When a The New York Times writer stopped by Memorial Auditorium & Convention Center in Pittsburg on the advice of a local, who suggested he see Pittsburg Community Theatre’s production of “The Wizard of Oz” while he was in town, he was unprepared for what he stumbled upon: A sold-out show. And it was a great one.
Dorothy Gale’s house spun through the air with special rigging. The Wicked Witch of the West’s monkeys flew, as did the unfriendly Miss Gulch on her bicycle. The musical score was performed by a live orchestra, and highly choreographed numbers were danced by the regionally renowned Midwest Regional Ballet.
“Despite tickets priced at a mere $5 and $10, the show was admirably elaborate…” he wrote.
Afterward, he, like other visitors who came from near and far for the show, took part in Pittsburg’s downtown nightlife scene of bands and beverages. They were surprised, they confessed, at the arts and entertainment available in this area. But those who live here will tell you that’s one of the reasons they call Crawford County home.
“We love that performing and fine arts are available here; it’s one of the reasons we never moved away,” says local business owner Heather Horton.
One of the founders of Pittsburg ArtWalk, held downtown four times a year just a block from Memorial Auditorium, she frequently finds herself engaging in the local art scene.
Likewise, longtime residents like Diann and John Mazurek make it a point to commit time and talent to at least one of the three large-scale performances staged by PCT each year, starting in late March and ending in October. They’ve raised their two boys doing so.
Recent years have seen them in “The Grapes of Wrath” — a show in which the director turned the orchestra pit into a river, made it rain on stage, and the Joad Family headed west in a moving Hudson Super Six Jalopy. The couple also took part in “Annie” and “Evita,” two of the most elaborate productions PCT has ever staged.
“If we aren’t able to be in a show, we never miss attending one in the audience,” Diann says. “The shows are just that good.”
Each summer, PCT also stages something just for children: A youth theater workshop called Junior Starz. As children, Megan Westhoff and Linden Little took part, then grew up to pursue a career in the arts and chose to remain in Crawford County. Thanks to the new Bicknell Family Center for the Arts, they’re producing shows as part of Pittsburg State University’s growing theater program.
Last fall’s production of “Charlotte’s Web” sold out each of five performances. Hundreds of parents from up to two hours away brought their children to see the age-old literary classic brought to life. Kim Martin was among them, driving with her children from Cherryvale for the show.
“Wow!” she says. “It was great!” Impressed by costuming, elaborate makeup, set design and the acting itself, she plans to return to future productions, which are staged three times each school year by PSU Theatre.
“I’m super proud of this show,” Little said. “I’m confident we could put this up against anything offered in a big city.”
Adding to the allure is the center itself — a $33 million, 90,000-square-foot piece of architecture with 210 glass panels that make up the dramatic curved front of the building, which features a black-box theater and a large performance hall.
Each August, the auditorium hosts a two-week youth theater workshop taught by an award-winning local theatre teacher.
His productions at Pittsburg High School also are proving to be a draw — from classic musical favorites like “Footloose” and “Grease” to 2016’s “Shrek: The Musical,” on tap for Memorial Auditorium Feb. 17-20, and his annual social issue plays which are attended by busloads of students from many Southeast Kansas and Southwest Missouri schools.
“We’re building a foundation for the arts in this community,” he said. “And with that has come a reputation for producing quality shows audiences — not just parents of kids in the shows — want to see.”
Adding to the quality of life here, notes Horton, is public art, from galleries on campus at PSU that feature numerous works by famed artists, to statues that dot to the town, to community murals that add color to downtown Pittsburg.
Horton, whose degree is in art, began rallying other area artists in 2006 to stage a downtown art and music festival; in the years since, it blossomed into Pittsburg Art Walk. Artists not only have work for sale in and outside of downtown businesses, many of them also demonstrate their art during the festival for onlookers to see.
“I love that there’s always something going on here, or something to go do or see,” Horton says.
When she and her husband, Roger, close up their shop for the day, they take bike rides around town to view public art like murals and statues.
“Public art, in my opinion is the best type of art. Whether it’s a true fine art mural painting or a collaborative effort of a giant popcorn bucket and movie screen on the side of the Fox Theatre, it all has its place and it’s all important,” she says. “It’s part of what makes this a great place to visit and live.”
When night falls, they cap off the day at one of the downtown bars the New York Times writer visited, where bands, open mic nights and poetry readings are common fare. Or, like others, they may find themselves with too many choices: It’s not unusual on one night to have to choose from a concert, a theater performance, a band, and a ballet.
“I guess that’s a good problem to have,” Horton says. “It’s a happening place.”
By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Andra Bryan Stefanoni is a longtime Kansas-based journalist now working as a freelance writer for a variety of publications, businesses and organizations. Since 2000, she also has worked as a freelance writer for local, regional and national publications and magazines. You can follow her on Twitter @AndraStefanoni. Her outdoor blog is at www.atwoodsedge.net.