Marilyn Sanderson remembers well the days when she and her late husband Bill bounced around the Weatherford area, finding places to perform live theater in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“We begged, borrowed and stole for places to perform when we started,” Sanderson said. “We were going anywhere we could find. There was no other live community theater, just the college and the high school.”
Bill died in 1992, seven years before Marilyn started Theatre Off The Square, better known as TOTS. However, she’s certain he’d be proud of what she helped create, something that has become a mainstay for community theater in Weatherford and Parker County.
And she remains extremely active in the organization into her 80s.
TOTS turned 20 years old this year. The birthday was celebrated on July 31 with a public gathering and ribbon cutting at the theater, giving the public that has supported them over two decades a thank you, TOTS Board President Laurie Jones said.
“I just can’t say enough for all the community has done to help us reach this milestone,” Jones said. “If it weren’t for them we wouldn’t be around. After all, it is called community theater, key word being community.”
Several citizens were on hand to say thanks to TOTS as well, adding the event was just another way the group has shown their love for the community that has loved them back.
“We started coming the year they opened up, and we’re going to keep coming. We love what they do here,” Gordon Carver said..
His wife, Happy Carver, added, “We just kept following them. It’s fun. We would drive out here from Fort Worth until we moved here.”
Jones joined TOTS shortly before the group moved into their current theater at 114 N. Denton St. in Weatherford in 2004. They previously performed in what is now the Texas Opry, along with Pythian Home.
“We’ve come a long way since those days,” Jones said. “I remember my first show was there at the Opry. It served us well at the time, but it’s nice to have a home where we’ve been for a long time.”
TOTS performed at the Opry for four years before it was sold, forcing them to relocate.
B.D. Smith, who was alongside Sanderson at the beginning of TOTS, recently returned to the group this year after helping start the Carnegie Players in Cleburne and working with the Popcorn Players in Azle. He also remembered the old days of performing just off downtown Weatherford.
“We had great crowds, and there were numerous local sponsors. Folks were supportive of us from the beginning,” he said.
“All of York Avenue wanted to be a part because that’s where the theater was,” Sanderson added.
Sanderson said she has so many memories from her time with TOTS, including the first performance of the classic play “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
“I hadn’t done anything since ‘On Golden Pond’ at Weatherford College a few years earlier, and someone from the audience yelled, ‘Welcome back Marilyn,’” she recalled, her eyes misting. “I just lost it. I was already emotional from it all, and to hear that just made me cry.”
Smith also has fond memories of that opening show.
“The dummy in the window stole the show every night,” he said with a chuckle. “The set was magnificent. Everything was magical.”
And the magic is continuing 20 years later, Jones said, adding in her funniest memory with TOTS.
“In ‘Dashing Through the Snow’ we were supposed to do something with somebody’s ashes. They were spilled on the floor,” she said. “Another lady plugged in the Dust Buster and it didn’t work. Finally, she gave up and ‘Buzzzzz’ as she pretended to vacuum them up. The audience loved it.”
Another memory has nothing to do with being onstage. It does, however, involve a good Samaritan.
It was during a session of children’s summer camp, when suddenly a loud “boom” roared through the building, she said.
“It sounded like it came from the ceiling. We didn’t act too startled because we didn’t want to scare the kids,” she said.
Shortly after, she realized what had happened. A vehicle hit the side of the building and drove away. It did some serious damage, which also resulted in the discovery of some unstable building in the original design, she said. Total damage was around $60,000, beyond what they had in their budget — a budget they hardly wanted to blow on a repair they weren’t counting on.
“We had an angel give us $20,000. With that, plus what we had saved and insurance we were able to get it done,” Jones said. “But that’s the kind of supporters we have in this community, and that’s how much they love this theater.”
Everyone associated with TOTS is volunteer, something Smith said has been essential to the group’s longevity.
“The diversity of the volunteers is impressive. There are no egos, which is really impressive,” he said.
“That’s the downfall of a lot of theaters,” Sanderson said. “Everyone here works for sheer love of the theater, actors, set builders, concession stand, everyone.”
What’s more, TOTS exists strictly on donations and ticket sales, and does not receive grants, Jones said.
“It’s highly unusual for a theater group to be around this long with only donations and ticket sales, but we’re financially sound,” she said.
Jones said a reason the community remains supportive is the group’s willingness to take risks with their shows. They perform eight or nine shows per season, including a children’s show and a musical, but they are also willing to tackle darker material with more mature subject matter in some shows.
“We felt like it was necessary, and we went through certain steps to get there,” Jones recalled. “We warned people of the subject matter, and you can’t not do the art, because the playwright who wrote it felt like the words and subject matter needed to be in there. You cannot do ‘Bambi’ all the time.”
Smith added, “This theater knows its audience, and the audience knows them. They know it’s always going to be a quality show and no one is going to sneak anything in.”
TOTS continues to challenge themselves and grow as a result. In recent years, for example, they’ve added a Shakespeare In the Park production that continues to grow in popularity. Next year they are looking at adding a second musical, one being a children’s show.
“Our Shakespeare productions have been even more popular than I expected. I wasn’t sure if Weatherford was ready for it, but it’s been a great relationship,” Jones said.
Of course, at the top of it all are consistently good productions, Sanderson said.
“Word of mouth is the greatest thing of all. If people tell their friends, that’s better than any advertising you can buy,” she said. “People say all the time, ‘I’ve never seen a bad show.’
“I wish Bill could be around to enjoy all of this with me, but I know he’d be proud that I’m still here and can be a part of it.”