“Steel Magnolias” at ECC Theater in 1992

When Dr. Elizabeth Clary watched her daughters perform their dance recital last month on the stage at East Central College, she got a little teary-eyed. That stage is where her life came together.

It’s where she met her husband, Andrew, when they were starring opposite each other in the spring 2007 production of “Beauty and the Beast,” and then it was during the summer show, “She Loves Me,” where they were cast opposite each other as the love interests, that the two began dating.

Flash forward to today — the Clarys have been married nearly 10 years and have four children together.

“For me, the theater is very near and dear to my heart, because we met there, and also because I’ve met so many amazing and wonderful people doing shows there,” said Dr. Clary.

Many ECC theater veterans and alumni feel the same way. They have performed on stage or worked on productions with their spouses, or they have performed and worked alongside some cast members so often that they now feel like family.

“We’ve become like a theater family over there, almost like a repertory company,” said Carol Buescher, who has been in almost 60 shows at ECC since 1990.

Dave Sutton, who has performed in a play at ECC in every decade, said it has been the people involved in the shows who have made it so rewarding and fun. Chris Stuckenschneider, who got involved with the ECC theater back when she was a communications major, agreed.

“When I look back, I can still see Bob Dierkes in his toga for ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’ ” said Stuckenschneider. “That’s what touches me — to think back on the people who were involved that now have passed away, but you still remember them in the roles they played.”

People like Dixie Van Leer, who played Annie in “Annie Get Your Gun.”

“She just blew everybody out of the water with her voice,” Stuckenschneider recalled. “She had a voice that was so beautiful it could break glass.”

Get any of the 10,000 or so people who have been involved in the 180-plus shows at East Central College over the last five decades talking about their memories, and you may need to get comfortable, because they have a lot to tell you.

Cast, Crew Reunion

In celebration of East Central College’s 50th anniversary this year, the college is planning an ECC Theater Cast and Crew Reunion Party for Saturday, July 21, following the 2 p.m. performance of this summer’s show, “Life Could Be a Dream.”

There will be a free concession stand with popcorn, candy and drinks during the show’s intermission, and after the show all former cast and crew members are invited to attend a pizza party in the John E. Anglin Performing Arts Center, 1964 Prairie Dell Road, Union.

Attendees will be expected to purchase their own tickets to attend the show prior to the party.

People are asked to RSVP for the cast and crew reunion party at https://goo.gl/forms/35C3x7x6Ro4ih3rz1.

Since the ECC theater began in the early 1970s, there have been 64 musicals, 101 dramas/comedies, 13 children touring productions to area schools, four one-person plays and 14 summer shows.

Show directors over the years have included John Anglin, Vince Niehaus, Grace Austin (ECC’s current theater director), Chris Swanson, Debbie Otto, Maury Mason, David Sutton, Tory Parker and Roger Tackett.

Music directors have included Carl Walker, James Shollenberger, Florence Reeves, Tim Sexton, Arturo Gonzalez, Colin Healy, Paula Nolley and John Phillips.And technical directors have included Vince Niehaus, John Anglin, John Kimmel and Chris Swanson.

Theater History

In the early ’70s, ECC didn’t yet have a campus. Classes were taught in the Union Memorial Auditorium and the basement of First Baptist Church in Union.

The road to developing an ECC theater department began with Dr. Sam Bonney coming to Anglin’s door two days after he arrived in town to ask if he would direct a play for the Washington Community Players, a now-defunct community theatere group.

“He heard I had directing experience and wanted me to direct their next play,” John Anglin, ECC professor emeritus, and director for this summer’s “Life Could Be a Dream,” told The Missourian for a story in 2004.

“That fall, we did ‘Come Blow Your Horn’ in the Washington High School gym using lighting equipment we borrowed from (St. Francis) Borgia.”

The show was a success in more ways than one.

“The experience gave me the opportunity to get to know people in the community very quickly,” said Anglin. “I generated lifelong friendships from that cast—Carol Buescher, Bob Dierkes, Jim Carey . . .”

Administrators at ECC took note of Anglin’s success with “Come Blow Your Horn” and gave him the go-ahead to produce the college’s first public production, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” in spring 1972.

There was no actual theater yet, so the show was put on in the Union Auditorium. Anglin said he chose “Charlie Brown” because the cast was small, the sets were simple and the music was singable.

“Because we lacked funding and so many other things, I decided it was better to do the show arena style,” recalled Anglin. “We designed a set that sat on the gym floor and had raised seating on all four sides.

ECC’s First Theater

ECC’s first official theater was located in the lower level of the school’s multipurpose building. The space was originally designed to house a swimming pool, but when that didn’t pan out, it served the HVAC and building departments until Four Rivers Area Vocational-Technical School was built at Washington High School.

