In 1965, a nucleus of local theatre supporters (later called the “Society of the Arts”) began performing melodramas for the downtown Bowling Green merchants. These one-act shows would kick-off the “Old Fashioned Bargain Days”(later: sidewalk sales) for the merchants; money raised went to purchase Christmas decorations for the downtown area. After the success and community support for the May, 1968 performance of “Lily, the Felon’s daughter”, a small group of avid thespians decided to form a permanent theatrical group. The Black Swamp Players was officially born in the home of Gene and Mary Dapogny on July 21, 1968. Gene Dapogny was voted in as chairman, with Lee Forse as secretary and Ethel Berlin as treasurer by those in attendance, including founders: Jim Forse, Richard and Marie Mutschler, and Carl Berlin.
BSP’s name comes from the great black swamp which covered much of Northwest Ohio until drained by German and Scottish farmers in the mid-nineteenth century. The name, suggested by founders Lowell Randall and Agnes Hooley, was chosen at the first meeting to emphasize a commitment to provide a theatrical outlet to the entire community, and to avoid any confusion with the theatre program at the university ( BGSU).
What’s in a name?
After a public forum on October 2, 1968 and an extensive meeting on January 11, 1969, the third floor of Petti’s Alpine Village on North Main street became BSP’s first headquarters. Bylaws and guidelines were created, and the BSP became an Ohio nonprofit corporation in Autumn, 1970 with the help of John Halleck and Beryl Stewart. The group moved to space above Dill’s Jewelry for rehearsals, construction and meetings. Plays were performed at the Junior High, Crim and Kenwood schools in Bowling Green. BSP operated on a shoe-string budget, presenting at least three major productions each year along with occasional one-acts, readings, and performances for various civic clubs.
Through the unflagging dedication of Jim and Lee Forse, Charles Kortman, R.J. Shellhammer and other members, the Black Swamp Players moved into Veteran’s Hall in City Park in 1976 and enjoyed substantial growth and development. BSP began the Young People’s Theatre program for junior high and later, younger, students. During the 1978-79 season, dinner-theatre productions were begun in conjunction with the Bowling Green Elk’s Lodge.
Searching for a home
In May, 1983, BSP lost the use of the Veteran’s Hall and spent the next 10 years without an official home, performing at various venues including local schools, the Atrium at the Holly Lodge and available spaces at the Woodland Mall. In late 1990, discussions began for the ‘permanent’ use of a space in the Woodland Mall. Negotiations were completed in time for the 100th major production, “The Good Doctor” to be performed in May, 1993 marking BSP’s 25th Anniversary. It seemed that BSP had found a home at last.
The 1995 summer production of “Forever Plaid” brought record crowds to the mall theatre; repeat performances were scheduled for August. However, an inspection by state and local authorities concluded the facility was not up to code and performances could not continue until the problems were corrected.
The plight of the Players came to the attention of the mall director, Beth Issacs, and Michael Staenberg, the CEO of THF Realty, the mall holding company. Mr. Staenberg promised if BSP made the required repairs, then BSP would be allowed to occupy the space for as long as THF owned the property. The 1995-96 season was held in the Junior High while the mall space was brought up to date. The 1996-97 season’s brochure titled “We’re Back at the Mall” introduced BSP’s revamped space. The theatre was renamed “The Michael Staenberg Theatre – Home of the Black Swamp Players” in a dedication ceremony in February of 1997. The Players enjoyed several successful seasons at the Mall, however, a change of mall ownership in 2001 resulted in the Players being displaced once again.
After losing the Mall space, the Players have enjoyed a wonderful working relationship with the First United Methodist Church in Bowling Green. Staging 4-5 performances each year, including the ever-popular musical (aka the “Hastings musical”); FUM has become the de facto permanent home – being the longest continuous venue for BSP performances. BSP has also enjoyed staging productions at the beautiful Pemberville Opera house. This setting in and of itself has provided flavor and historic context for period pieces such as BSP’s “Mama’s Boys” and Horizon Youth Theatre production of “Miss Lillian” & “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”.