The past year has been a long road for Capital City Productions.
In summer 2018, the theater group discovered the place it had called home for more than 10 years, Shikles Auditorium, would be sold. The announcement set off a flurry of activity for Rob Crouse, who founded what was then known as the Capital City Players in 1991.
"One day, all of a sudden, this strange man walks in the door when we're all in there," Crouse said, recalling the day they found about the sale.
The strange man was there to assess the building, and as Crouse began looking for more information, he bumped into a Housing Authority employee who also volunteered at CCP, who told him about the plan to sell.
"That's how we first found out that we were potentially, possibly going to be out of the building," Crouse said.
Now, after months of worry and work, Crouse is filled with excitement at the future of CCP. It's evident as he takes people through artist renderings of what their new renovated home at 719 Wicker Lane will look like, all of which are placed in the lobby of the facility.
In early December, CCP announced its move to the building owned by Harold G. Butzer, located behind IHOP on Missouri Boulevard. The 15,500-square-foot facility triples the space available to CCP, Crouse said, allowing for a larger stage, more audience space, expanded bathrooms, dressing rooms, a shop, buffet room and kitchen.
"We'll seat twice as many, 288," he said as he looked over the diagram of the new auditorium. In addition to the normal tables of eight, that will now feature 5 feet of space between them, there will be 16 two-person tables.
The larger stage will also include wings, something Crouse is particularly excited about. The stage area at Shikles was cramped, and when changing sets, they would have to load a pickup truck with the needed items and have it backed up to a ramp to take on stage quickly and remove other items when the time came. With wings, all of that can be kept organized and ready to move on stage, he said.
"It will be a huge improvement," Crouse said.
'Just an idea'
Once Crouse found out about the Jefferson City Housing Authority's plan to sell Shikles, the group put in a proposal of their own to purchase it.
That didn't work, and in August, the Housing Authority announced it would sell it to Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri, the social outreach arm of the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City, with plans to close on the property after CCP's lease expired Dec. 31.
Closing the door on Shikles, where CCP had been since 2007, was difficult for Crouse.
"When I had to go over there to turn in keys, it was a sad moment for me," he said. "We had put so much love and hard work and everything into the building and never thought that we would have to leave."
Starting this new chapter for CCP has left him stunned, Crouse said. When he started the Capital City Players in 1991, it was nothing more than a thought and a love for dinner theater. Crouse approached the management of the old Ramada Inn, where the Holiday Inn is now, who agreed to give the space for the new group to perform.
"We started out, we had no money and just an idea," he said. "We have literally come from nothing."
Rehearsals were held in an old funeral home without heat, as Ramada couldn't spare the space for rehearsals. Crouse recalled December rehearsals with the entire cast bundled in coats. During heavy rain, he said, the water would collect in the ceiling, causing tiles to fall to the floor throughout rehearsal.
Even with all the hardships, the group put on performances audiences loved. Crouse said they would quickly sell out and try to add more nights, often doubling the initial amount of performances a show was supposed to have. Seeing the success, Ramada management purchased a stage, which CCP paid for over time, to replace the one the group had built themselves, Crouse said, and gave the group a space for rehearsal.
But still, they could only do one to three shows each year, as Ramada couldn't spare the space more than that.
Then one night, Crouse said he was having dinner at Tonanzios, a restaurant in Guthrie, when he noticed the small stage in the large room and thought it might be a nice spot for a show. He spoke to the owner, and they planned two summer shows there that wound up attracting a large audience.
"It was the most fun show there," he said. "That was really when I got the idea that we could get our own space, and we could do something. It was just coming up with the money."
Crouse said when he first looked at Shikles, he didn't think it could work.
"We had tried with other theater groups to have rehearsals there, and it was just a big echo chamber," Crouse said. "The actors had trouble hearing each other."
But a sound technician who visited the space told him it could be improved using carpeting on the floor and a treatment on the walls, which led him to believe it could be done.
At first, he thought raising the needed money wouldn't be that difficult. Crouse said he figured he could get six sponsors at $10,000 each to cover the costs of equipment and tables, etc. In exchange, the sponsors would get season tickets for five years.
"I learned so much out of that experience," he said. "I thought that was a good plan. Evidently, it wasn't."
Crouse said Central Bank gave them $10,000 and another local business took up a sponsorship through in-kind donations of carpeting and light fixture work.
But he was still $40,000 short of the initial goal. That's when Crouse took a second mortgage out on his home to cover the difference.
After a while, Crouse's health began to decline, and the rest of CCP had noticed.
Then, Nate Grey-Hurley, now president of CCP, and several others stepped up and told Crouse they would take on the financial aspects of the group so he could improve and focus on shows.
"He has transformed (CCP)," Crouse said of Grey-Hurley.
'An open canvas'
Throughout CCP's early days, Crouse said he and the other core group did everything, from mopping floors to paying bills. Luckily, the group now has a dedicated volunteer base that has stepped up throughout the move, something Crouse credits back to Grey-Hurley.
"You cannot do this alone. Community theater is about a group," Grey-Hurley said, noting CCP has received more than 36,000 volunteer hours from the community. "The goal is to work forward."
Over the years at Shikles, CCP had invested ten of thousands of dollars, Crouse has said, including upgrading electrical, fixing uneven sidewalks and installing hardwood floors and carpeting on the main level.
