Thanks to Jack and Betty Ebert Ragotzy, a little bit of Hollywood can be found in an Augusta barn in southeast Michigan. Jack, who died in 2003, was an actor and director, known for his TV movies, including “Dragnet 1966” and “The Six Million Dollar Man: The Solid Gold Kidnapping.”
But before that, the Ragotzys, a pair of young professional actors, created a theater group in Richland in the early 1950s known as The Village Players. Performances were held in the Richland Community Hall. But only three years into fulfilling their dream, the couple needed to relocate. In 1954, they purchased a barn and adjacent property in Augusta along M-96.
The Barn Theatre is now a Michigan historic site, but it began its life in 1943 as a dairy barn built by Robert M. Cook. Never used for cattle and only briefly for a few horses, the barn was just 5 years old when Jack and Betty bought it.
A LOOK BACK: This vintage photo shows workers installing the Village Players’ marquee at the barn’s entrance. The photo, provided by Brendan and Penelope Ragotzy, was taken around 1948. (Photo by Lance Farraro)
Barn theaters became popular in the mid-20th century throughout the country and were dubbed the “Straw Hat Circuit.” The book “Man in the Spangled Pants,” a history of barn theater by Joe Stockdale, quoted Jack about the Barn Theatre: “It was 40 feet wide and 90 feet long with concrete walls. It was beautifully constructed with curved, laminated timbers and a hayloft designed to hold 90 tons. We knew it was perfect!”
Requesting help in the barn’s conversion to a theater, the Ragotzys received reinforcements all the way from the University of California-Los Angeles’ theater department. A stage was built, curtains hung, lighting installed, steps built, fields mowed, advertising done, signage hung and lines learned.
Today, what was once the milking parlor is a maze of costume racks, changing rooms, offices, a kitchen and prop storage. The milkhouse is an entryway from other buildings on the grounds, while the haymow seats 470 people in comfortable theater chairs.
The Barn Theatre is an Actors’ Equity theatre, meaning its actors are unionized. Six main-stage productions are featured each summer, with additional performances in a building near the barn known as the Rehearsal Shed.
After a photograph of The Barn Theatre appeared in the July 2017 Michigan Farmer magazine, resident George Hubka offered his own recollection of performances enjoyed there with friends as he said, “There is a farmer who lives in the area, who with his wife, has been to many shows over the years. But he mostly enjoys intermingling with the actresses at the afterglow parties.”
Hubka said he would allow his friend to remain anonymous, adding with a chuckle, “He just happens to live very near Crandall Road, Battle Creek.”
In addition to performances, The Barn Theatre’s current owners, Brendan and Penelope Alex Ragotzy, are fulfilling Betty’s dream of creating a nonprofit, The Barn Theatre School for Advanced Theatre Training. Apprentices receive training in preparing and presenting theatrical productions. Also, high school students can participate in the “Backstage Xperience” to learn about theater as a career.
The theater can also be rented by outside groups during the off-season. On Sept. 16, “Worth Saving: A Benefit for Barns” will take place there, featuring the Richard Lynch Band from southern Ohio. The band will perform selections from its new CD, “Mending Fences,” including, “Worth Saving,” a new release dedicated to heritage barns. Tickets are available at www.richardlynchband.com. Click on “Upcoming special events.” For additional information about the benefit, visit www.barnlady1.com.
Arnett writes from Battle Creek.