MAPLEWOOD, NJ — When people think of theater in our area, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center or the South Orange Performing Arts Center may come to mind. But Maplewood’s Strollers predate both those esteemed centers by decades. The Strollers even take the longevity prize from the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. And after more than 80 years, The Strollers are showing no signs of slowing down.
This weekend, “Cole,” a musical revue celebrating the life and work of Cole Porter, will open The Strollers’ 85th season at the Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts. Though the theater company is now 85, it continues to grow. And the company looks back fondly at its beginnings in 1932, when two Columbia High School teachers, Mildred Memory and Alice Andressen, formed The Strollers, with a name that came from the term used to describe early English troupes of traveling thespians.
“We offer affordable, quality theater on a local level. We entertain and educate our audiences and it’s affordable,” The Strollers Co-President Cynthia Ross told the News-Record via email about the company. “You can park, dine and see a show in town, pay for child care and not be out hundreds of dollars like you would if you went to other equity theaters in New Jersey or New York City. We help the local business too, as many of our audience and cast members dine and shop in Maplewood over the course of a production.
“We give back by our Mildred Memory Award, given to a Columbia High School student who has been active in theater with us. We provide an outlet for the children in our community to participate in theater,” she continued. “We are culturally diverse and open to all members of the community who wish to participate in theater. We are involved in lots of the cultural and art festivals in Maplewood and give back to the community whenever we can and in whatever way we can.”
Though The Strollers gave their first performance in 1932, the group was formally incorporated in 1936. Starting with just 32 members, Ross confirmed that The Strollers had 82 members by the end of the 2015-2016 season, and The Strollers Co-President Dena Daniel said that it is usual see approximately 100 participants in any given season. In 1989, The Strollers became the resident community theater company at the Burgdorff and now the theater works to maintain and restore the French Provincial building, which dates back to 1913.
“We, the membership — without being asked — have made upgrades to the Burgdorff Cultural Center and we’ve donated money to the Recreation Department for upgrades they wanted to make to the building,” Ross, who has been involved with the Strollers for 12 years, said.
And the theater provides more than just professional-level performances and renovation work; it is a vital member of the community, helping to raise funds for the Adult School’s first budget and giving benefit performances during World War II in support of the Maplewood Committee for Servicemen. In the 1950s, the organization raised money for the murals that adorn the Meeting Room inside Town Hall. In addition, The Strollers participate each year in First Night, Maplewood’s Fourth of July celebration and holiday celebrations in Maplewood, and is also involved in the “Two Towns in Harmony.”
“We have increased our outreach to the community and become more involved in what events happen in the community,” Ross said, but added, “I would hope we could continue to get more community involvement onstage and off with people of all cultural backgrounds.”
Daniel echoed those sentiments, saying, “Like most community theaters, I hope to see more of the community in our theater — onstage, offstage and backstage. People have so many choices for entertainment these days, but the vast majority of them are passive. I hope people remember how fun it is to create art, not just consume it. And I hope they bring that energy and eagerness to our stage.”
Nonmembers recognize the value the local theater brings to Maplewood, too.
“As they have been for decades, The Strollers remain an essential part of the communities’ cultural life,” Andrew Fishman of the Maplewood Office of Cultural Affairs told the News-Record via email. “In addition to offering audiences a variety of productions — musicals, dramas, old chestnuts, as well as lesser known work — The Strollers give amateur theater buffs an opportunity to join in true hands-on community theater. Whether behind the scenes or on stage, hundreds if not thousands of people have over the years participated in The Strollers’ productions.”
Initially, productions lasted just one night, but, as The Strollers’ fame and membership grew, so did its number of performances. Each season now, The Strollers stage four mainstage productions, one of which is tailored to the community’s younger audience. Rather than just being performed once, plays are presented five times during a two-week period and musicals are performed eight times during three consecutive weekends. And The Strollers continue to make other additions and improvements, as well.
“The Strollers have joined the digital age! We now have a robust web presence and are drawing people from well outside the Maplewood area,” Daniel told the News-Record. “We have grown our talent pool and creative staff resources enormously.”
