Three decades ago, Memphis presented its first theater awards.
The men and women who jammed into the Old Daisy that June evening in 1984 were restless. Many glasses of wine tend to have that effect on people, and the various members of the Memphis theater community were rarely known for being anything less than boisterous at parties.
But they quieted down a bit when Barbara Cason stepped to the podium. Cason was the former Front Street Theatre actress who had found success in Hollywood playing bit parts in hit shows like The Waltons and Remington Steele, and she had come home to host a brand-new event in town. In the time-honored tradition of the Oscars, she opened an envelope to announce, "For best dramatic production, the winner is … Amadeus, at Theatre Memphis."
And so it went at the first Memphis Theatre Awards, an event sponsored by Memphis magazine that has honored the best and brightest in the local theater community for more than 30 years.
Memories are a bit foggy — did we mention all that wine? — but Kenneth Neill, now publisher and CEO of Contemporary Media, the company that produces the Flyer, Memphis magazine, Memphis Parent, and MBQ: Inside Memphis Business magazine recalls that the local theater community wasn't entirely happy with the coverage they were receiving from our city's two daily newspapers.
"Back in the 1980s, Robert Jennings was The Commercial Appeal theater critic, and over at the Press-Scimitar it was Edwin Howard, and they just didn't get along," Neill says. "It was Sally Thomason, president of the Memphis Arts Council, who mentioned to me one day that it would be nice if they would just cooperate and do something together."
One thing led to another, and Bob Towery and Neill, then publisher and editor of Memphis magazine, respectively, met with Thomason and came up with the idea of an annual competition.
"I think it was a good decision to get the Arts Council involved," Thomason says. "Ken wanted to give it a community base — something that would lend it a kind of legitimacy that would take it beyond just a magazine project. And I will say this: If it weren't for Memphis magazine, it would not have happened, and it wouldn't be here today." The first year wasn't easy.
"When we started talking about this, I'm not sure we really had any idea how to proceed," Thomason says. "We eventually came up with this idea to have a panel of judges, and it was delightful that everyone who got involved was very conscientious."
The judges for the first Theatre Awards included Walter Armstrong, Gene Crain, Amy Dietrich, Levi Frazier, Stephen Haley, Emily Ruch, C. Lamar Wallis, and Miriam DeCosta Willis.
"We looked for people who were involved in the theater, so they would have some kind of deep knowledge of what they were watching," Thomason says. "And getting attorney Walter Armstrong was our key, because he seemed to go to everything. I remember he said, 'I'm tired of raising money for the arts, but this is something I can really put my heart into.'"
Ruch had been involved with the local theater community since 1954, performing on stage and serving on the play selection committee for the old Memphis Little Theatre. She took her judging responsibilities quite seriously.
"I wouldn't even have a glass of wine before I went to a play," she says, "and I would take notes in my program and go home and write up what I thought, right away, while it was still fresh."
Ruch adds that the various judges weren't even supposed to talk to each other during the year.
"We could not go to a play together, because we didn't want to be influenced by the other person," she says. The judges met at Armstrong's house at the end of the season to select the winners.
"We met all day and all night," says Ruch, "and we really followed the rules. We were very honest about it. We wanted to acknowledge all theaters, but we didn't give an award to a theater just because they hadn't gotten one."
The winners that first year included:
• Best dramatic production:
Amadeus, Theatre Memphis
• Best performance by an actor:
Jay Ehrlicher, Amadeus
• Best performance by an actress:
Pamela Poletti, The Miracle Worker, (Circuit Playhouse)
Playhouse on the Square
• Best musical production:
Handy, Theatre Memphis' Little Theatre
• Best set design:
The Dresser, Circuit Playhouse.
A special award for "service to Memphis theater that spans generations" went to Eugart Yerian, director of the Memphis Little Theatre from 1929 to 1961. (The following year, the award itself was named the Eugart Yerian Award.)
"We won quite a few awards that evening," says Jackie Nichols, executive producer of Playhouse on the Square and Circuit Playhouse. "It was kind of small that year, and after the first glass of wine, or two, you don't remember much about it. But it was Memphis magazine's way of honoring the theatrical tradition that has always been so awesome in Memphis. And I don't want to speak for him, but I guess it was Ken's way of wanting to give something back to the community, and the art form he chose to honor was theater."
The theater awards grew and prospered, especially when Janie McCrary, who was then working at the Arts Council, took over the judging.
"Memphis magazine would produce the event, and the Arts Council would get the judges together," McCrary says. "At first it was, let's just see what we can do here. But then we came up with more rules, more criteria, and after the first few years it became a bit more structured." The awards themselves are now called the Ostranders, named in honor of Jim Ostrander, one of the city's most popular actors, who died of cancer in 2002.
Ruch, who served as a judge for the first three years, remembers her colleagues felt a keen responsibility to do it right back in 1984.
"We were very aware that we were the first," she says. "And we were very aware that we were doing something that would be deliberately continued or deliberately not continued, so I don't think I've ever seen such dedicated people." That dedication has clearly paid off.
Looking back to that first competition, Ruch remembers, "We took ourselves very seriously, but it was fun, fun, fun."
When: Sunday, August 24th
Time: 6 p.m.
Where: The Orpheum Theatre