By: Annette Kamps
The empty stage and gymnasium at the former St. Patrick/St. Katharine Elementary Catholic school resonate with the thousands of voices that celebrated its church and school community there for 50 years. With its recent purchase of the building at 117 West Maple Avenue, the Beaver Dam Area Community Theatre envisions a reawakening of those community-spirited sounds when it converts the school into an exceptional theater venue.
As they anticipate this school-to-theater conversion, past students, staff, parents and parishioners fondly remember how they filled that stage and gymnasium with sounds of love, laughter, faith and industry. A few weeks ago, former student Tim Meyer connected with some of his Facebook friends. Good friends chatting … remembering happy times in that old building: “Good things went on there, and even after all this time and distance, we are connected by that place.”
Margaret Bennett, the school’s gym teacher for several decades, taught Jim McMillan and his classmates the schottische at the age when boys weren’t very comfortable dancing with girls. Other gym activities included boxing lessons taught by Father Livingston, and basketball coached by John Keil. As a very young student in the ‘50s, Carol Beule danced on the school stage to Tiptoe Through the Tulips in a Wahlen Studio dance program. In the ‘70s, Maureen Kamps Noe remembers the stage as a place for band rehearsals, cheerleading with her friends and Christmas pageants directed by the principal, Sister Henry. “There were probably 75 “Marys” who walked that stage throughout the years. I was one of them!” For Renee Wahlen Tillema, the gym holds many happy memories “…such as Girl Scout bridging ceremonies and the nervous excitement of singing in front of a full house. The stage area was always so fascinating for me.” Tim Meyer remembers the Family Circus: “It was in the gym and the stage was a huge cardboard maze which ended with a slide down a big blue mat onto the floor. Really, most days I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, but I remember that slide in that cardboard maze.” Using the stage for multiple purposes created some space challenges for religious education teacher Margaret Sadoski. She stored her supplies nearby, in preparation for her class lessons and prayers on the stage every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning.
In that same gym, parents sold concessions at games, led scout troops, and ran rummage sales and newspaper drives. The Home and School Association was the primary source of income for the school, and for years, Rita and Jim Sheskey, like many other parents, made the school their second home. Rita recalls, “When the gym needed painting, we had to raise funds for the paint, and then we volunteers did the work; and Jim made the bird houses and squirrel feeders that we sold at the bazaar.”
Memories of food are another part of the nostalgia. Jim McMillan, appreciated by the cooks as a good eater, loved the cherry cobbler, while Tim Meyer remembers Mrs. Kulka’s homemade bread. With the gym doubling as the school cafeteria, Tim “can only imagine how many times our custodian Mr. Mersch had to set up and take down tables.” The tables also went up and down for the Home and School Association’s chili and spaghetti suppers, church breakfasts, the Christian Women’s Christmas bazaars and the weekly bingo games. All the events involved the children. Maureen Noe recalls helping run the industrial dishwasher and enjoying bingo. “We’d just run around while the parents played and ran it; and we loved the bazaar gumdrop tree and the cakewalk!”
Jim McMillan is a veteran member of the community theater whose lifelong theater interest was probably instigated by an innovative teacher at the Catholic grade school, Mrs. Leonard, when she directed the St. Patrick’s students in a play inspired by the TV show Laugh-In. He looks forward to performing on his grade school stage again when it is enlarged and improved with all the technical advantages and an orchestra pit below. When he looks out at the audience, he will remember Joe Hankes’ model airplanes in the school library, before its transformation. When he walks into the new main entrance on the west side, he will remember tackle football on the parking lot/playground, and when he sees a Tell-A-Tale Children’s Theatre play or dinner theater show or comedy act in the flexible studio theater on the third floor, he will recall his grade school music room where he and his classmates sang along with the radio program Let’s Sing.
Mixed in with her happy memories of teaching over 500 children during her 26 years at St. Patrick’s, BDACT Board Member and Tell-A-Tale Coordinator Judy Pearce recalls that the TAT show Little Chimney Sweep was performed on the school stage in the mid-‘80s. “Soon the building will once again be used by children and adults alike to bring enjoyment to Beaver Dam residents and other area communities.”
Renee Tillema connects her early fascination with the stage with what she predicts will be its “new life.” “I’m so very happy that laughter, clapping and cheers will once again reverberate off those old block walls as St. Patrick’s School transitions into its new life with the Beaver Dam Area Community Theater. There are still many more stories waiting in the wings to be told.”
BDACT is on the threshold of those new, exciting stories with projected plans for an excellent stage, main auditorium, large lobby spaces and meeting rooms. There will be opportunities for tour shows, dance and music rehearsals, theater classes, Tell-A-Tale and STAGE II shows, kitchen catering, concessions, exhibit areas, business conferences, community events, family celebrations and more for Beaver Dam and its surrounding communities. This vision depends on the support of all who will benefit from its entertainment, its educational opportunities, and its community significance.
BDACT is currently at the $1.25 million mark in its quest for the projected $2.4 million cost. Contributors should send their pledges or donations to BDACT BUILDING CAMPAIGN, P. O. Box 216, Beaver Dam WI, 53916. For tours of the school building with detailed information about the projected plans, call Building Committee Chair Scott Eberle at 920-210-0333.