“Operating a nonprofit theater company has never been easy, and I hope The Strollers will continue to adapt and thrive in the ever-changing cultural landscape of the community,” Fishman said.
The Strollers’ continued success has made life more fulfilling for its members.
“I directed our production of ‘The Heiress,’ which I was very proud of on every level,” Ross said. “The quality of that production, from costumes, to props, to lights, to set and actors was to rival any equity production.”
Daniel knew she would join up right after she saw her first Strollers show.
“Throughout the years, I’ve often done community theater, so when I moved to Maplewood, I was delighted to learn there was such an established, high-quality organization in town,” Daniel said. “I saw their production of ‘Urinetown,’ and said, ‘Yep, they’re great.’ I joined in the fall of 2008 as part of the ensemble in the show ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.’ Our dress rehearsal was the night Barack Obama was elected president, so I’ll always remember both events.”
When asked what her favorite memory with The Strollers has been, Daniel replied that “to pick one would be impossible.”
“There is a point in every show when all the disparate parts and efforts come together, when the show takes form as a whole rather than a sum of its parts,” Daniel explained. “That’s a magical moment. I love that moment. I love the people in this group that I get to share this moment with.”
For some members, who have been involved for decades, reminiscing about The Strollers brings much joy and a renewed sense of belonging.
“In 1979 my sister-in-law told me that The Strollers were casting a play, ‘Arsenic and Old Lace.’ I tracked down the stage manager through the Recreation Department, auditioned for the director outside of the Maplewood Woman’s Club — now The Woodland — where we performed at the time and was cast as the ingenue,” Judy French told the News-Record. “I distinctly remember the first read-through for the production. I was blown away by my fellow actors and from that day to this I have been involved in some aspect of most Stroller productions.”
French said Stroller members “wear many hats” and perform a wide range of tasks. This has allowed her to be familiar with nearly every aspect of the shows and has given her a front-row seat to seeing how The Strollers have changed over the years.
“The role of technology has made a difference in how publicity is done,” French explained. “When I first joined the group, for instance, posters were done by hand, silk-screened and then printed. Press releases and photos had to be mailed or hand-delivered to the newspapers.”
The same can be said for Judy Cohn, who joined The Strollers in 1962. When Cohn joined, before interested persons could appear in a mainstage production, they had to prove themselves first at workshops. Cohn’s first monthly meeting was a workshop of the one-act play “Tevye and His Daughters.” She went on to fill many roles and one of her favorite experiences was directing “A Little Night Music.”
“As a result of her good casting, two marriages came out of that production,” French joked about Cohn’s casting for “A Little Night Music.”
In addition to her current work on the fundraising committee and past work as an actor, workshop director, set painter and costumer, Rachel Kruskal, who joined in 1963, has most enjoyed her role as historian.
“She used to like to go through old records and remembers sharing what she found unique and often surprising at the monthly membership meetings,” French said of Kruskal. “Evidently, when the group was organized in the 1930s, in order to become a member, you had to have a home visit by a board member to be sure you were suitable to join the group! Also, at that time, when you joined you were a provisional member with no voting rights. Once you proved yourself through participating in three aspects of production in a year you were then elected into full membership.”
Despite its growth in the past 85 years, The Strollers continue to look for new members. Anyone can join, regardless of talent or skill level. Monthly meetings are held the first Wednesday of the month, September through June, at 7:45 p.m. in the Community Room at the Burgdorff. Company business is conducted first, often followed by a workshop and always by refreshments.
“The Strollers are a very welcoming group, a safe space for someone with creative desires to give things a try. In such an arts-rich area, it can be intimidating for a novice, especially an adult novice,” Daniel said. “All talent levels are welcome and encouraged to participate. The backbone of a theater group is its project managers and builders and poster-hangers. Anyone who enjoys a project has a place in The Strollers.”
“Cole” will run at the Burgdorff, 10 Durand Road in Maplewood, on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. from Nov. 4 through 19. There will be Sunday matinee performances at 2 p.m. on Nov. 6 and 13. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.TheStrollers.org. To reserve tickets, call 973-761-8453.
Photos Courtesy of Carol Cornicelli