Some of the world’s most creative minds have joined the long-running list of speakers at this Woodstock Opera House event. Check out how these shows have inspired locals for decades.
Maya Angelou, Martha Stewart, Dr. Joyce Brothers – these are just some of the presenters who’ve been featured in Woodstock’s Creative Living Series, one of the longest-running lecture series in the country, and hosted at the Woodstock Opera House, 121 Van Buren St.
For a half-century, the series has welcomed entrepreneurs, social media gurus, photographers, chefs, authors, paleontologists, film critics, and TV and radio personalities. Past speakers include Gene Siskel, Bill Kurtis and Studs Terkel, to name a few.
Sponsored by the Woodstock Fine Arts Association (WFAA), the six-month series is held at 10 a.m. on the third Thursday of every month, starting in October. There is no event in December.
“The series is a result of a lot of hard work by extraordinary women leading ordinary lives,” says Kristine Hall, past president adviser. “And we’ve been fortunate to have a strong patron base that’s supported the series over many years.”
Helen Wright was WFAA president when she proposed the idea for the Creative Living Series. The first season, in 1964, included lectures on folk music, Japanese art, Montessori education, antiques and drama.
“Helen’s goal was to create a series that would both educate and entertain,” says Hall. “Her big push was to have a variety of lecturers. She wanted musicians, actresses and authors. The lecture series was a chance for women to get out of the house, learn about a topic and become involved in the community.”
Wright also hoped awareness would lead to renovations.
“There were holes in the roof, a lousy sound system, and the heating and cooling system was in bad shape,” says Hall. “Helen thought that if we had a lecture series during the day – because fewer women worked back then – we could build a network of support to save the Opera House.”
Built in 1890, the Opera House was designed and constructed by Elgin-based architect Smith Hoag for $25,000. It was built to house city government offices and an auditorium for community performances. Over the years, many well-known actors have performed on its stage. In 1934, Orson Welles, then a young student at Woodstock’s Todd School for Boys, starred in Shakespearean plays. During the 1940s and ‘50s, Geraldine Page, Shelley Berman, Tom Bosley, Betsy Palmer and Paul Newman also appeared in theater productions.
The Opera House, with its stained glass windows, tin ceilings and original woodwork, became a city landmark in 1972, and the Woodstock Opera House Community Center Inc. was created to raise funds for a renovation project. In 1975, the Opera House closed for renovations, so the Creative Living Series continued at a nearby movie theater and church.
Renovations continued over the next three decades. In 2003, a new annex, built onto an adjacent lot, added a freight elevator, additional backstage areas and offices. Today, the Opera House, which holds 400 people, is owned and maintained by the City of Woodstock and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“As restored buildings go, the Opera House is a wonderful space,” says Hall. “It’s a comfortable, intimate and absolutely beautiful venue with excellent sound, audio-visual equipment and technical support.”
The Creative Living Series committee includes six volunteers who are responsible for booking the presenters: Hall, Jodie Kurtz-Osborne, Marsha Portnoy, Paulette Gitlin, Mary Ellen Prindiville and Sharon Chewning. The volunteers have a wish list of potential high-profile speakers, but budget sometimes gets in the way.
“We’re fortunate that we’ve had speakers who realize what we do is important,” Hall says. “We’ve had speakers donate their honorarium back to us. Bill Kurtis insists we just make a donation to the charity of his choice. We’re very grateful for their support.”
This 52nd season started with an appearance by Rebecca Eaton, the executive producer of the “Masterpiece and Mystery!” PBS series. In November, food stylist and cookbook author Libbie Summers presented “A Food-Inspired Life.”
On Jan. 21, Candice Millard, a former writer and editor for National Geographic, will discuss “The Destiny of the Republic,” the account of James Garfield’s rise from poverty to American presidency. Paul Gehl, the curator at Chicago’s Newberry Library, will speak about the library’s rare book collection on Feb. 18.
Award-winning journalist Phil Ponce, host of the “Chicago Tonight” show on WTTW, will share his views of local, state and national news during his March 17 appearance. On April 21, Paddy Calistro, an award-winning fashion writer for the Los Angeles Times, closes the season with a discussion about “Edith Head’s Hollywood,” an autobiography of the designer for the stars.
“Our speakers are charismatic people who really connect with the audience,” says Hall. “We love speakers who have a great story to tell.”
Photographer Mark Hirsch shared his story last year. He lost his job as a newspaper photographer and editor in 2006. Five years later, while working as a freelancer, Hirsch was injured in a car crash. He struggled with physical and mental injuries.
Hirsch found hope and inspiration three months later while driving past a bur oak savanna and a towering 165-year-old tree that stood between two cornfields. He took a photo of the tree on his cellphone and shared it with family and friends. Soon, he created a Facebook page specifically for the tree, posting a new photo of the bur oak every day for a year and building up 42,000 likes. Hirsch even published a book called “That Tree.”
Hirsch’s presentation at the Opera House was well received. “It was one of the most rewarding presentations that I’ve done,” he says. “I was mildly intimidated, given the list of famous people that have presented in the past. But the staff and audience provided me with an amazing experience.”
The Creative Living Series was recently awarded a $10,000 grant by the National Endowment for the Arts. The WFAA has donated a new projector and screen to the opera house, and every year the organization awards the Helen Wright Fine Arts Scholarship to McHenry County high school seniors. “Supporting the arts is our top priority,” says Hall. “If you’re not supporting students, you’re not supporting the future.”
Hall remains in awe of Helen Wright and the hard work she put into making the Creative Living Series a success. Wright died in 1998, at the age of 92.
“She dreamed big and gathered a supportive board to make it happen,” Hall says. “Imagine convincing Beverly Sills or Martha Stewart or Maya Angelou to journey to Woodstock to speak at 10 a.m. on a Thursday. When I look back at the pictures of Helen Wright, elegantly dressed, her white hair perfectly coiffed, I wonder what she would think of the Fine Arts Board today. I think she would be pleased that her vision continues today.”
Season tickets are $98 and individual tickets are $24. They can be purchased at the Opera House box office or woodstockfineartsassocation.org.