Now, the dedicated volunteers of CCP are back at work on a far more expedited timeline.
"We're back in the situation we were when we started at Shikles, except that we have to have a lot more money in order to make this happen," Crouse said. "The advantage over the years, in the 29 years that we've been in business, with every venue we've been in, we've learned a lot."
That goes back to CCP's starting days at the old Ramada. Crouse recalled how they had to build their own stage to use after the ownership agreed to let the Capital City Players stage shows there.
"We built it too low, and people in the back had to stand up during the show," Crouse said. "That was basic lesson No. 1."
Crouse said all those lessons helped as they searched for a new home throughout the last year. Spaces were large enough but had ceilings that were too low or poles placed in ways that would block the audience during the show. Some had parking issues that would cause problems.
Then the Wicker Lane location became known.
"It's basically an open canvas," Crouse said.
On Tuesday afternoon, the scent of fresh paint lingered in what will become the auditorium as a couple of volunteers worked on what will be the new stage, cutting and drilling wood pieces into place. The room is filled with the remnants of CCP's presence at Shikles — the existing tables and chairs piled together, and even the carriage from last year's production of "Cinderella," something CCP can now keep and store using the new, larger space, and has already rented out to six groups for this year.
CCP moved into their new home less than two weeks ago, but they're working every day to get as much accomplished as quickly as possible.
"We're trying to get everything done that we don't need a permit for," Grey-Hurley said.
Grey-Hurley said they are trying to get things done in phases, with the most immediate needs — what's needed to be done in order to put on the first show — going into phase I. That would include carpeting, the expanded bathrooms and the start of the kitchen. Once that's complete, they will move onto the side areas, which will house dressing rooms, the shop, studio space and storage. Some of those areas are not yet cleaned out by the owner and are missing insulation.
Around May is when he anticipates getting into phase III, which would be updating the HVAC system. After that, the focus will be back to maintaining the facility and growing the group.
Right now, CCP is trying to raise $150,000-$175,000 to help cover the costs of renovating their new home. Jackie Wood, fundraising committee chair, said they've raised about $20,000, largely through donations provided during CCP's last show at Shikles during December, as well as some activities from the summer.
"The crucial thing is the fundraising," Crouse said. "We've got to get the community out there helping us raise the money we need to do this."
In a Facebook post on the Capital City Productions page, the nonprofit organization stated 100 percent of all donations will go toward the building/renovation fund. CCP held a small fundraiser Thursday at Central Bank, with another fundraising event set for today at the private home of two season ticket holders.
"We still have a long way to go," Crouse said.
'A true community theater'
Crouse said they hope to stage the upcoming production of "I Do! I Do!" at the Wicker Lane facility, though he acknowledged much of the building likely won't be finished by the time the play opens Jan. 23. So, they're working on several contingency plans, just in case, he said.
The late January show is part of new programming announced at the same time as the move to Wicker Lane. This will be the first of six shows that make up the new Spotz On the Artist series, which brings Central Missouri professional entertainers and smaller musicals and plays to Jefferson City.
The additional shows also will help CCP cover the more expensive rent that comes with the larger building, Grey-Hurley said.
Even if they can't stage "I Do! I Do!" there, the facility will need to be ready by Feb. 13 — the opening day of "The Bodyguard: The Musical," the first show of the official 2020 season for CCP.
Along with the new Spotz On the Artist series, CCP plans to introduce several new aspects to its programming at Wicker Lane.
With the expanded space comes the ability to include a shop, makeup and wig studio, all of which will be used for more than simply assisting with productions.
"We've always had to just get rid of stuff because we had no place to store it," Crouse said. "We'll be able to rent these things out to other people."
Grey-Hurley said CCP offers several free classes, including tap, theater dance and, soon, hip hop, as well as tech classes on the backstage elements. But the new space will enable CCP to offer sewing, makeup and wig-making classes, all of which Grey-Hurley hopes to make free of cost.
"Everything we do, we fund through our tickets," he said. "Everything we make goes right back into the community."
Another new addition will be a year-round children's program run by two CCP members called Theo's Thespians.
"The way theater grows is that children learn early the passion for theater," Crouse said. "Young people need to get the training and need to get used to the spotlight so they can come in and be the next generation of entertainers. For me, to walk out there and see what can possibly happen when this is done, words just can't express."
Next year, Grey-Hurley hopes to start a new CCP tradition — the Spotz Awards, which he likened to a mini-Tony Awards that will seek to recognize the local talent in Jefferson City with a fun, red carpet event.
Grey-Hurley said his goal is to see CCP at the Wicker Lane location for the next 10 years (the existing lease is for five years, with five one-year options for renewal). Then, he'd like to see CCP build a community theater of its own that can be used by all.
"We'll have a true community theater for the community," he said.
Crouse said he believes CCP can be a tourist attraction, noting they have season ticket holders from outside of the Jefferson City area who come in for a weekend when they see a show. With the Wicker Lane chapter beginning, Crouse and Grey-Hurley said they see nothing but growth in CCP's future.
"I don't know that some people realize what a rarity this is," Crouse said. "There's only a couple full-time dinner theaters in the state of Missouri."