VLT History

Beginnings

The Very Little Theatre got its name on March 3, 1929, when eight Eugene theatre enthusiasts got together with the idea of joining the growing “Little Theatre Movement” that was sweeping the nation. One person said to the others, “There are hundreds of little theatre groups up and down the country, but this is certainly going to be a very little one!”

Born in the Great Depression, the Very Little Theatre survived difficult economic conditions, World War II, changing consumer tastes, and increased competition to become one of the oldest, continuously-operating community theatres in the United States.

The Very Little Theatre (VLT) presented its first production of “You and I” by Philip Barry on Thursday, May 16, 1929 in the Heilig Theatre, an early vaudeville house in Eugene, Oregon. The theatre made a net profit from this production of $4.51 and gained community-wide recognition and support. The following excerpt from The History of the Very Little Theatre in Eugene, Oregon 1929-1954, gives an idea of the grassroots beginnings of this small theatre group during that first production of “You and I”:

‟Since they could only afford to rent the building for two evenings, the group was unable to do any of the production work at the Heilig. They were forced to rehearse the play, construct the set, and assemble props and furniture outside the theatre. The sets were constructed at Friendly Hall on the University campus and assembled the night of dress rehearsal. Painting of the sets took place on the afternoon of opening night, which almost resulted in a catastrophe during the performance.

When Lettie McEwen made her first entrance, she inadvertently reached for the freshly-painted handrail for support and then drew the hand across her face, leaving a large smear of black paint. Bob Earl, the co-lead, quickly offered a handkerchief and whispered to her what she had done. She recovered, but the incident remained in the memories of those members who were there.” After two seasons at the Heilig theatre, the VLT found it necessary to find a new location due to economic demands and facility restrictions.

The Pillbox Era

In 1931, the Very Little Theatre moved into the “PillBox,” a drugstore at 538 East 13th Street, which it rented for $10 a month. During the renovation of this facility, the theatre put on two one-act plays at Johnson Hall at the University of Oregon. The “PillBox” provided seating for 95 to 100 patrons on wooden packing cases and folding chairs.

By December, 1932, these were replaced with tiered wooden seats. During these depression years, audiences paid ten, twenty-five and fifty cents to watch live theatre on a wooden platform stage donned with flour sack curtains. An old wood-burning stove provided minimal heat to the space.

VLT produced 24 plays at the “PillBox.” Edgar Buchanan, Jr., an early member of the theatre, who later went to Hollywood to become television’s Uncle Joe of “Petticoat Junction”, encouraged the VLT to do melodrama and commercial theatre to yield large profits that would allow its members to produce literary drama. This set the tone for providing a melodrama or “corn show” at least every other season for many decades to come.

It was during the “PillBox” years that the theatre established an organizational structure and fiscal management that would successfully carry the theatre into the future. The Very Little Theatre became incorporated on October 9, 1934 as a Membership organization, and is run by its members to this day.

The Barn Era

In 1935, due to a rent increase, VLT was forced to again move its operation to a new location. The Lane County Fairgrounds provided a framed exhibition hall which became known as the “Barn.” Rent was set at sixty dollars a year.

From August to December of 1935 nearly all 45 VLT members volunteered to renovate the “Barn” under the direction of Blaire Alderman, a building contractor and member of VLT. The expanded space would allow for a larger stage to accommodate full-scale productions, as compared to the primarily one-act plays produced in the “PillBox.” Pews from an abandoned church provided seating for 200. If folding chairs were placed in the aisles, 75 additional patrons could be served. Heating was provided by a wood-burning furnace.

A Home of its Own

Throughout this period the members of the theatre desired to obtain their own performance space. They began to produce more commercial drama, including Broadway comedies and melodramas, in order to raise money for a building fund. Banding together, members supported this fund out of their own pockets and by performing for community organizations.

In the 1947-48 season, Horace Robinson convinced VLT to sell season tickets. A five-play schedule sold for five dollars, raising $2,500. The following season the theatre sold $4,000 in season tickets.

The present property, located at 2350 Hilyard St., was purchased from the City of Eugene for $3,000. In 1950, with 82 active members, the Very Little Theatre constructed a 220-seat auditorium.

The Next Few Decades

In the next several years, both membership and the theatre grew. Continuing to offer five shows per season, VLT was able to earn and raise the funds to add a workshop, dressing rooms, green room and small service kitchen.

Sound fiscal management further enabled the VLT to make regular improvements over the years, including a large rehearsal/performance space (Stage Left); expanded restrooms and kitchen area; new auditorium seats; a new light board and catwalk to support lighting instruments; lobby carpeting; a rehearsal piano; air conditioning; an improved sound system; and a fire sprinkler system to ensure patron and member safety as well as protect the VLT building and its contents.

The 21st Century and Beyond

By 2010, it became clear the original building that housed the Main Stage theatre was 60 years old and showing its age. For the first time in its history, VLT knew that ticket sales and small donations were not going to be enough to renovate the theatre and bring it into the 21st century and beyond. A Capital Campaign committee was formed. Grants and large donations were sought – and the community stepped up in a big way. The Capital Campaign raised over $1.7 million to complete Phase 1 of the renovation – the Main Stage house and stage spaces. In 2022, Little Women – the Musical (which was closed down on opening night 2019 for Covid) was the inaugural production in the new space, and opened VLT’s 94th Season.

As VLT moves forward, its Board of Directors and the Capital Campaign committee will continue to fundraise to accomplish Phases 2 and 3 of the renovation – a new scene shop, new dressing rooms, more storage, and a spruced-up lobby and Stage Left.

Heading Toward 100

As VLT heads toward its 100th Season, it will continue to look for ways to expand the definition of “community” in community theatre. By creating programming that attracts and serves a more diverse audience, VLT is looking to expand its audiences, membership, and participants with a healthy range of ages, cultures, and backgrounds. The magic of live theatre can bring communities together and help us learn more about each other.

Join us! VLT is your community theatre. We look forward to meeting you!