The vacated lower level was turned over to the college’s theater department. After years of putting on performances in ECC classrooms and the gymnasium, Anglin now had the space he needed to build a permanent stage.

Anglin, with the help of then-ECC employee John Krimmel, spent the summer piecing together a theater.

Seats came from the old Berwan Theatre in Sullivan for $1 apiece. When the theater was finished, total cost, including the lights and sound system, was around $58,000.

The new theater opened in the fall 1978 with a production of “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.”

Finally having a stage that didn’t have to be torn down after every performance was heaven, but the new theater presented other challenges for Anglin. Because the space wasn’t originally built to be a theater, the acoustics were often lacking. There were no dressing rooms, makeup stations or a workshop—sets had to be built on stage.

It was hard producing plays under these conditions, Anglin told The Missourian in 1998, but at the same time it was wonderful.

“There’s something to be said for improvising,” he said. “Students learned how to critically think about a situation in the old theater. They had to always ask themselves, ‘How can I make this work?’ ”

The days of improvising were over, however, in the fall 1998 when ECC’s new theater opened. It had everything Anglin and others in the department could want. They were “in heaven,” Anglin said in 1998.

Benefits of Being in Theater

Joseph Aubuchon, whose first of many performances at ECC was in the 1976 production of “Carousel,” said his work as a stage actor helped him perfect his public speaking skills for his career as an attorney and judge.

“The beautiful thing is you learn to think on your feet,” said Aubuchon. “You learn to deal with stage fright. That was a big help. Anytime I could talk to people who want to be lawyers I tell them, do some shows, or else take a lot of speech courses, because it’s not a natural thing to stand in front of a large group of people and speak naturally. That’s very hard to do.”

Some of Aubuchon’s performances at ECC included “The Lion in Winter,” “A Man for All Seasons,” in which he played Sir Thomas More, “Dracula,” in which he played the vampire, and the one-man show, “Clarence Darrow.”

Cheryl Pecka, who has performed in more than 20 shows over the last 20 years, the most recent of which was “Into the Woods” in 2016, said the experience the ECC theater gives to students and community members alike is incredibly valuable.

Her husband, Doug, and brother-in-law, Mike, both went through the ECC theater program on the technical side before going on to complete bachelor’s degrees in theater.

“And both of their careers are a result of those degrees,” said Pecka. “My brother-in-law is a theater director at Ladue High School, and my husband is the manager of special events for corporate promotions for Anheuser-Busch InBev, and he travels the world for these corporate events, meeting lots of amazing people.”

For many students, their experience in the ECC theater program has meant assistantships at four-year schools to help pay their tuition, Pecka noted. “So it is nourishing a lot of students at the time and after they move on,” she said.

Grace Austin, who has headed up the ECC theater department since fall 2004, said theater experience is in fact so beneficial that she would like to see everyone take at least one class in it.

“I am firmly of the mind that every person in the world should take an acting class in college,” said Austin. “I think learning to empathize with a character and learning to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is such an important trait just to be a good person.”

Lots of Fond Memories

Pecka, who has been in the ECC productions of “Anything Goes,” “Children of Eden,” “1776,” “A . . . My Name Is Alice,” “Honk,” “Broadway and Beyond,” and “Guys and Dolls,” said her favorite show was probably being Mrs. Potts in “Beauty and the Beast.”

“So many kids really loved that one, and a lot of people came to see it,” she said, noting it also was special “because of what it meant for my kids. They were young enough to enjoy it.”

“Honk” is special too though because it led to her being offered a spot singing with a few different jazz and blues groups. The most challenging show she has been in was probably “I Do, I Do,” she said.

“It was a two-person musical, so it was a couple of hours of just two people on stage. You only get a couple of minutes’ break throughout the whole show,” said Pecka. “It’s about a married couple’s life from the day they are married to the day they move into a retirement home, so you see them age before your eyes.”

Sutton, who has been in more than 30 shows at ECC over the last five decades, began his acting career here with “Carousel” in 1976.

“That was before there was a theater built. We did that show in the gymnasium at ECC,” Sutton recalled, noting his part was in the chorus.

Shortly after that Anglin called to ask if he would be in “A Man for All Seasons,” alongside Joe Aubuchon as the lead.

“My memory from that is that my character had to hit Sir Thomas More, Joe’s role, so I got to hit a circuit judge at the time,” Sutton said with a laugh.

Looking back on his 30-plus shows at ECC, Sutton said he has been in two different plays twice: He played the Ghost of Christmas Present in two productions of “A Christmas Carol,” and he was in the barbershop quartet and played the traveling anvil salesman for two different productions of “The Music Man.”

