In 1946 in answer to an expressed need for a live theatre performing arts group in Biloxi, MS, actress Jane Wood Pringle with a handful of interested people which included wannabe Thespians, possible directors and those, such as Bernice Catanese, who would be perfectly happy working in some capacity backstage met in a basement room beneath Mrs. Pringle’s home next door to the famous Wood Estate, belonging to her father. Note: Mrs. Pringle’s home still stands and is now a Bed-and-Breakfast. Her father’s home was destroyed in 1969 by Hurricane Camille.
The newly organized board of directors chose The Little Theatre of Biloxi as their official name and this is how the community theatre group is registered with the State of Mississippi. Also selected at this meeting was the first production: a play entitled “Love from a Stranger,” which featured Mrs. Pringle and a young airman named Murray Hamilton who was stationed at Keesler Air Force Base. Mrs. Pringle was impressed with the young man’s talent and suggested that he pursue a serious acting career. Note: Mr. Hamilton became a well-known supporting actor in no less than 22 major Hollywood films.
The first production of The Little Theatre of Biloxi garnered much deserved attention and convinced the fledgling theatre group that they should, indeed, continue with their aspirations. Productions were presented wherever a venue could be found. During the following two decades, the two most frequently used stages were found in the Biloxi Community House on Central Beach just east of Main Street and in the auditorium of Biloxi Central High School on East Howard Avenue on the corner of Bellman, across the avenue from the northernmost corner of the Wood Estate. Note: The Biloxi Community House was also a victim of Hurricane Camille and now a towering retirement center stands on the site.
During the latter of the first two decades, there were other actors and actresses who have appeared in Little Theatre of Biloxi productions and left the Mississippi Gulf Coast to appear in plays on Broadway, in Hollywood films and on television. Among these include Richard Winterstein, Helen Jolly and Glenn St. Amant. Mr. St. Amant made his debut on television as one of the two shepherd dancers in the first NBC-TV live color telecast of the opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and on Broadway as a dancer in the musical “Plain and Fancy,” starring Alexis Smith.
Through the generosity of a local lumber company owner who donated his time, energy, and supplies in order to construct most of the sets, the leaders of the City of Biloxi were convinced that The Little Theatre of Biloxi, now frequently referred to as Biloxi Little Theatre or, simply, BLT, could use the basement rooms of the Meaut Community House, formerly a church, to store their growing number of set pieces and stage properties as well as a place where they could construct the sets. Quite often construction and assembly would spread out into the parking lot to the south of this building on Lee Street. It wasn’t long before residents began to expect around the time of production week to see a line of theatre volunteers carrying set pieces, flats and platforms down the street for approximately four-and-a-half blocks to the school auditorium where the play was scheduled to be presented.
Finally, during the period of time that Mayor Jerry O’Keefe was in office, one of the guest directors who was more often a scenic designer/artist approached the mayor with the proposition that BLT would become the lessee of the community house where the sets were being built and stored. The mayor responded with an equitable agreement to allow the amateur theatre group to produce their plays upstairs on the main floor. However, there were only a couple stipulations: One large room downstairs could still be used as a meeting room as well as a voting precinct and upstairs a group could hold a Bingo one night each week.
This was an agreeable arrangement for a while until having to dismantle a set during a typical production week before Bingo Night and reassemble the set on the following night for dress rehearsal became an inconvenience. Once again, it was necessary to communicate with the city fathers.
In the beginning most of the productions were offered in three-quarter round or thrust presentation, sometimes complete arena with the audience sitting on all four sides of the acting area and occasionally with the audience sitting on two sides, facing one another. This depended, of course, upon the director’s need or the scenic designer’s inspiration.
Once the City of Biloxi relented and gave exclusive use of the auditorium to the community theatre group, interior structural changes began. The stage area was widened and several rooms which flanked the original stage were removed to give small wing space on each side A balcony at the read of the auditorium was converted to a light-and-sound booth as well as being used to store costumes . Soon plans were drawn and executed to create levels that were raked in the style of either stadium or lecture room seating, giving (hopefully) each audience member unobstructed viewing of the action on the proscenium stage.
The Biloxi Little Theatre continues to enjoy popularity through its recent successful productions in its Lee Street home which now boasts an elevator that was installed to assist those physically unable to gain entrance to the auditorium via the building’s large semi-circular concrete steps.
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