History of Studio Players
The Beginning (1952-1954)
The Itinerant Years (1954-1958)
Finding a Home on Bell Ct (1957-1959)
Building Renovation & Stage Construction (1959-1960)
Adventures, Challenges, Repairs, & Upgrades (1960-1980)
Improved Accessibility and a New Roof! (1980-1986)
Renovations, Additions, Roadblocks, & Fundraising (1987-1993)
Renovations to the Auditorium (1992-1995)
2000 and beyond
"Stop and Stair. Bill Stair is one to whom we owe a great deal of gratitude… a friend who volunteered his studio for our playhouse when we had no home, and who has allowed us literally to move in and take over…to disrupt his very existence professionally … to knock out walls and tear out rooms to make our theatre. And Bill has had a helping hand in every phase of production."
Studio Players - The Beginning
In 1952, Lucille Caudill Little, Charles Drew, and others interested in little theatre gathered to discuss the creation of a community theatre in Lexington. The University of Kentucky Guignol theatre and the Transylvania University Arena Theatre utilized townspeople in their productions, but members of the theatre community felt that another outlet for dramatic talent was needed.
William Carter Stair operated a ballet studio in Lexington and produced full scale ballets yearly, most frequently as fund raisers for the Baby Milk Fund. Mrs. Little narrated those ballets and Stair provided ballet segments for Lexington Children's Theatre plays which Mrs. Little directed.
Stair allowed the theatre group to use his dance studio as a performing space. The studio, located on the second floor of a building at Short and Spring Streets, was across the hallway from a seedy weekend beer and dance place called "National Hall." Two dressing rooms in Stair's studio became the tiny stage area, and the large rehearsal and practice area for the dancers became the little auditorium. Stair's lighting equipment and some set pieces from his ballets were used. Risers for audience seating were borrowed from the Transylvania Arena Theatre. These spaces are now used by the Lexington Children's Museum.
The theatre group was incorporated as a non-profit organization in January of 1953 as "Studio Players, Inc." -- the name being derived from Stair's location.
The first play presented was The Play's the Thing in January 1953, with Mrs. Little as director.
Charles Drew was to have appeared in that production and had been elected first President of the group, but had to withdraw from the cast and the office due to business demands. Mrs Little assumed the Presidency of the group.
The following appears in the program for the first production:
Program from the first production in Stair’s Studio
Six plays were presented at Stair's, but the owner of the building was unhappy with the dual use of the space and four to five years of wandering began for the troupe.
The Itinerant Years
In the summer of 1954, My Three Angels was presented in the side yard of members C. J and Mary Tate at the corner of Swigert Avenue and Paris Pike.
Later productions were presented at the Phoenix Hotel ballroom; Picadome. Bryan Station, and University High Schools; and beneath the grandstand at Keeneland Race Track. Rehearsals were held in the basements of member’s homes or in any space that could be borrowed
Production costs mounted as there was no space to store scenery and new set pieces constantly had to be built. Audiences dwindled since there was no regular playing location.
The group produced one play in 1956, one in 1957, and two in 1958. The survival of the organization was questionable.
Finding a Home on Bell Ct
With the death of Clara Bell Walsh on August 12, 1957, the Bell House, its stable and carriage house and surrounding land passed to the City of Lexington. Learning of the possible availability of the carriage house, Little, Drew, and other Studio Players members approached city officials either individually or as a group, requesting use of the building as a community theatre. A committee was formed to select a use for the structure, and recommended to the City that the building be used for a "Little Theatre."
Bell House was built in 1846, however it burned in 1884. It was completely rebuilt in 1885, with the exterior style and the interior floor plan changed. The build date of the Carriage House is unknown, but it was certainly in existence when the Bell family subdivided the property and sold off lots in 1907, as it can be seen in a contemporary photograph.
Building Renovation & Stage Construction
A renewable three year lease was acquired on March 9, 1959, and renovation of the building was begun. A major hindrance in converting the building to a theatre was a thick brick supporting wall running east to west between the carriage storage area and the stables. That wall was removed and a steel "I" beam supported by two iron posts replaced the wall, opening up the lower floor and providing support for the second floor.
A raised stage floor was constructed in the stable area and wooden risers were erected in the carriage area for audience seating. Old seats installed in the Woodland Auditorium about 1910 were acquired and placed in the carriage house. During the renovation, rehearsals for the first production Kind Lady were held in the third floor attic ballroom of the Bell House.
