The Visalia Players was founded in June of 1957. Suds in Your Eyes was the first play, put on in the back yard of Bridget Berryman’s home. Other productions in 1957 were: "Sabrina Fair" directed by Elizabeth “Liz” Dobson, also put on in the Berryman’s yard, and "Bus stop" directed by Freeland Wilson, presented in the Legion Room of the Visalia Civic Auditorium.
The 1958 season included: "Strange Bedfellows" directed by Brent Ensign, sponsored by the University Women at the A.A.U.W. club house, "Curious Savage" presented in the Legion Room, directed by Maxine Sweet, and "Grand Prize" directed by Pat Jenan. This play was presented in conjunction with the 20-30 Service Club and was put on in the side yard of the Visalia Trailer Sales.
In 1959, the University Women sponsored "Ladies of the Jury" in the Sierra Vista Auditorium, directed by Liz Dobson. Other productions were: "Born Yesterday" directed by Jean Berry, and "One Foot in Heaven" directed by Liz Dobson. Both were presented in the Legion Room.
In 1960. "Three Men on a Horse" directed by Liz Dobson and Brent Ensign was put on in the side yard of the Visalia Recreation Park. In August of 1960, our first children’s show. "The Great Big Doorstep" was presented at Recreation Park. "A Man Called Peter" presented in the Legion Room was the final production of that year. This play was directed by Pat Jenan.
July of 1962 gave the Visalia Players a permanent home. The City of Visalia presented them with the Legion Room of the Civic Auditorium. Work began at once to fix it up. The walls were painted black and trimmed in white with candelabra around the room. All of the plays were put on in this room until the end of March 1964. The 1962 season included "Picnic" directed by Brent Ensign. This was the first play presented in "The Players Room". "My Three Angels" was directed by Don Bell.
1963 brought: "See How They Run" directed by Harry Ginner; "The Night of January 16th" directed by Liz Dobson; and "The Caine Mutiny" directed by Brent Ensign. This was the last play to be presented in this room.
Between March of 1964 and February of 1965 a search was made for a building. Harry Ginner was our president at this time and the driving force behind this move. In February of 1965, the old AFL Labor Temple on South Court Street, above what is now “Times Place,” was rented as new quarters for The Players. Extensive improvements were made to what became known as “The Loft.” A new stairway had to be constructed, risers built, and lots of painting done. At this time, the Players also reorganized and incorporated as a nonprofit organization. A big fund-raising drive was headed by Brent Ensign.
The 1967-68 season began the Lizzie Awards in honor of Elizabeth Dobson. It was during the 1972-73 season that the organization's name became "The Visalia Players Community Theatre."
In 1973, "Blythe Spirit" was the last play to be put on at The Loft, after producing 49 plays in that venue. Our lease was up and the loft would require extensive remodeling to bring it “up to code.” The decision was made to look elsewhere.
A three-year search for our own building began in the summer of 1973. We explored the possibility of building our own theatre, buying an existing building to remodel, or any other opportunity that might present itself. During this period, we kept active with three productions a year, using the L. J. Williams Auditorium, Sons of Italy Hall, YMCA, Visalia Women’s Club, Gottschalk’s Community Room, a ranch near Tulare, and, for the last year, the Title Insurance Building on Main Street (now a furniture store!).
The Ice House Theatre
Sherald Sluka, our president at the time, and Brent Ensign spearheaded the search for a new “home.” Early in 1976, the City of Visalia offered us either the old Linwood School or the Ice House building. We chose the Ice House. The first play was, optimistically, scheduled for November, and we began the tremendous task of converting a huge, empty building, constructed in the 1920s, into a comfortable theatre. A $100,000 Comprehensive Employment and Training Act grant provided the funds for the hired labor; a $50,000 Revenue Sharing grant from Tulare County Supervisor Bob Harrell, provided the funds for most of the materials; members and friends volunteering time and money; generous donations of money and materials from individuals, organizations, and businesses of the community; and assistance from the City of Visalia. The Players’ members became carpenters, plumbers and electricians, doing whatever was necessary to convert the old ice manufacturing plant into a theatre. As the opening date approached, the work reached a fever pitch. Many Players would head straight from work to the theatre, staying until midnight or later, and then dragging themselves off to work the next day — only to return to the theatre that night.
The theatre did open in November. Many things were not completed, but we had a 150-seat theatre of which we could be very proud. Opening night for the new “Ice House Theatre” was on November 10, 1976. The play Gypsy was performed with only a spotlight for lighting, as the stage lights were still not connected.
Work did not let up once we opened. Each year, we have added new improvements, and we have kept up with technology. Our lighting and sound systems are now computerized, as is our ticketing system. Our web site, visaliaplayers.org, is a ready reference to all that is going on with the Visalia Players. In 2014, we returned to the name “Visalia Players” as our official name, the name under which we were incorporated. Also in 2014 we added single weekend mini-musicals we call cabarets. In 2016, we completely remodeled our refreshment lobby, that we also use for lobby shows and cabarets, thanks to a grant from the Rotary Foundation.
Over 60 years have passed since the Players performed their first play, and over 40 years since opening the Ice House Theatre. Each season, we present a mix of six or seven plays and musicals for the local community. Since 1957, we have produced over 350 plays and musicals. We feel that as we grow, our services to the greater Visalia community are increasing and the quality of our productions continues to improve with increased membership and financial support.