Muriel Johnson, Sandy Smoley and the late Jean Runyon are influential Sacramento women who have an unlikely and little-known connection. Each participated as a volunteer actress in the Sacramento Children’s Theater program presented by the Junior League, a nonprofit service organization.
Now in its 75th year, it’s the longest-running community theater program in the region. This year, for the first time, the free theater production for children across the metro area will be presented by Fairytale Town, which itself was originally gifted to the city of Sacramento by the Junior League in 1959.
“It’s kind of nice kismet because the Junior League founded Fairytale Town,” said Kathy Fleming, Fairytale Town’s executive director. “It was nice to be able to return the favor to them.”
Fairytale Town has its own extensive, year-round theater program under the leadership of John Lee, and it also hosts an annual monthlong spring children’s theater. The organization didn’t need to take on more theater programming, but the Junior League was looking for assistance, and Fleming said she felt the program’s historical legacy and mission fit comfortably with Fairytale Town’s goals and objectives.
“It’s a nice way to introduce kids to live theater, and it’s one way I think Sacramento has been doing a really good job making sure every kid in the area does have a live theater experience,” Fleming said.
Sacramento Children Theater’s “Rocket, the Runaway Engine” written by Gail Halverson and directed by Tina Cole, runs today through March 7 at Luther Burbank High School. The production is for kids from pre-kindergarten through third grade.
“For many children, this is the first and sometimes only live theater that they will experience,” Fleming said.
The Junior League was founded as a group of women committed to community service through promoting voluntarism and developing the potential of women. While creating and producing theater for children was once very much in the scope of the Junior League’s activities, the organization has been refocusing itself as its membership has evolved.
“The demographics of service organizations like (the Junior League) have changed over the years,” Fleming said. “Back in the day when women didn’t work outside the home, they had a lot of members available in the daytime to do stuff like this. Now they’re more of a service organization, not a programmatic organization, so they were looking for someone to take on the program. They put out a request and we submitted a proposal, and they graciously deeded it to us.”
The program transitioned to Fairytale Town last fall with an eye on the 2014 season. Under the new arrangement, Fairytale Town plays a presenter and executive producer role, using its infrastructure to assist with marketing, while still working with many individuals who have been instrumental in successfully staging the program for years.
“We have a lot of the same cast of characters that the Junior League used,” Fleming said.
The Junior League will continue to provide some financial support for the program. Fleming said she has also arranged funding from other sources that will provide free busing of students from Title I schools. In addition, Fairytale Town works with community volunteers who act in the plays and provide other theater support.
Cole, who has directed the Children’s Theater production for the past 15 years, will again lead this year’s production, albeit at a different location. This year, the play will be performed at Luther Burbank High School after more than 40 years of staging it at Hiram Johnson High School, due to theater availability.
Children Theater plays have songs that the children learn beforehand so they can sing along with the performers. The plays also have story lines that promote positive behavior. Recent productions have dealt with good nutrition habits, how to be a friend, and why you should always be honest. This year’s production deals with the benefits of staying in school.
“They’re about 35- to 45-minute programs, all interactive with the children,” Cole said. “We send a curriculum guide to the teachers ahead of time. They have theater etiquette, a synopsis of the play, and what the theme of what each play is, with suggestions to involve the children. In the old days, we saw about 40,000 children in five weeks.”
For Cole, a professional singer and actress perhaps best known for playing Katie Miller Douglas on the 1960s sitcom “My Three Sons,” the program gives as much to its organizers as it does to its audiences.
“It’s my favorite thing that I do in Sacramento every year,” Cole said. “It’s been a wonderful community project and we’ve had women who saw it as children performing in it as adults. I just love looking at the faces of these children and having them come out singing the songs and learning things they don’t even know they’re learning.”
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.