2011-12 season’s productions include Footloose, RENT and Light in the Piazza. ■