Gary “Doc” Sluyter had only been living in Washington for a couple of years when the owners of the old Calvin Theatre on Elm Street in Downtown Washington had its iconic marquee removed over concerns about its stability.
He was sad to see it come down. For Sluyter, who had moved to Washington from Columbia, the old Calvin had been such a source of curiosity for him, that it inspired him to write a book.
“A History of Theatre in Washington, Missouri” is a 60-page, five-chapter, spiral bound book that begins with a chapter on Early Germanic Influence and ends with a chapter on current theater offerings, from high school productions to East Central College to the Riverside Players.
Originally, Sluyter had intended only to write about the Calvin. Although the historic theater had been closed for decades, the more people Sluyter talked to about the old theater and the more he learned, the more he wanted to know.
“I found out it had a really interesting history, and I decided to write a history of the Calvin,” said Sluyter.
Retired from a career in healthcare consulting and management training for healthcare organizations, Sluyter had written other books, mostly professional publications. He had written one historical feature book, “St. Louis’ Hidden Treasure: A History of The Charless Home, 1853-2003,” which was published in 2003.
Sluyter’s research of the Calvin led him to the Washington Historical Society, of which he is now a member.
“What I found is that the history goes back quite a few years,” said Sluyter.
“I found there is a lot of history before the Calvin. The Calvin was built in 1909, but there were efforts in the theater as far back as 1854. It was very Germanic influence. There was such a German population here.”
The book’s five chapters include:
Early Germanic Influence, the Turn Verein, St. Francis Borgia Lyceum Theatre, the Calvin Theatre and High School Dramatic Programs, East Central Community College and the Riverside Players.
In addition to his research at the Washington Historical Society, Sluyter interviewed local residents, like the Bleckmans, who had family members involved in Washington’s early theater productions; people who lived here when the Calvin showed movies; and Paul Czeschin and John Masterson, who had worked at the Calvin when they were in high school.
One of Sluyter’s favorite details from the book is from the chapter on the Calvin. He tells about a marketing idea the theater tried in the early ’50s, giving away baby chicks to kids who came to see a movie one Saturday.
He also chuckles over a story Washington Mayor Sandy Lucy shared about how children attending a movie would purchase one large soda and share it, passing it down the aisle — until one week when they all came down with the mumps.
“A History of Theatre in Washington, Missouri” can be purchased at the Washington Historical Society Museum, at the corner of Fourth and Market streets in Downtown Washington. All proceeds benefit the nonprofit organization.