Twenty-five successful years of anything — a marriage, a job, a hobby — is a great thing to celebrate, especially considering everything seems to demand our immediate attention and instant satisfaction.
In 1990, the same year that demolition began of the Berlin Wall and George H.W. Bush was Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year,” a small group of local actors and directors came together to create the North Riverside Recreation Community Theater.
The group now known as the North Riverside Players is getting ready to celebrate countless memories of entertainment and friendship as they host their 25th anniversary party on Saturday, Oct. 24 at the North Riverside Village Commons, the home for all productions since the beginning.
Al Meyer, president of the North Riverside Players Board of Directors, has been with the group since its inception and is excited to host the event with the hundreds of theater alumni from over the years.
“We do one thing that a lot of other community theaters don’t do; we treat everyone as a member of the family,” Meyer said. “We really try to build a spirit among the people that work with us. These are great, talented people and they’re having fun and they’re working with each other and it’s a real community thing.”
Passion for the community has always been the main focus of the group. John Strelecky, a former Westchester resident and dentist in North Riverside, founded the North Riverside Players with his wife, Kathy, during a time in which the popular theater performances at Mater Christi Church were on hiatus after the church’s music director moved away.
At the time, Meyer, who had performed with the Streleckys at Mater Christi, was a member of the village’s Plan Commission. Meyer was joined on the commission by Sam Buonomo and Tom Rusnak, who taught high school theater at Argo and Morton high schools, respectively.
It was the three of them who worked with architects on the design of the Village Commons and insisted the gymnasium include a platform that could be used as a stage for theater productions.
“At the time, Penny Devin was the first recreation director and she was trying to get this [recreation] program off the ground and populated,” Meyer said. “She was very welcoming to John and Kathy when they came with their ideas.”
With the new village complex completed and the Streleckys and Meyer’s group collaborating, the North Riverside Recreation Community Theater began. The group’s inaugural performance was Damn Yankees back in 1991. Fifty productions later, the group has hosted its share of musicals, comedies and dramas for audiences from in and around North Riverside.
The Chicago theater scene has grown immensely since the early 1990s, but Meyer says audiences continue to return to see productions hosted by the Players because of the strong acting and high-quality production values, including state-of-the art lighting and sound the group has been able to incorporate through both fundraising efforts and grants from both the village and state.
“We have been on a trajectory for years now for better and better performances,” Meyer said. “Today, I would put us up against any community theater in Chicago.”
Meyer says that finding talent for both on and off stage has never been a problem for the group, with people coming not just locally but from as far away as Aurora, Evanston and even northwest Indiana.
Meyer estimates that the North Riverside Players has more than 1,000 alumni, including all the actors, producers, directors and musicians through the years.
Despite the Streleckys retiring and moving out of state several years ago, not much else has changed with the group. Eight years ago, the group was rebranded as the North Riverside Players to give it a shorter, catchier name.
Otherwise, many original actors and producers, including Buonomo and Rusnak, continue to work with the group today.
For the reunion party, Meyer says the group is planning an evening of hors d’oeuvres and videos of the many productions that have taken place over the past 25 years. The Streleckys will be coming back to town to celebrate, and actors are being asked to perform a snippet of a favorite performance alongside a pianist.
“Our goal is to do [performances] in 10 to 15 minute increments, have people mingle and go back and forth to march through the history and meet each other again,” Meyer said.
Overall, Meyer says his favorite memory of the troupe is the fact that while locally based, the group never ceases to put on a top-notch production.
“What attracts me to the Players it that you can take a bunch of amateurs of varying capabilities and, over a 10-week rehearsal period, you actually put on a darn good show,” he said. “The fun part for me is to see the talent that literally comes out of the woodwork.”