In 1934 a group of friends from East Aurora, led by Mr. and Mrs. Ward Knowles, began a drama club. No one really knows what motivated them, but it’s easy to assume they attended performances at the swanky Erlanger Theater (first affiliated with the Hotel Statler) in Buffalo and that they discussed acting in, directing and producing plays. It follows that meeting at each other’s homes to read plays would have been a natural outcome of this interest. When exactly they decided to memorize lines, add props and produce a play, no one will ever know. But we are in their debt for setting the stage for decades of high-quality theater in a relatively small community at an accessible ticket price.
The Formative Years
Aurora Players’ first piece of equipment was a set of portable footlights. The first production took place in the old high school auditorium (now the Main Street School) in 1935. The show, Take My Advice, was said to be well received. For the next 15 years, plays were produced at the school, the Masonic Hall or the American Legion Clubhouse. By 1938, the first Patron Drive was held to fund a dedicated, permanent theater.
After incorporating as The Aurora Players, Inc. in 1941, summer productions began at the Historic Roycroft Pavilion inside Hamlin Park. The Pavilion was just that – an open-air structure. It was built by the Roycrofters (participants in the Arts and Crafts movement founded by Elbert Hubbard) and dedicated as a gift to the Village in 1903. Henry J. Weiland and his enthusiastic volunteer crew spent the summer of 1941 constructing a 24-foot stage. The space was cramped and the stage left entrance was a step-ladder leaned up against one wall. The roar of freight trains often interrupted scenes, but no more than the giggles of youngsters peeking into the dimly lit theater from the unshuttered Pavilion windows. By 1945, Aurora Players was performing in regional and state competitions along with staging benefits for WW II Servicemen, the Red Cross, the Fire Department and others.
Becoming A Theater Destination
In 1950, the Village of East Aurora granted permission to remodel the Pavilion for year-round use. Through ticket sales, private donations and generous discounts from local merchants on building supplies, the project was completed at no cost to the Village. In 1953 the rededication of the Roycroft Community Pavilion as the year-round home of Aurora Players was the highlight of the Independence Day celebration. It also marked the 50th anniversary of the original dedication of the Pavilion by Elbert Hubbard, on behalf of the Roycrofters, in 1903. Thus a new era of productions began.
In 1961, Aurora Players produced its first musical, The Merry Widow. Our musicals are now among the most popular shows each season. The 1960s also saw the birth of ProjectSTAGE as a means to provide young people an opportunity to develop their artistic talents and love of the theater. An annual scholarship was established in the 1970s for local, graduating, high school seniors in support of their theater or arts-related degree. This scholarship is still awarded every year.
The 1970s brought more additions to the Pavilion through special funds from the Village of East Aurora. Continuing our proud heritage of volunteerism, construction services were provided by BOCES students with the help of volunteering professionals. This important addition allowed for a costume storage loft, a “green room” (a comfortable space for actors to congregate until they go on stage), a second dressing room, and two bathrooms for cast members and crew.
AP In The 21st Century
Aurora Players, in cooperation with the Village of East Aurora, continues to maintain and improve its Historic Roycroft Pavilion home. In 2004, a modern light booth was added behind the audience seating area, providing directors and technicians with greater control and creativity when stage lighting our shows. In 2008, our 15-year capital improvement fundraising campaign concluded with the opening of our handsome, two-story atrium lobby. This Roycroft-inspired space provides our patrons with inside concessions (they used to be outside!), two new handicap-accessible restrooms, a ramp into the auditorium and an enlarged box office. The new lobby was a tremendous community achievement and many were responsible for its success.
During the 2020-2021 shutdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the prop loft was remodeled to accommodate a small orchestra space along with our props. Our backstage areas, including cast dressing rooms and the green room, were painted and recarpeted for the first time in decades. Importantly, air filtration was improved for all furnaces and plans were put in place to enhance building ventilation.
Needless to say, we thrive because of the dedication of our volunteers, members and the support from our community. With no remuneration except for the applause of the audience and the community of friends who share a love of theater, volunteers provide hundreds of hours each year creating, maintaining and improving Aurora Players and the shows we produce. With the continued support of our members and patrons, we look forward to producing exceptional, live theater productions that will delight you for years to come.