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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

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.