Some discarded flooring stored in that attic became the stage floor of the carriage house theatre-to-be, and a handsome brass gas/electric chandelier stashed in the rear of a debris-filled closet was hung in the auditorium of the carriage house, where it remained until 1994. During the 1994 renovation of the theatre, this lighting fixture was returned to the Bell House where it remains as one of the few original lighting fixtures in the building.
Kind Lady opened in December 1959, and the Studio Players have been performing at the Carriage House on Bell Court ever since.
Adventures, Challenges, Repairs, & Upgrades
Because of the debt incurred in renovating the building, stringent economy in production was necessary for many years. Newcomers were told of nails being saved, straightened, and re-used from play-to-play. Trades people were kind enough to allow partial payments for paint, lumber, and hardware. Technical equipment was minimal, with lighting instruments fashioned from tin cans and a home-made dimmer board for control.
Finally the group began operating in the black, and limitations of the facility received more attention. The servant's quarters on the second floor served as dressing rooms, property storage, and actors green room. The only rest rooms for the building were the old servant quarters bathrooms, located on the second floor and accessible by a steep narrow staircase. There was always a rush for the actors to get to the rest rooms at intermission before the long line of customers formed. Persons with any ambulatory problems could not get up the stairs. The second floor hay loft storage area was very crowded and the six foot wide lobby area at the rear of the theatre accommodated only a small percentage of the audience. The heating system was poor. A "Warm-Morning” coal/wood stove was located on the east wall of the theatre, but caused a fire in the building about 1961. The interior paneling on the east side wall was burned, and the stairway to the second floor was damaged. Insurance money received for damage resulting from the fire was used in part for the construction of a fireplace on the east wall of the auditorium. It added charm to the rusticity of the building, but seared some audience members while allowing those on the opposite side of the building to freeze.
Hanging gas space heaters were installed and used for about 25 years. Patron's feet were always cold, and their heads were too warm. The units were so noisy that they had to be turned off during an act so that the actors could be heard. There was no heat backstage -- casts froze in the wintertime. An icy cold wave often drifted into the audience when the main curtain was opened.
There was no heat upstairs. After many years of trying to use small electric heaters, unvented gas space heaters were installed in both dressing rooms and the green room. While there was concern over the unvented heaters, at least the upstairs was warm.
Studio Players presented musicals during the summer, but because the building was not air conditioned, performers would sometimes faint, and patron's clothing occasionally stuck to the deteriorating varnish on the seats. For a while summer musical production ceased, but in the late 1980's a forced-air gas furnace replaced the gas space heaters, and the installation of air conditioning made the use of the theatre in the summer possible again.
Improved Accessibility and a New Roof!
The lease Studio Players, Inc. had with the City of Lexington (later part of the merged Lexington-Fayette Urban the County Government -- LFUCG) stipulated that the City was responsible for exterior maintenance of the building and that the Theatre group was responsible for maintaining the interior.
The original slate roof of the building, more than 100 years old, slowly deteriorated. Leaks in the roof and the concealed gutter system caused damage to the plaster and to the contents of the building. Invasion by pigeons and squirrels through holes in the gutter and soffit was a constant problem.
The city realized that the roof needed replacing and also acknowledged that first floor rest rooms were needed, especially for handicapped and elderly patrons. In 1983, the city appropriated approximately $ 40,000 for the repair and replacement of the roof, constructing a handicap ramp, installing a second floor fire escape, replacing deteriorating doors, and for adding a small rectangular structure to the carriage house. This structure would contain two rest rooms, concession area, and a small lobby.
Clotfelter and Associates architects were hired, and a 37' x 20' addition was designed. This addition was to span the width of the building and extend 20' towards the Bell house. The plan called for a 1 story building with a flat roof.
Through conservative management, Studio Players had accumulated savings of $80,000 and agreed to donate half of that to the city towards the project. Before any construction began, an electrical line in a dressing room wall switch overheated and charred a wall support. The city engineers deemed that the remaining original wiring in the building must be replaced and brought up to code, and that since the building was used for public functions, a sprinkler system, and fire alarm had to be installed.
All of the available funds were used for the new roof, sprinkler system, and code updates. No money was available for the restroom/lobby addition and it was not built.
