Spotlight on Jeanne Beechwood

interview

{Header image Jeanne Beechwood, courtesy the Martin City Melodrama’s GoFundMe Campaign page.}

Note: this article was previously published in the May 2009 issue of KC Stage Magazine (link no longer active). 

Writing up a history of Jeanne Beechwood is inevitably writing up a history of Martin City Melodrama & Vaudeville Company. A local gal (she graduated from Bishop Miege High School), it was her decision when she was 27 to rent an old church in Martin City to do vaudeville that has navigated her own career.

“My first professional acting gig finishing my master’s at UMKC was of all things a melodrama theatre in California called The Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville Company,” Beechwood says. “They’re exactly ten years older than we are. I remember I got there, and I just thought, ‘That just looks so fun.’ I didn’t realize what hard work it was.”

The start of Martin City Melodrama sounds like something out of vaudeville itself. After doing dinner theatre and working in the Alaska bush community teaching Eskimo and Athabaskan Indian kids how to do vaudeville, Beechwood came back home and, “I wanted a place to hang my hat. And I thought, ‘Well, I remember that melodrama thing was kind of fun.” Beechwood was able to get one year’s rent on her own.

“Well,” Beechwood says, “one year turned into 16 years there, and then we left there by choice. Some people think we left because we didn’t pay the rent. The rent was astronomical when we left, and we left because the foundation was a problem, there were termites, there was a broken water heater…. What started off as an old building when I was 27 was an even older building 16 years later.”

KC Stage May 2009 cover. Photo by Amanda Riley.

There was talk of utilizing tax credits to build at Martin City, and the organization even owned land for the potential for a new location, but the events of 9/11 changed everything. “We went in February, and they said, ‘Sorry, none of the tax credits are going to the sixth district at this time. They’re all going to either the Starlight area or downtown.’ Well, what are you supposed to say? ‘You promised?’ You just have to go, ‘Okay. What’s gonna happen?'” Beechwood kept Martin City Melodrama afloat by renting Rockhurst College and performing at the Farris Theatre in Richmond, Mo., but neither was a potential permanent home.

However, the day she got the bad news about the funding had some good news, too. Beechwood says, “That’s when I knew it was a God thing, a spiritual thing. The same day I got home from that meeting, Wade Williams, who has the Glenwood Movie Theatre, the Rio, and the Englewood in Independence called me.” Williams informed Beechwood that Metcalf South had plans to become an entertainment center. So, after a few calls, Martin City Melodrama had a new home.

“We’ve been here eight years now,” Beechwood says. “They’re very, very nice to us. And because we’re destination-oriented, we do get lots of people that come see us.”

Martin City attended the New York Fringe Festival. Photo courtesy Martin City Melodrama.

Martin City Melodrama is a true family-friendly organization. “We opened a children’s theatre here,” Beechwood says, “and I’m not sure it would’ve worked as well opening in Martin City, because we’re in the middle of Overland Park. I had people coming in who said, ‘Oh, when we were kids we had so much fun, and now we have small children.’ So, why not have the first theatre experience for a kiddo be a fun thing?

“We actually run sort of like three companies. We have our main stage family shows where we do shows in the evening, we have a children’s theatre, and we have touring shows. It’s all a legal way to make a buck in theatre, you know?”

The family atmosphere also comes from Beechwood’s involving of her own family in the company. Her husband, Dan Hall, writes many of the scripts. “So you can imagine the royalties are very cheap,” Beechwood jokes. “A plate of spaghetti will usually take care of it.” Their 10 year old daughter, Cassandra Beechwood-Hall, has been on stage and off and has helped behind the scenes. Beechwood’s mother does almost all of the costumes.

“We try and do G-rated family entertainment all the time,” Beechwood says. “It makes us be more clever, quite honestly. We can’t go for the cheap, risqué joke. We have to entertain ages 2 to 92 and make it entertaining for everybody in-between. And it really does take more creativity to do that.”

A picture of Jeanne in history. Photo courtesy Polly Seale’s Facebook page.

Beechwood is quite happy doing what she classifies as ‘entertainment theatre.’ “We were sort of feeling like we had this unique product, but like we didn’t belong in a way, because I think sometimes people judge entertainment theatre differently than serious theatre. Entertainment theatre is just as important,” Beechwood continues, “because honestly, if we get someone to come here and have a good time and then they decide to go to KC Rep or they want to give the Unicorn a try because they had a wonderful introduction, we feel that’s important. And I also felt it’s very important to be able to escape your troubles. Come in and have a good time, and as we continue to do historical entertainment: it does keep that alive.

“There’s a difference from what I would say is melodramer, which is almost a parody of melodrama,” Beechwood says. “Sometimes people think it’s all about tying a girl to a railroad track. But it’s not that. The city melodramas like ours: you have to do so much more than that to continue to attract customers. What we do when we do our melodrama is like the funny Cliff Notes version of what you had to study in school.”

Martin City’s current project, Vaudeville Vixens, is a bit of a departure from the company’s usual performances. “Obviously, this is not a melodrama,” Beechwood says with a laugh. Based on letters and other research the organization did about vaudevillians travelling the vaudeville circuit, Vaudeville Vixens is a play about these performers. “Just like regular folks like myself,” Beechwood continues. “Not like W.C. Fields or Sophie Tucker. The interesting thing as far as that: back in that time, that was one of the only career choices for women. It’s like – you cook, you clean, you had the kiddos … OR you could leave home and hop on the vaudeville circuit. And gosh, if you had a little bit of talent, that would even get you farther and you could have a career.”

The third act of Vaudeville Vixens revolves around the closing of the Palace Theatre as a vaudeville house. “They opened it as a movie house, so our third act is a silent film. Conveniently, all the vaudevillians are cast in the silent film.”

Courtesy The Official Martin City Melodrama & Vaudeville Co. Facebook page.

Beechwood is proud that Martin City is a non-equity company that pays its actors. “We give many actors their first job,” Beechwood says with a proud smile. “I mean, many of the equity actors that are working today get their start here. I love to use new actors: they don’t have any preconceived notions and they seem real open to learn.”

Rumors about another move, this time to Lee’s Summit, have cropped up about the organization. Beechwood is very open about the possibility. “We’ve been very happy [in Overland Park]. No one is quite sure what is going on with the mall. I think it’s easy to assume, ‘Oh, gosh, everything is on the downside.’ But on the other hand, this is our eighth year here. There are still things here. But everybody here has opened their eyes to sort of looking.

“Lee’s Summit’s been courting us for about a year. There is a building called Arnold Hall: it’s where Harry Truman first announced his candidacy, which makes it available for historic tax credits. They would like to potentially include us in a city-owned facility kind of like the Just Off Broadway theatre situation. They think we could do a lot for downtown Lee’s Summit. We think we could do a lot for downtown Lee’s Summit. And, you know, comedy comes in threes: so, it’s like Martin City to Metcalf South to Lee’s Summit. Or maybe we could be in both places. In the next few years, who knows? We just want to continue doing what we’re doing.”

Vaudeville Vixens runs to May 24, and Martin City Jr’s Children’s Theatre production, Tales With a Twist, runs to May 10. For more information, call 913-642-7576 or visit www.martincitymelodrama.org.