The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

May 27, 2012

Community theater | Cresson Lake Playhouse was one woman's vision

BY TOM LAVIS
TLAVIS@TRIBDEM.COM

— Every successful venture starts with a good idea.

And Eleanor Lantzy, a native of Spangler, had a doozy.

In 1973, she hatched an idea to start a community theater that would benefit the far reaches of Cambria County.

Cresson Lake Playhouse became a reality a year later. The playhouse is located at 279 Shapiro Road in Loretto.

Lantzy, who now resides at the Homewood Retirement Center in Williamsburg,  Md., said the motivation to get involved in the theater began when she and a girlfriend took a weekend trip to New York.

“I was telling my friend about the barn and a need to bring live theater to our area,” Lantzy said.

“She asked me why I don’t do something about it, so I did.”

With a $6,000 loan from her husband, John, who was a lawyer and once served as an assistant district attorney in Cambria County, she began to make her vision a reality.

“No one was more surprised than John when I paid back the money because he thought it was a gift,” laughed Lantzy.

Cresson Lake Playhouse is a pre-Civil War structure that was to become a part of a resort near Cresson Lake in Loretto.

The resort development was unsuccessful.

Lantzy spearheaded a campaign to revitalize the barn theater.

A woman who was at Lantzy’s side from the beginning was Jeannine Yahner of Patton.

Both women are octogenarians but remember fondly what it was like to give life to a new idea.

‘Determined woman’

“Eleanor is a quiet but determined woman,” Yahner said.

“In 1973, she called me about getting a group of people from the Patton area to meet at the library to discuss her idea of showcasing area talent.”

Lantzy formed “little theater guilds” in Ebensburg, Barnesboro, Spangler and Carrolltown to generate interest in establishing a performing arts venue.

The volunteer theater support group was dubbed Applause Unlimited.

“During that initial period, I had my doubts because the barn needed upgrades to make it into a theater,” Yahner said.

“Eleanor already had the seats in place when I saw it, but the structure needed a roof, siding, and a porch had to be built, which would have a space for a box office.”

Playhouse’s success

Lantzy credits much of the playhouse’s success to its first artistic director, Kenny Resinski, who is an assistant professor of fine arts at St. Francis University in Loretto.

“We were a good team because he had a great artistic talent and I had good business sense,” Lantzy said.

It has been 38 years and the theater is going strong.

The founder attributes the theater’s longevity to the legion of dedicated community volunteers who have stepped forward to do whatever it took to sustain it.

“We have always had wonderful volunteers in the communities surrounding the theater,” she said.

“People have been so generous and keep coming back each year.”

But Lantzy admits that it didn’t take long to spend the initial $6,000.

Old-fashioned way

Volunteers raised money the old-fashioned way by hosting roast beef dinners, selling 50-50 tickets and conducting letter-writing campaigns.

“It was a difficult time to raise money for the arts, but people were supportive,” Yahner said.

It wasn’t unusual for volunteers of specific communities to host an opening reception for each show.

“Our Patton group had a successful effort for the opening of ‘Camelot,’ ” she said.

“Each group would supply the food and the receptions were held at a local inn not far from the theater.

Yahner, a volunteer for more than 40 years, said while the receptions raised money, the true value of the receptions was to attract newcomers to the theater experience and build an audience base.

Spirit of giving

Yahner said Lantzy had a spirit of giving and wanted to have a place where all people in the community could enjoy live theater at affordable prices.

“People don’t realize what Eleanor has done for the northern Cambra County area by giving the region a place to celebrate performing arts,” Yahner said. “She is a true visionary and a woman ahead of her time. She even directed some of the performances.”

The first show, “I Remember Mama,” was produced in July 1974.

After coaxing all her friends to buy tickets for opening night, she was pleased with the results.

Lantzy’s confidence soared following the first act when Resinski walked on the stage and told the audience he thought they had a hit on their hands.

“I think it was not only talking about the play, but also the theater,” Lantzy said.

From 1974 to 1981, the playhouse presented three to four productions annually, including five original productions highlighting the region’s heritage, culture and history.

Original productions

The five original productions were “Prince Among Priests,” “Out of the Dark,” “Mountain Myths,” “Tycoon” and “Local Color.”

It was during this period that the theater began to receive funding from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.

In April 1982, the company moved from being a “summer theater group” to production of a six-play season.

Attendance grew, and by 1989, the number had risen to more than 20,000 patrons annually.

A capital improvement program included the expansion of the production schedule for a children’s theater, fall event and a holiday production.

Schedule increases

Performances have increased from two productions in 1974 to its current seven-production slate.

In September 2011, Lantzy and Yahner, along with Patton native Mid Whiteford of Altoona, were the first inductees in the Cresson Lake Playhouse Hall of Fame.

They both were recognized for their dedication to the theater arts and fulfilling the playhouse’s mission to honor, preserve and promote the arts.

When the theater was founded, patrons and benefactors had an opportunity to buy a seat in the theater.

Yahner has been a season-ticket holder since the beginning and has the same seat she purchased for $50 in 1974.

“It was a great investment,” she said.

Onstage

The following productions are scheduled at Cresson Lake Playhouse:

“Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” Through June 2.

“13 the Musical,” June 21 to July 7.

“Legally Blonde,” July 26 to Aug. 11.

“Come Blow Your Horn,” Aug. 30 to Sept. 8.

“Hair,” Oct. 4-13.

“Forever Plaid – Plaid Tidings,” Nov. 30 to Dec. 2.

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