Renovations, Additions, Roadblocks, & Fundraising
In May 1987, Mrs. Little indicated to a Studio Players member that she and her husband, W. Paul Little were planning on the disposition of their estate. Mrs Little was asked to consider the needs of Studio Players. She requested that a proposal be written, which was done. As became her eventual practice in donating funds she requested that other sources be sought as well, so that she would not be the sole donor.
She circulated the proposal among LFUCG Council members, and meetings with Mayor Scotty Baesler and council members were held. In June 1990 the LFUCG appropriated $ 75,000 for an addition to the Carriage House to provide a lobby and handicapped accessible rest rooms. Several local architects were asked to participate in a design competition, with the most appropriate design to be selected by Studio Players.
The design submitted by Ken Hiler, builder and architect, was selected and plans drawn. These plans were shared with Mrs. Little. During this time, Mr. Little had suffered a stroke, causing partial immobilization. He took great interest in the design requirements which would allow ease of access for handicapped persons to the new lobby, the rest rooms, and the auditorium.
As designed, the new lobby was estimated to cost $150,000, not including the hoped-for renovation of the interior of the theatre.
During the planning phase, the Bell Court Neighborhood Association became involved. The Bell Court neighborhood is designated as a historical district, necessitating approval of any exterior changes or additions by the Board of Architectural Review. Several open meetings were held to share the construction plans with the neighborhood, with varying degrees of resistance to the plans from the neighbors. Issues included tree removal, parking, landscaping, exterior design, zoning, and the overall need for the project. Some neighbors questioned the wisdom of having a community theatre in this space at all.
Plans were modified to satisfy as many objections as possible and still meet the intended purpose of the structure. The first appearance and presentation before the Board of Architectural Review was made by a Studio Players representative on September 4, 1990. Several additional appearances were made, with each meeting resulting in further recommendations or requirements for design changes.
Since each design change cost additional Architect's fees and delayed the project, and the process with the BOAR seemed to be mired in fog and confusion, a lawyer specializing in administrative law was hired. With her assistance, final BOAR approval was received on June 26, 1992.
Mr. and Mrs. Little were kept informed of the progress, or lack thereof, and following Mr. Little's death in September 1990, Mrs. Little was kept informed. The process of settling Mr. Little's estate was a lengthy affair, but on December 31, 1991, Mrs. Little presented Studio Players with a $75,000 check, matching the amount appropriated by the LFUCG.
Prior to matching the LFUCG appropriation to the theatre, Mrs. Little insisted that a long-term lease be granted to replace the lease obtained in 1959 LFUCG provided Studio Players a ten year lease beginning in 1992, with the option of three further ten year renewals, thus giving the group a sense of long term security.
Since the City owns the building, it was necessary that the construction bids and contracts be let by the LFUCG. Advertising for bids was on April 22, 1992, and bids were opened on May 15. Bids ranged from $151,000 to $217,909. The low bidder, New Visions Construction, was selected by the city, and the contract was approved by the city council on June 25, 1992.
Ground was broken in the summer of 1992, and after numerous problems with the contractor, the lobby addition was dedicated on the opening night of the May 1993, play The Death of Cindy Squires.
The completion of the lobby building project finally provided some of the amenities which modern audiences have come to expect.
The lobby building and connector created a new entrance to the theatre, with handicapped access on the park side of the building. New ground-floor restrooms include handicapped access for our patrons. A water fountain and a new area for ticket sales and concessions were made available. The main lobby provides sufficient room for the audience to gather before and after the performance, and is suitable for meetings and theatre social functions and receptions.
Finally, a basement under the entire new structure is equipped with storage racks and steel shelving, providing badly-needed storage for props, furniture, and set pieces. The entire structure is equipped with sprinklers and a fire alarm system.
The exterior of both buildings was completely landscaped. The driveway was relocated and paved curbing was installed to eliminate problems with parking on the lawn. All exterior doors on the original structure were replaced with custom-made doors which reproduced the original design. Following notification in June 1990, that the LFUCG had appropriated $75,000 for the lobby addition, fund raising solicitations were sent to Studio Players supporters and other arts benefactors. A second mailing of solicitation letters was sent later, reporting progress in the fund raising and indicating the need for further funds for renovation of the auditorium.