The first leading role Sutton had at ECC in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in 1985. The most unusual show he was ever in was “Waiting for Godot” in the early ’90s.

“It’s really kind of not a story,” said Sutton. “It’s just two guys waiting for something, and they don’t know what it is. At the end of Act I, they get a message that Godot won’t show up today, but surely he will tomorrow, and then Act II is the same thing.”

Sutton said his favorite show in all his years at ECC is probably “Route 66.”

“It was all music,” he said. “It’s the story of four guys working at a service station in Chicago who decide to drive to California. You knew where they were (on the route) by the songs they were singing.

“There was no script. It was all singing, all songs out of that era. How could that not be fun?”

Buescher, who may hold a record for being in the most shows at ECC, said her first one at the college was alongside Sutton in “Whodunnit” in 1991.

That was followed by “Steel Magnolias” in 1992. Buescher played the character of Ouiser, which was a lot of fun.

But her favorite show at ECC has been “Noises Off,” in 1994, which was about a group of actors putting on a play, so it featured “a show within a show.”

“We’ve had some good adventures over there,” she remarked. “And I have been extremely lucky to have been directed by such supportive people — John Anglin, Vince Niehaus, Grace Austin, Chris Swanson. They have all been so supportive.”

For this summer’s show, Buescher won’t be seen on stage, but she’ll be heard. She provides the voice of the mother character from backstage.

Looking ahead, Buescher said she plans to keep on performing on ECC’s stage as long as the directors will have her.

“I have had a wonderful ride, and I hope I can stay on the merry-go-round a few more years,” she said.

“I get so much joy out of this. I love the people I work with, and I love doing it. The applause is really nice too . . . As long as someone will keep casting me, and at my age it gets to be a little more challenging to be cast in a play I can do, but as long as they’ll keep casting me, I’ll keep doing it. It’s too fun.”

Directors' Spotlight

Anglin said of all the straight plays (non-musicals) he’s done at ECC, his favorite is probably “Antigone,” from 1972.

“It’s such a serious drama, but another reason I liked it so much was because we had such an incredible cast,” said Anglin, noting Bob Dierkes played King Creon.

His favorite musical production has been “1776,” from 1975. “It was an early major musical that we did in the Union Memorial Auditorium, and it tells a great story about the Founding Fathers,” said Anglin.

Another favorite of his was “Children of Eden,” from 2000, because he was able to play the role of God, and also because it was a big cast, around 65 people.

That was a show that Anglin both directed and acted in, which also made it a challenge.

For Austin, who has already directed 40-some plays at ECC, said her favorite would have to be “Les Misérables” because it had been a lifelong dream to direct that show.

What also made that show so exciting was how popular it was with the community and how supportive the community was for it be on stage here. The community is always so supportive, but with “Les Misérables,” they were even more so, said Austin, noting tickets so really fast and 150 or more people turned out just for the auditions.

That’s a credit to the history of the ECC Theater program, she said.

“We produce really high quality work, and you don’t have to drive into St. Louis and fight for parking,” said Austin.

One of the additions Austin made to the program when arrived was a cabaret series, “Broadway and Beyond,” where the audience sits on stage while the performers sing various songs from Broadway musicals.

She has staged eight “Broadway and Beyond” producions at ECC, and the first was during her first year here.

“I remember thinking at the auditions, ‘What if nobody shows up? Nobody knows me, and this is a new series. It’s not a recognizable show.’ But it turned out to be really successful,” said Austin. “We’ve done eight of them so far and people keep asking when we are going to do another.”

This fall will begin Austin’s 15th year at ECC, and from the beginning she has found the community to be very welcoming and supportive of her.

She had never been to Missouri before moving here to work at ECC. Her father is an Army colonel, and she had never lived in a small town.

“This was such a different world for me. I honestly thought that I would stay for maybe two or three years and then move on to a bigger institution,” Austin said.

But she has never wanted to. She loves the sense of family that she has at the ECC theater, and with it being so close to St. Louis, she is able to spend her summers working with organizations like The Muny, COCA (Center of Creative Arts) and Children’s Variety Theater.

Last year, she even shared the experience with her students, having them work with her to work in the wardrobe department for the Variety Children’s Theater annual production.

Share Your ECC Stories

What are your favorite ECC theater memories? ECC’s 50th Anniversary Committee wants to hear about them as part of a story collecting initiative.

There is a submission form on the ECC website where people can submit their ECC memories and stories of how the college has helped shape their lives. Go to www.eastcentral.edu/50/share-your-memories/.

The committee plans to share those memories periodically on social media and the East Central College website.