Eastpointe, Grosse PointesJuly 31, 2013
The curtain closes on Broadway
By K. Michelle Moran
C & G Staff Writer
EASTPOINTE — Tucked inside a nondescript strip mall on Kelly Road, at Toepfer, next to a computer repair shop, it might be easy to miss Broadway Onstage Theatre, even with the gorilla dummy — a prop from one of the productions — inside the tiny front lobby.
But the 72-seat independent theater — which is in the midst of its 20th season — has made for must-see viewing for live theater fans on the east side and elsewhere, and they managed to find it even before car navigation systems became a hot commodity. Sadly for audiences and actors, they’ll soon be missing Broadway Onstage for real: Founder and producer Dennis Wickline announced that this will be the theater’s final season.
After 20 years in Eastpointe, and more than 30 as an independent theater producer, actor, writer and director, Wickline, 62, has decided it’s time to retire. Although he’ll still likely stay involved with theater on some level, such as the Grosse Pointe Theatre productions he’s also done for years, Wickline said he wants to pursue other interests and spend more time with his wife, actress Olivia Wickline, and their two adult children: son Denny Jr., 32, a chemist in California, and daughter Lauren, 30, who works locally for a freight billing company.
Broadway Onstage’s nearly year-round schedule — with productions running from July to May each season, followed almost immediately by auditions for the following season — have left him little time for anything else. Wickline also just retired as a team leader in the audiovisual department at Blue Cross Blue Shield, where he worked for nearly 38 years.
“It’s been a real labor of love,” Wickline said of his theater days. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But now, I’d like to do other things. I’d like to travel with my wife. I’d like to not staple black (theater) curtain because if I don’t do it, it won’t get done.”
It’s news Broadway Onstage performers have greeted with sadness. Wickline has given many of them opportunities to not only perform and perfect their craft onstage, but he’s also supported local playwrights by mounting their scripts, even if they weren’t already published. Playwright and actor John Arden McClure, of Roseville, adapted two old novels, “Trent’s Last Case” and “The Problem of Cell 13,” into shows for the theater, and said Wickline’s encouragement gave him the confidence to explore writing for the stage.
“I think I actually tried to talk him out of it,” McClure said of Wickline’s decision to retire and shutter the theater.
McClure also said working at Broadway Onstage has made him “a better actor,” in no small measure due to observing Wickline at work.
“He is an absolutely brilliant actor and a great playwright, as well,” McClure said. “He is really good at attracting and finding the right talent for the roles. … He always seems to manage to put together a really good cast and a really good show.”
Actress Stella Rothe, of Sterling Heights, is 26 now, but she first met Wickline when she was 8 and she auditioned for “The Sound of Music.” She played Louisa in that production — “It was the first play I was ever in,” she said — and they’ve worked together on and off ever since. Broadway Onstage “played a huge part” in her path to a professional acting career, Rothe said. She’s in the opening production this year, “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress,” which runs through Aug. 17.
“He’s been a huge part of my life,” Rothe said of Wickline. “The way he directs plays has really helped me. … He is just a very generous person, and he gives people opportunities. He’s given me some of the best opportunities I’ve ever had in theater.”
Elizabeth Anne Rager, of Hazel Park, another actress in “Five Women,” echoed those sentiments. She auditioned for her first Broadway Onstage show in May 2006 and has performed and stage-managed for many shows since. Although she didn’t get the first two roles she tried out for, Rager said the first role she landed — in the 2007 show “Something to Hide” — changed her life.
“Once I did that play, I fell in love with this theater, the people and the audience regulars,” she said in an email interview. “The theater, Dennis and the many actors who have performed here are like family.”
Wickline lives in St. Clair Shores now, but he grew up in Grosse Pointe Woods. He’s been doing theater since he was 10 years old and a student at what was then Barnes Elementary School, where he made his debut playing the father in “Hansel and Gretel” opposite Ellen Cooper as Gretel — an actress he’s worked with since, including a 2001 production of “Oliver.” He also performed as part of Grosse Pointe Children’s Theatre.
“I was always dressing up and bouncing on my grandmother’s mattress, pretending I was someone else,” Wickline recalled of his imaginative childhood.
Wickline graduated in 1973 from Michigan State University after majoring in television and radio.
