If you ever performed with Delaware Children’s Theatre, helped get shows on to the boards or brought grandkids to enjoy a performance in the historic Victorian building, your tribe is hunting for you.
On Jan. 27, the theater will celebrate its 50th season, the stewardship of John and Marie Swajeski and decades of bringing theater to families with the 50th Anniversary Wonderland Gala.
The theme is taken from the Children’s Theatre’s last show of this season, “Wonderland: Alice’s Rock & Roll Adventure.”
“We’ve done ‘Alice’ many times throughout our 50 years here, so it just felt appropriate,” said Donna Swajeski, John and Marie’s daughter. “We’re kind of giving a fun party for the adults since we’re always doing fun things for the kids.”
The 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. event will cost $65 and include dinner, a Wonderland dessert buffet, a video of the history of the theater, and a musical review featuring favorite songs from over the years.
Donna, who now runs the theater, and her brother, David, chairman of the theater’s board, are hoping acting alumni and patrons will join with them to mark a half century of their parents’ theater.
“It’s a big milestone for us,” said Donna, a television writer.
Their mother, who devoted her life to the theater, hasn’t been able to work there for about a decade and now lives at North Foulk Manor.
“She really carved out this whole thing with the Children’s Theater, when no one was really doing just children’s theater,” Donna said.
One aspect of the celebration will be a look at the building itself, designed by Minerva Parker Nichols of Philadelphia, the first woman to practice architecture independently in the United States.
Nichols is the subject of an online retrospective, “Preserving Minerva,” compiled by the Univeristy of Pennsylvania.
It is coordinated by architecture historian Molly Lester. associate director of the Urban Heritage Project at Penn’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design. Photos of the building accompanying this article came from the project.
The Colonial Revival Style theater, one of at least 80 buildings designed by Nicols, was built in 1989 as a home for the New Century Club.
That woman’s group was active on a variety of fronts, and its members wanted to use a woman architect.
The Club supported votes for women, banded together to fight for sewers in Delaware and petitioned to have separate women’s and men’s sections in the Wilmington jail.
They sponsored lectures, including one by former President Woodrow Wilson and another by Julia Ward Howe, author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, designed to educate their membership.
By the 1980s, though, the women’s club had shrunk, their power had diminished and they could no longer afford to maintain the building.
Several plans to save it went awry and the building seemed destined for demolition to make room for a parking lot.
Then John Swajeski went to the remaining members and told them that if they gave him a bargain, he and Marie would buy it.
“We’ll keep it in the community forever and we will keep the building going,” he told them, according to Donna.
“I think they probably sold at a loss,” she said. “And we have done that for all these years. We’ve kept it open. We keep ticket prices as long as we can. And we’re one of the few family-oriented theaters in Wilmington.”
She and her brother say they rarely go anywhere without someone realizing who they are and telling them that they were in a show at the theater.
One Donna can point to is Ciro Poppitti III, former register of wills for New Castle County. He told Donna he was a munchkin in one show.
The Swajeskis hope people who attend the Children’s Theatre party will wear crazy mad hats if they have one or want to make one.
“But mostly it’s just going to be a fun night,” Donna said. “I think the major thing is that I’m trying to say that if Delaware Children’s Theatre touched your life in any way, if you remember coming to a show, if you were in a show, if you brought your grandchildren, if your grandparents brought you to a show, come and celebrate with us.”
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience.
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