Birth and Death of the Battle Creek Civic Theater
It was February 7th, 1935……85 Years Ago. The first play presented by newly-formed Civic Players “The Enemy” opened at Battle Creek College, with James McQuiston in the cast. (He’s the guy who’s name is on the Battle Creek Public Schools’ “McQuiston Learning Center” at the corner of McCamly and Van Buren Streets.)
The Civic Players formed from a merger of The Little Theater and The Pagan Players. They staged productions at Ann J. Kellogg School and Battle Creek College. These were elaborate affairs, often followed by supper parties at the elegant Hart Hotel. The group was chartered by the state in 1937 as the Battle Creek Civic Theater.
The shows were very popular until they had to suspend operation during World War II, from 1941-47. The Civic Theater reopened in an abandoned Army movie theater on Helmer Road. Old-time performers, including the late Maida Schwarzkopf, said it was so cold that the audience had to bring blankets to performances and had to use restrooms in the adjacent building. Maida said the actors often had to exit through the back door and run around the building in costume, to enter the stage from a different direction. When that building was torn down, the theater moved to the basement of Masonic Temple and the KCC auditorium.
In 1970, the Battle Creek Civic Theater bought the defunct Strand Theater downtown, between Hennink's and Bazley Meats at 12-14 E. Michigan Avenue. The theater was once the “Queen Theater”.
A newspaper article on February 6, 1909, noted that “the Queen Theater advertises that it is the ‘health theater’ because it is disinfected every day. (Battle Creek had come to be known as “health city” because of the Sanitarium, healthy cereal products, and even a “health beer.”
After three years of hard work and $100,000, the grand opening was held on February 20th, 1973. Judge Creighton Coleman and his wife (and future Michigan Supreme Court Justice) Mary Coleman were instrumental in making the project happen. Both were acting members of the civic theater. According to Swartzkopf, the new seats came from the Studebaker Plant in South Bend. The automaker had built a new auditorium, before going bankrupt in the mid-’60s. The Civic Theater flourished for the next 15 years with their new “permanent” home. We’re told that the theater guild (volunteers) numbered nearly 1000, and the group had close to a thousand season ticket holders.
So what happened? Schwartzkopf once told me the story. She said the old theater was large and old, and difficult to run and maintain for a non-profit organization. The way she told it, the City of Battle Creek offered to buy the building for a dollar to “help.” The board agreed to the deal. Schwartzkopf told me, “the next thing you know, the Kellogg Foundation (who had now built their new headquarters) told the city they didn’t like the old building across the street, and so the city tore it down and the fake waterfall was built.”
The Civic Theater eventually relocated to the old Robinson’s Department Store in the Discovery Theater, but the theater was too small, had no fly space or wing space, no orchestra pit, and no dressing rooms. Unable to stage large productions and musicals, the Civic’s patrons and volunteers dwindled and its days were numbered. The group hasn't put on a show in many years.
In 2010, What-A-Do Theater was started in the First United Methodist Church in downtown Battle Creek and moved to Springfield in 2011. What-A-Do has struggled since losing their space in 2018. But thanks to the Battle Creek Community Foundation, a new space for What-A-Do is being built inside the Kool Family Center at 100 West Michigan Avenue. Maybe community theater will finally find a home in Battle Creek. Time will tell.