A love of theater is something he shares with his wife, and it’s what brought them together. He met Olivia backstage on the closing night of Grosse Pointe Theatre’s 1975 production of “Carousel,” and the two danced at the cast party afterward. The following year, he said, they got married. They’ve spent time together onstage and backstage in countless productions since, and Olivia Wickline will be back at Broadway Onstage performing opposite Grosse Pointe Farms actress Donna DiSante in “The Kitchen Witches.”
Their kids were involved in theater, as well. Wickline said his son performed in a couple of shows, while his daughter focused on stage-managing and technical work. It’s no surprise, since both Wickline children spent time at the theaters where their father worked.
“The kids came with me a lot,” he said. “If my wife had something to do, the kids came with me (to the theater). If we were doing a dinner show, we’d have dinner and watch the show.”
Under his Dennis Wickline Productions moniker, Wickline began doing dinner theater at the now-defunct Stouffer’s restaurant at Eastland Mall in Harper Woods in 1980. When Stouffer’s closed, Wickline took his shows to the Golden Lion restaurant on Moross, near Mack, in Detroit, where he staged shows until 1993; like Stouffer’s, the Golden Lion is but a distant memory, with a Walgreen’s pharmacy now occupying that site.
“There’s still some season-ticket holders here that were season-ticket holders at the Golden Lion,” Wickline said. “We’ve had a pretty good following here. I’ve met some very nice people who like what we do. That’s (been) a reward.”
Rager said Wickline has provided “a venue where actors can ply their trade locally … and get paid for it” — something significant for those who want to stay here.
“He has left a legacy,” she said. “He is dedicated and talented, as well as caring, fair and encouraging. In fact, many of his theater friends call him ‘Uncle Dennis.’”
It was after the run at the Golden Lion that Wickline decided to launch his own venue, with Broadway Onstage opening its doors in June 1994. When he initially opened, Wickline said the theater was called Broadway Video Stage — a nod to the Tee VeeStage Presentation Wickline created to give every audience member a close-up view of the action using video cameras and television screens lined up at the top of the stage. It turns out Broadway Video Stage wasn’t the best name for a live theater venue.
“Everybody thought we were a video store,” Wickline said. And so, during that inaugural season, the theater was quickly renamed Broadway Onstage.
Twenty years ago, Wickline and two friends “gutted the place” to create Broadway Onstage inside what had been a shuttered photo lab.
“I went through two Dumpsters real fast,” Wickline said with a laugh.
Since then, the construction process has been directed toward sets and props.
“I made bridesmaid bouquets for the first time a couple of weeks ago,” Wickline said recently while discussing preparations for “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress.”
There are also other less glamorous elements to running a theater — everything from selling tickets to sweeping the floors and taking out the trash, all of which Wickline has done tirelessly for the last two decades.
From Shakespeare and classics like “The Glass Menagerie,” to musicals and madcap comedies, Broadway Onstage has always had an eclectic mix. Two of the shows this season — the Alan Ball comedy “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress” and the Tom Dulack mobster comedy “Breaking Legs,” which closes the season with a run April 11 to May 10, 2014 — were the most popular shows in Broadway Onstage’s history, which is why Wickline decided to include them.
“I can’t think of anyone (else) who’s done such a variety,” Rothe said. “I think he’s really enriched the community.”
Rager said Wickline has provided “quality theater for theater patrons to come see a variety of shows and have fun. … We have even done some audience participation plays.”
“Five Women” is followed by the Caroline Smith comedy “The Kitchen Witches,” about a pair of rival cable-access cooking show hostesses who get partnered on the same show; this show runs Sept. 13 until Oct. 12. A new version of the classic Sherlock Holmes mystery, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” will be staged Oct. 25 through Nov. 23. The holiday-themed “Christmas Belles” runs Dec. 6-21. Shows in 2014 include “You Just Have No Idea” Jan. 10 to Feb. 8, and Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” starring Wickline and Rick Mason, Feb. 21-March 22.
“I do what I like,” Wickline said of his production choices over the years. “Fortunately for me, the audiences that come here seem to like it, too.”
Broadway Onstage Theatre is located at 21517 Kelly in Eastpointe. Productions are staged Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with select Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for opening night, $18 for other performances. Advance ticket purchases are strongly recommended. For tickets or more information, call (586) 771-6333, visit www.broadwayonstage.com or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.