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Celebrating 50 seasons of community theatre: The history of the Grand Marais Playhouse

Published: Mar. 18, 2022 at 8:16 AM CDT
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GRAND MARAIS, MN. (CBS 3 Duluth) - - A local staple in Grand Marais is celebrating 50 seasons of talent and community.

The Grand Marais Playhouse has had an impact on the popular shorefront town for 5 decades, and this year they’re marking a milestone with a year-long celebration.

“Art has always been big here in Grand Marais,” said the executive director, Sue Hennessy. “The local people have always found time in their lives to be artistic.”

Perhaps a secret to summer tourists, but a beloved year-round home for talented residents.

The curtain was drawn in the winter of 1971.

“There was a group of women in the late ‘60s, early ‘70′s that wanted to find an activity for young people mixed with adults to help kids get off drugs, stay engaged, do some possible mentoring. So one of their ideas was to start a small theatre company,” Hennessy said.

After a night of one-acts sold out during a January blizzard, the Grand Marais Playhouse was born.

For 25 years, the Playhouse operated from an old Lutheran church on West 1st Avenue.

“We bought it from the school for a dollar back in 1971,” Hennessy said. “Backstage was running around through the backyard.”

Thankfully, by 1996, Grand Marais Playhouse moved into a new, more modern home.

The school district and other local art groups built the Arrowhead Center for the Arts, where the show goes on to this day.

Many agree none of this growth would be possible without their passionate leader, Sue Hennessy.

Hennessy lived just steps away from the old playhouse growing up, and the technical side of theatre became her lifeline.

From Grand Marais to New York City, to the Guthrie in Minneapolis, and back again - Hennessy keeps the show running.

“She’s just the heart and soul of the theater,” said longtime member, Sharon Eliasen, “With pandemic things it’s been tough, but she’s managed it.”

Hennessy said she will always love theatre.

“I can tell you all the good things it does for education and people in general, but I’ve also witnessed it in this community. I’ve witnessed what it does to the kids, how they grow in every aspect of their life. I’m passionate about what this community theatre gives to this community,” Hennessy said.

That power of partnership was echoed by Eliasen.

“We’re a hundred miles from Duluth, so you have to make your own amusements. But there are so many interesting, wonderful people here too. It wasn’t hard to get people involved, Eliasen said.

For Eliasen and her four - now-grown - children, working with the Grand Marais Playhouse is a family affair.

“It’s just been a regular thing in my life. I couldn’t do without it,” Eliasen said.

That’s why this 50th season of the Grand Marais Playhouse is a celebration of togetherness, with nostalgic plays and events planned all year long.

“Being where we get to gather again, it’s fun, and there’s excitement about being together in the theatre, being together on stage,” Hennessy said.

After 5 decades, the future of the Grand Marais Playhouse is bright, thanks to the dedicated northerners keeping it alive.

“We have a bubbling of talent that just comes here and lives here. It’s people who move here, people who were born here, it’s a mixture of it. We always have new people joining us as well as people who come back,” Hennessy said.

In honor of the anniversary, this summer’s musical at the Playhouse is Little Shop of Horrors, which was the first musical Sue directed in their new space in the year 2000.

The woman who played the lead then is reprising her role 22 years later. As for the other parts, auditions are in April. Anyone is welcome.

You can find more details about joining the Grand Marais Playhouse HERE.

2022 is a milestone year for several arts organizations in Grand Marais.

- The Art Colony is celebrating their 75th year.

- The North House Folk School is marking their 25th year.

- The Good Harbor Hill Players are marking their 25th year.

Sue tells us the groups are working together to have a big anniversary event this summer.

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