Volume One Special Coverage: Pulling Together While Staying Apart

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The Green Ram Theater

Wil Denson

The Green Ram Theater was positioned on the northeast corner of U.S. Highway 12 and Lake Delton Township’s Moon Road.  Located more-or-less equidistant between Wisconsin Dells, eight miles to the north, and Baraboo to the south, the area was largely rural in 1957, but additional tourist growth loomed on the horizon.

In 1957 Baraboo had been an established circus town and tourist destination for more than fifty years. The county seat of Sauk County, Baraboo had been a political and trade center since the turn of the century. Devils Lake, less than a mile to the south, added a scenic element to the area. Tourists, vacationers, and county residents alike were drawn to the small south-central Wisconsin city both for recreation and business.

Similarly, eight miles to the north, Wisconsin Dells, with its river-carved sandstone cliff formations and rushing Wisconsin River, had been a picturesque tourist attraction for as far back as the 1800s. By road and rail, Wisconsin and Illinois vacationers had journeyed to the Dells area each summer to enjoy its beauty for nearly a century.

The Ram’s location then, appeared an obvious site on which to locate what was hoped to become a thriving summer theater. Essentially pastoral when the Theater first opened, there were already clear signs of additional tourist and commercial development on the horizon.

Still, in 1957 the area remained largely rural. Cornfields, hayfields, and Wisconsin dairy farms, the rich soil of the area spoke less of world culture than of cows, corn, alfalfa, and soybeans.

The times themselves were promising. Both World War Two and the Korean conflict were over, the U.S. economy was booming, and, vitally important to the Dells-Baraboo area, construction crews were soon to begin building Interstate 90-94. Less than a half-mile north of the planned Green Ram Theater site, construction crews and heavy equipment would soon be heard building bridges, clearing woodlands, and pouring concrete for President Eisenhower’s planned I-System Highway. Drive times from the cities to the south – most notably Madison and Chicago – were about to be shortened, much to the advantage of Ram planners and potential theatergoers. 

In any case, in 1957 the Green Ram was born. And for the next eleven summers, from twenty-to-forty talented actors, technicians, directors, and designers gathered each season to devote their artistic energies to producing plays. Eleven seasons, five performances per week, nine productions per ten-week summer session.

For no pay. Or, more accurately, virtually no pay. The Ram was, after all, a semi-professional, salaried organization. Artists were paid. Some more than others. But money was tight and salaries spare. Theater apprentices, for example – among whom I numbered when first joining the Company – received no pay whatever. (Being slow of study, I served not just one, but two season-long apprenticeships at the Ram, two ten-week summers for the combined total take-home salary of no dollars whatever.) 

Admittedly, resident actors, directors, designers and technicians were paid a larger but still less-than-impressive $100 – $200. Per season. For churning out a new production each week for nine consecutive weeks. Not to mention an additional, pre-season five days spent scrubbing toilets, mending and pressing costumes, cleaning dressing rooms, and, in general, preparing the Theater for the frenetic nine-week season about to descend. Show biz is not always what it’s cracked up to be.

Looking back, it’s remarkable that otherwise rational adults endured it. Admittedly, room and board were included in our contracts; full and part-time Company members received farmhouse – or bare-bones bunkhouse – lodging as well as basic-but-healthy, well-balanced meals, ‘three hots and a cot’ as jailhouse jargon has it.

But free food and lodging hardly made up for the humbling experience of having to scrape nickels and dimes together merely to cover personal laundry costs. Much, much less to buy beer and cigarettes, even with smokes at twenty cents a pack and a bottle of beer going for as little as a quarter. True, visitors at the Ram were asked to contribute fifty cents if eating lunch with the Company and toss in a dollar if staying for the evening meal. But the tiny sums guests were charged offered little consolation to Company serfs and indentured apprentices, among whom I numbered.

Who today would struggle – indeed, would actually compete – for positions that featured seven-day work-weeks, demanded your compete and entire loyalty, and then left you in debt at the end of the season? Why would otherwise sane, sensible adults accept it? The answer was, of course, ‘we were theater;’ we’d have done it all for nothing

Wil Denson is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. His writing honors include a Dale Wasserman Playwriting Award, a Wisconsin Arts Board Fellowship in Literature, and a First Place Award for his screenplay Feral. Wil lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, with wife-and-best-friend Judy. ​Most recently he is the author of Curtains Up. Light the Lights from which this piece has been taken.

Lasker Jewelers
Lasker Jewelers

Pulling Together Partners

The following organizations are currently supporting Volume One’s work in the community during the pandemic:

Lasker Jewelers

L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, Eau Claire

Downtown Eau Claire Inc DECI

University of Wisconsin Eau Claire

Pablo Group

Wisconsin Independent Network

Middle West Management

Bon Iver

Royal Credit Union

Silver Spring

Evergreen Surgical

Charter Bank

The Murty Henriksen Family

The Larry and Marie Past Family

The Dan and Kerry Kincaid Family

Anton and Rae Schilling-Smets

Brady and Jeanne Foust

If your organization is interested in supporting Volume One during this difficult time, nick@volumeone.orgcontact us.