MICHIGAN CITY – Art Thomas saw an opportunity to give back to where it all started for him – and he seized it.
Thanks to his generous donation of curtains and lighting equipment, Canterbury Summer Theatre’s first show of the season opened on Wednesday with a new stage look.
Born in Canton, Ohio, Thomas grew up in Michigan City after moving here in third grade. He fondly remembers his high school days spent working and volunteering at the theater.
“It’s how I got involved in theater production. I realized I really liked it and had some affinity for it,” Thomas said. “I would not have had the career I had had I not experienced what I did working at Canterbury during high school. It’s a unique experience you never forget.”
After graduating from Rogers High School in 1978, he headed to Ball State University to pursue a degree in business, setting the wheels in motion for his career.
But, while in college, he also kept his hand in the world of entertainment.
He vividly remembers taking his last final at Rogers and coming home to a telegram from Opryland USA (a former amusement park in Nashville, Tennessee) saying someone had dropped out at the last minute and he had a job there – if he could be there at 10 a.m. the next morning.
He and his mother drove all night and he missed his graduation ceremony with that critical decision that significantly impacted his career path.
“One decision becomes a turning point," Thomas said. "I literally threw stuff in a suitcase, tossed it in the car and took off. Everybody that I knew in high school thought I vanished like a puff of smoke in the wind. I didn’t get to say good-bye to a single person that I had known all my life.”
He spent several summers working in technical production at Opryland and later at Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio.
But the former was where Thomas “really learned stage craft. I got into rigging and electrics (lighting and audio). I started out building scenery as a stage carpenter. The last few years I really honed in on lighting and lighting design. I liked it the most and did it the most.”
In 1984, Thomas was hired as lighting director for the celebrity showroom at Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City, which was filling positions for its entertainment crew. Responsibilities included creating lighting design for celebrities including Mel Tillis, Loretta Lynn, Mack Davis and Sammy Davis Jr.
“It was a whole different strata in terms of pay rate," he said. "It was a whole higher level."
The pay raise allowed Thomas to pay for the remainder of his bachelor’s degree in business from Ball State and he graduated in 1988.
For the next two years, he was employed by Deloitte, which had several entertainment industry clients based in Orlando, Florida, at the time. His job was “a little bit of everything” and he considered himself “a language translator, explaining show business to traditional business people.”
And it was also a lot of travel, he said. "You had to go where the clients were."
He and his wife, Sue Jacoberger, had met a Harrah’s in 1984 and were living in Orlando when they began to grow weary of the travel demands.
In 1990, he got a call from the man in charge of professional staffing for managerial positions at Disney.
“At that time, Disney was small enough that the same guy was hiring both for entertainment and for finance,” he said. “He said mine was the first and only resume he ever received that he had to Xerox in order to put it in both piles (for applicants in finance and entertainment),” Thomas said.
Because of his diverse background and skills, Thomas landed a position with Disney in the finance department. Four months later, the same person who hired him was in need of a business manager for the entertainment production department, and offered the job to Thomas.
“The fact that those two things merged gave me the career I had at Disney,” he said.
Over the next 20 years, Thomas received several promotions, eventually ending up as director of operations for the production division with a staff of 250.
He retired in 2010 and now runs a small production company in Orlando. He also owns and operates a show called “Magic & Mayhem” – a comedy magic show in which the audience interacts with entertainers. It has run at the Sheraton Vistana Resort for eight years and also does “spot gigs” at other venues in central Florida.
Thomas said through Magic & Mayhem he accumulated a large amount of technical production equipment, including sound and lighting equipment, and curtains.
“I’ve always had a soft spot for Canterbury,” he said. “Your first job experience in high school can be very impactful. As I got more time and freedom in my schedule, I was interested in how things were going here. I came in for a visit and noticed the need for new curtains.”
Over the years, Thomas would stop in and chat with the late Gerald “Jerry” Peters, longtime president of the Festival Players Guild (now known as Canterbury Guild) and production administrator for Canterbury Summer Theatre – as well as Thomas’ high school English teacher.
As Canterbury Summer Theatre begins its 51st season, Thomas said, “There is something special about a community-based theater that is run primarily by volunteers and students. All of the people at the Canterbury are great, and the only thing that differentiates it from a top professional job is the rate of pay.”
“Thousands of people have passed through here working and gone on to other things," he said. "I hope 40 years from now one of them can be standing in my shoes.
“I had the opportunity to give back to help keep it going. The real story here is the Canterbury Summer Theatre and the impact it has had – how it is still here producing shows and has made a difference in so many cases. I’m just one of those.”
Canterbury summer lineup
Canterbury Summer Theatre's 51st season plays and musicals kicked off June 12 and runs through Aug. 3. The season opened with "Constellations" by Nick Payne, which concludes its run on Saturday.
Upcoming shows include:
• "The Queen Bees" by Rob Urbinati on June 19-29
• "Vanities: The Musical Book" by Jack Heifner on July 3-13
• "John & Jen" by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald on July 17-27
• "Hold Me!" by Jules Feiffer on Aug. 1-3
All performances are at Canterbury Theatre at 807 Franklin St. in the Uptown Arts District of Michigan City. Show times are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2 p.m., Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 6:30 p.m.