Hartford must enshrine “The Producing Guild” in its cultural history – Hartford Courant

When I was 12, my English teacher at King Philip Middle School in West Hartford –– Paul Grubbs –– told me that a theater company he worked with in Hartford was casting a kid for one of his next productions: a cover of “Take Me Along,” the 1959 musical version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!”. His suggestion that I consider showing up for the open call changed my life. I got the part but, more importantly, I was introduced to the world of The Producing Guild.

The Guild is the brainchild of maestro Sal Marchese, who got his start in the late 1960s leading other bands in the Hartford area. Marchese felt frustrated with what he saw as the limits of how they could conduct business.

“I wanted real company,” the 85-year-old director told me recently, over a meal at Elaine’s on Berlin’s toll highway, a favorite haunt. “I wanted there to be continuity from one show to the next. I wanted a paid team to design the sets, create the costumes, direct the lights –– a real team working together on every show, that I could oversee.

“But,” he said, holding up a finger for dramatic effect, “I wanted the actors to be amateurs. I believed you could do good theater with amateurs, and I still do. That was the formula envisaged by Marchese, one which he quickly concretized.

Beginning in 1970, the Producers Guild carved out a niche for itself as an alternative to Hartford stage equity productions and the “Waiting For Guffman” types of offerings offered by other community theater groups, its seasons hovering between reliably entertaining (Stephen Sondheim, Neil Simon) and more thought-provoking works (“To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”; “Kiss of The Spider Woman”).

What made the Guild unique was Marchese’s recipe of combining high-quality, professional presentation with raw, local talent. Although its productions had all the bells and whistles associated with regional theater, its actors were drawn from the community; they were our teachers and janitors, nurses and neighbors, people who took time away from their lives and professional obligations to engage in the greater good of doing something beautiful and nurturing for all involved on both sides of the stage lights. Anyone who attended theater in the Hartford area during the company’s run (which ended 20 years ago) has equated the Producing Guild brand with consistency, quality and class.

Marchese directed and supervised each of the company’s 129 productions. A ruthless perfectionist, his imprimatur was on everything the Guild did, from signing off on program designs to approving buttons on costumes, to painstakingly choreographing the encores of each show.

Within the company, he was both loved and feared. Punctuality, obedience and a good work ethic were the bare minimum required. The attitude was not tolerated; he wouldn’t coddle divas.

Anyone caught goofing off would hear about it, and a missed entry or blown signal could result in a devastating disguise. Marchese was demanding, but he was not on a power trip; everything he did was in the rigorous service of an impeccable theatre. When the shows worked, as they so often did, the results were dramatic and audiences recognized the phenomenon. At its peak, the Producers Guild had some 8,500 season subscribers.




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But it couldn’t last forever. As the digital age forced newspapers to scale back their arts reporting, and with government grants and funding mostly unavailable due to the group’s semi-professional status, Marchese saw the writing on the wall. When he retired in 2002, he took the Guild with him. There was no succession plan in place (his choice); the Guild simply ceased to exist. What remains of it today is little more than a private Facebook group and the memories of those who know what it once was and what it once meant.

Last September, at a private event held at the Mark Twain House, nearly 100 former Guilders and their families came together to toast the band on its near-golden anniversary (the reunion was pushed back in due to the pandemic). Speeches were made, photos were exhibited, old props and set models were brought out of storage, a cake was cut. Former cast members and crew members who hadn’t seen each other in decades hugged, laughed, cried, and those who couldn’t be there or who died were lovingly remembered. . For a few hours one night, The Producing Guild came back to life, in all its glory. Marchese was rightly placed at the center of it all, and even commissioned to tell a slide show of the company’s production history (he commented, ad hoc, on each production).

And then it was over. As someone present told me, the evening felt like a closing, a last farewell, the end. It shouldn’t be.

I may be biased; I did seven shows with the Guild, between the ages of 12 and 18, and the people I worked with there were like family to me. But it seems to me that the Producer Guild deserves official recognition for what it has done for the Hartford community. The city should find a way to enshrine it in its cultural history — a Sal Marchese Way, perhaps, near the Wallace Stevens Theater (where the company has mounted the majority of its productions in its more than 30 years) , or at least one official Producers Guild Day, so others can recognize the joy, pride, and magic the band once brought to this region.

I continued to do other things in other places, but I never forgot the lessons I learned with The Producing Guild in Hartford: never settle for mediocrity; to get my ego out of the way; give all I can, then give more; believe in the impossible; always be –– above all – “a lover of”. For the reunion, my former “Take Me Along” bandmate Ralph Cantito unearthed this photo of me sitting backstage while filming the production. Look at the expression on this kid’s face. It is wonder, delight and possibility. I was becoming me.

Twelve-year-old Howard Fishman sits backstage at his first Producing Guild show.

Sal Marchese and the Guild have enabled countless amateurs like me to shine, to be better than we ever imagined. I will always be grateful to them. Hartford should be too.

Howard Fishman is a writer, performer and composer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her book “To Everyone Who Ever Asks: The Life, Music, and Mystery of Connie Converse” will be published in the spring by Dutton Books.

James C. Tibbs