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Footlighters Spotlighted by 50th Anniversary Gala

by Christopher Hand, Special to The Inquirer (1988)

Few South Jersey theatrical groups can
claim the longevity of the Burlington County Footlighters. The group this
year celebrates a half-century in show business.  ‘And though
they have shuffled from town to town during their long run, the Footlighters
still are going strong, with more than 100 active members and three new
plays in the works.

To what do they attribute their success? “We
hope that we are better at plays because we have been at them longer,” said
Ruth lversen, a onetime president and 25-year Footllighter. “We
like to think that we are a little more polished.  “As part of
the celebration, scenes from the Footlighters’ first production, Tovarich,
a story of a royal couple who become down on their luck and are forced
to work as servants, will be performed at the group’s 50th Anniversary
Champagne Gala on Sept. 19.

Ruth Strahan,- who founded the group in 1938,
will travel from California for the event, which will include excerpts
from the 14 most popular of the 144 plays the group has performed. Productions
of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, Equus and Lunch
Hour
are
planned for this year. All three will be performed at the Playhouse,
the former Phillips School on Pomona Road in – Cinnaminson, which the
group leases from the Cinnaminson Board of Education.
The Playhouse is the latest in a series of addresses the Footlighters
have held. They have performed at a barn in Delran, various school auditoriums
and a theater in downtown Moorestown.


Ruth Strahan, Footlighters Founder

Originally called the Footlighter
Players of Palmyra and Riverton, the vagabond group decided during
the early 1960s that it had better alter its name to accommodate
its mobility, Iversen said. “We added the Burlington County
to our name because we realized that, we’d cover all of Burlington
County,” she said.The group was founded by 39 charter members. One
of those original members, Al Parker, of Camden, a Willingboro teacher,
still performs with the group, Iversen said. Strahan, the founder,
was a teacher of expression and dramatic arts in Philadelphia. The
group’s first performance was held at Palmyra High School.  The
group performed only one play in Palmyra, according to Iversen. It
moved to a school in Riverton where it performed until it started
losing members because of World War II.

“Because the men were at war, we disbanded between
1943 and 1946,” she said. The group organized again in 1947 at the
Riverton School.

The group was forced to move again in 1963, this time
to the Barn Arts Cultural Center in Delran. This change put the group into
one of its two golden ages and membership swelled from about 50 to 400,
she said.  “The Barn Arts Cultural Center in Delran was a barn
used for jazz concerts and Shakespearean plays during the summer,” she
said. “They wanted someone to be in the barn in the winter. We couldn’t
heat the whole barn so we used a small alcove that contained 134 elevated
seats. The stage was built on sawhorses so it could be taken down in the
summer.

“The
new location allowed the Footlighters more freedom in the material they
chose than when they were based in schools, she said. “While we were
in schools we had to be careful on what we had in the plays in terms of
language and themes,”
she said. “The first play we did at the barn was Private Lives.
The atmosphere was very picturesque and intimate. It was a small type of
place.


“The move to the Barn Arts Cultural Center in
Delran allowed the Footlighters more freedom in the material they chose than
when they were based in schools.”


It was while the group was at the barn that its most successful alumna, Judith Light,
who co-stars on the ABC television series Who’s the Boss?,
was a member, she said. “She started her theater career with our group when she was a student at St.
Mary’s Hall in Burlington while Ruth Strahan was the drama coach there,” Iversen
said.

In the early 1970s, the barn changed hands and the group
moved again. “We
had some difficulties and gypsied around for a year and ended up in the
Moorestown Theater on East Main Street,” she said. This was another
golden age in the group’s history as membership grew from 275 to 600, she
said. “It was a theater,
built in 1925, located in a downtown area and people liked that,” she
said. The owner of the theater, however, feared that he might be liable
if a fire occurred and the group moved to the Moorestown Middle School.

They stayed there until 1983, when they moved to the
Phillips School. Today, the group has between 100 and 115 members, she
said. One person travels from Williamstown to be a part of the group. The
membership has changed a lot over the years, Iversen said. “People
don’t
have as much time to give,” she said. “They have time to be in
the play but not for all the nitty-gritty stuff, the cleaning, manning
the telephones. The wife who was always available to sew costumes is working
now. The husband has more things to do with the family. We aren’t
getting as many hours from people but the hours we are getting are quality
hours.

But the audience is still there. “We advertise,
and, in general, our audience is all over,” she said. “We find
that middle-aged people love to go to plays but can’t spend the $40
or $45 dollars it costs to see one in Philadelphia or New York. If we can
put on a quality play, the people are willing to come.