Renovations to the Auditorium
Mrs. Little invited friends for a special performance of 84 Charing Cross Road in February 1992, followed by a "high tea" at the Bell Mansion. That event elicited several thousand dollars in donations. Joined with the donations received as a result of the fund raising letters, and added to by savings accumulated from successful productions since 1984, another $75,000 was available for the auditorium renovation and for the purchase of equipment.
After experiencing extensive difficulties with the general contractor on the lobby building project, Studio Players decided to manage the renovation project themselves. Alan Sullivan was engaged as project architect, and a budget of $ 50,028.50 was prepared. Final cost of the project was $47,028.33.
The theatre was closed during the summer of 1994 for the renovation of the auditorium. The old seats were donated to Asbury College, and the tiered wooden risers removed. A fireproof sloped concrete floor was poured and carpeting and new seating was installed. The old seats had been narrow and the seating configuration had been broken up by two aisles with 3 seats on the outside of the aisle. To meet code requirements for aisle width and row depth caused a small loss in the total number of seats; however, seating comfort was greatly improved and good viewing of the stage was available from all seats. Provision was made for wheelchair placement in the seating area.
A new light and sound booth was built at the rear of the auditorium and furnished with new equipment. Conduit was run to the stage area to provide proper electrical supply, and the lighting dimmers were relocated to the second floor.
The old stage floor had sagged badly, causing set building problems, especially in the hanging and proper functioning of doors. The old floor was ripped out, a level fireproof concrete sub-platform poured, and a new sprung wood stage floor installed.
Years before, original wood paneling on the east wall of the theatre had to be removed due to the 1961 fire, water damage and termite damage. The walls of the building are solid brick, and cold in the winter. During the 1994 renovation, insulation was applied to all walls except the west wall, and fireproof grooved paneling approximating the original walls was installed. The west wall (Street side) was still in excellent condition after more than 100 years, and was left intact.
One of the iron posts supporting the beam installed in 1959 had rusted badly at the base, and was replaced.
Due to the incline in the new concrete floor in the auditorium, the bottom of the old Bell Mansion chandelier could hit the head of a standing patron. Thus it was removed and presented to the Bell Mansion for re-installation there. It had provided good illumination for those directly beneath, but patrons on the perimeter of the auditorium had difficulty reading their programs. New recessed lighting was installed, providing even illumination of the auditorium.
To complete the renovation, the interior of the theatre and stage was completely cleaned and repainted.
Since 1993, Mrs. Little designated that her annual contribution to the Campaign for the Arts go to certain arts groups in the area. Studio Players was the recipient of $10,000 from Mrs. Little for 10 years. The funds were channeled through the Lexington Arts and Cultural Council. Studio Players was the recipient of $1,000 from the LACC for several years. Upon the passing of Mrs. Little, the last money received from her estate was in 2011, when we received a grant for fitting out our warehouse. Studio Players is forever in her debt for her many years of service to and for Studio Players, in so many ways.
2000 and beyond
In 2009, Studio was able to purchase a 7,500 square foot commercial building on Eastland Parkway for use as a scene shop and warehouse. This facility replaced several rented mini-warehouses which were crowded and expensive.
Now Studio no longer has to build set pieces on the stage of the theatre, and has room to store scenic units for reuse. An additional costume storage area was constructed in the theatre loft in the location previously used to store construction materials. The scene shop was equipped with a complete assortment of power and air tools. Assembly and painting is still done on the theatre stage.
The addition of the warehouse has enabled the theatre to greatly expand its collection of furniture and decorative items, and has become a resource for many other theatre groups in the area.
By 2013 the “new” lobby was showing wear and was remodeled. In addition to a new coat of paint and new window treatments, the theatre had cabinets constructed for the ticket booth, storage of tables, table cloths, and other supplies. The kitchen countertops were also replaced to match the new cabinets. Carpet around the perimeter of the theatre was replaced with carpet squares, which can be individually replaced as needed.
The roof began to leak and was replaced by the City in 2019. Asphalt shingles do not last as long as slate!
Studio Players began as an all-volunteer community theatre in 1953, at the height of the community theatre movement in the United States. The mainstay of the organization then, as now, was in the number of volunteers, especially women, looking for creative outlets for their time, talents, and expertise.
As that pool of workers has shrunk, and in response to competition from other theatre groups, Studio has had to move from our “all volunteer” mode of operation, and now pays a small stipend for directors and other technical positions.
Fred Scott Downing
Revised: October 2019