Arts instructors nurtured area talent

2014-03-16T00:00:00Z 2014-03-16T00:11:07Z Arts instructors nurtured area talentPhilip Potempa, (219) 852-4327

The Northwest District of the Federation of Women's Clubs & Indiana Federation of Clubs annual art contest for area students in their senior year of high school is now a talent-tapping tradition.

It's open to student contestants who plan to major in art in college. Each student exhibits three different forms of artwork for judging.

Megan Rudovich, of Valparaiso, who studies art education at Indiana University, won first place in 2012 and now continues to compete at the state level for scholarships. The same is true for recent winner Macaira O'Connell, also of Valparaiso, who studies fashion design and graphic arts at Savannah College of Art and Design. Both students were in the Valparaiso High School's honors art classes taught by Marilyn Hanson.

The annual reception for the winners at the Valparaiso Woman's Club is a formal  ceremony, conducted by Nancy Teller, who is the art chairperson of the local Valparaiso Women's Club. The event is always held at the history-filled Valparaiso Women's Club, 102 Washington St. in downtown Valparaiso.

The Valparaiso Women's Club has been around since 1895 and is part of the state organization which works to further the importance of arts and culture for future generations. The elegant space where the Valparaiso Women's Club has been based is the former downtown lofty home of a late Valparaiso physician. It was built in 1906 and the women moved in back in 1924, when they purchased it for $30,000, working hard to pay off the mortgage. Today, it is a registered landmark and what members describe as "a monument to arts, culture and community in Northwest Indiana."

Encouraging arts education in Northwest Indiana remains a passion with a lasting impact.

Jerauld Reinhart, who died Feb. 13 at age 85, said in an earlier interview he always recalled "the hook" used in 1954 by the hiring principal to lure him from southern Indiana to accept a teaching position at Merrillville High School following his graduation from Indiana University.

"The principal's name was Mr. Edgar Miller, and he boasted to me that the largest theater in the state was located just down the road from the high school," said Reinhart, who founded Ross Summer Music Theatre with his wife of 60 years, Margilee.

"Well, I was thinking of a live theater stage, and what he was referring to was the Y & W Drive-In movie theater on Broadway in Merrillville."

With the help of his wife, and, eventually, the couple's eight children, Reinhart launched his own summer theater program in 1963. The first production was unveiled the following year with "Annie Get Your Gun."

Last summer, the Reinharts hosted a curtain-bow bash for alumni from the past five decades, both in front of and behind the curtain, helping Ross Summer Music Theatre remain a lasting success for generations.

Jerauld Reinhart maintained a presence in each of the more than 70 musicals produced, with a hand in every level of production. RSMT, whose name refers to Ross Township, started in Merrillville High's gymnasium. As the program progressed, more adults, and eventually their children, joined the summer productions. In 1972, Merrillville High opened an auditorium to house plays and other events — now named  Reinhart Auditorium.

Of all the productions, a few still remain standouts, with "The Music Man," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Carousel" ranking at the top.

"The reason 'Carousel' holds a special place is it's the first Broadway production I ever saw in Chicago," Reinhart said in interviews.

"I was still in college in the marching band, and we came up to play at the game against Northwestern in 1949. And while we were in Chicago, we had time to catch a show and it was 'Carousel' that was in town starring actor John Raitt, the father of singer Bonnie Raitt."

With many of the productions starring as many as 100, and sometimes even 150 talented youths from the area, Margilee Reinhart admits some shows have been more difficult than others.

Mike Reinhart, who now leads the stage projects referring to the guidance his parents instilled, said he learned early in his youth that to spend time with his parents during the summer months meant being involved in the theater production of the moment. And for last summer's production of "Les Miserables," Mike's two sons, Lucas and Jacob,  followed their father's lead with roles in the musical.

Actor David Bedella, originally from Gary and now an established stage star of London's West End, said the arts education in Northwest Indiana was a cornerstone for his personal and professional development.

"I was in 'Bye, Bye Birdie' with the Reinharts in 1976 and later, they gave me my first chance at a leading role when they cast me in 'Oklahoma!'" said Bedella, who starred in "Jesus Christ Superstar" with Ted Neeley from 1992 to 1995 and later earned raves as the star of "Jerry Springer — The Opera."

"But best of all, the Reinharts are a family who love music, kids and the arts, and always lead by example," Bedella said.

Ann N. Davis is a theater set designer who lives and works by the same example.

Davis has the title of production manager/technical director for Theatre at the Center, where she has worked on projects since 2001. Housed in the Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Munster, Davis and the Theatre at the Center team often welcomes students to tour the performing arts space.

"I remind students we started out years ago with just some part-time staff and now we are up to 10 people, if you count everyone who works on the technical end to make a show happen," said Davis, who commutes from her home in Michigan City.

"I still remember my first show at Theatre at the Center in 2001, which was 'Me and My Girl,' when we created this amazing blue marble-look set."

She has worked on or designed projects at the Art Institute of Chicago along with all of the major performance venues around Chicagoland, from Victory Gardens and The Apollo Theatre to The Athenaeum, DePaul University Opera, Chamber Opera of Chicago, all three Drury Lane theaters and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre at Navy Pier.

"It's not just designer work, but also plenty of painting and building I do at theaters, and even helping with some films shot in the area," she said.

In 2001, just as she was making her way to settle in Indiana, she was awarded best non-union scenic design of the year in Colorado for the set design for the play "Terra Nova." Once in the Chicago area, she had the special opportunity to be able to teach at UIC and work with children and community groups in Chicago and Indiana.

Richard Friedman, general manager for Theatre at the Center, is celebrating his fourth year at the Munster venue and said he still marvels at what Davis is able to accomplish with her imagination.

"When we begin the process for a new production, Ann is part of the planning process from the start," Friedman said.

"She has an artistic sensibility and is always willing to roll up her sleeves as a rare combination of someone who can manage and still loves to also do the everyday duties."

Davis said her message to students who visit the theater for field trips is simple: "You can make anything happen with an imagination."

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