By Dale Hemmila
Let’s take a trip back to the summer of 1954.
Elvis Presley’s first single, “That’s All Right,” had just been released by Sun Records. President Dwight Eisenhower had put forward a plan for an interstate highway system. Walt Disney began construction of Disneyland in California, and actress and writer Cornelia Otis Skinner had just penned an original article for Readers Digest magazine.
Meanwhile that summer, in Port Huron, a group of eight local women began meeting over tea and cookies to develop a new lecture series to “educate and entertain” Blue Water Area residents. They called the series Town Hall and this year is the 65th anniversary of that program’s founding.
Today, Port Huron Town Hall brings to the community nationally-known speakers, ranging from entertainers to authors and more. The lecture series takes place at 10:30 a.m. on various Mondays throughout the fall and winter months, and is followed by a luncheon, where guests can hear a more intimate conversation with the speaker.
The aforementioned Cornelia Otis Skinner was the first presenter in the fall of 1955, and while her message and notoriety might be lost to history, her visit began a lecture series that would see many distinguished and distinctive names featured on the Town Hall marquee.
The list of distinguished speakers who have addressed Town Hall audiences over the years range from the political, including President Gerald Ford and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, to members of the media, including Mitch Albom and Joan Lunden, to entertainers Tim Conway and Marie Osmond, among others.
Throughout its history, Town Hall hasn’t shied away from the relevant issues of its time.
In the 1960s, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to Port Huron and spoke of the importance of youth to America’s future; in the 1970s, actress Arlene Dahl promoted women’s equality; in the 1980s, actress and activist Marlo Thomas advocated for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment; and in the 1990s, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. sounded the alarm regarding the importance of taking care of the environment.
Certainly there have been many lighthearted moments, as well, with presenters as diverse as Alex Trebek, Larry King, Debbie Reynolds, Henry Winkler, Phyllis Diller and more.
The wide range of topics and presenters is a testament to the vision of those eight women and their discussions over tea and lemonade 65 summers ago.
“I think that they brainstormed quite a bit and it’s amazing the quality of speakers back then that they had for the amount of money they had,” said Patty Lawrence of Fort Gratiot.
Lawrence, an 18-year veteran of the Town Hall board of directors, also serves as the group’s historian. Recently, surrounded at a table filled with scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, photos and programs from more than 60 years of performances, she talked about the early years of Town Hall and how it still thrives today.
First and foremost, it has always been an all-woman production. While the board of directors has increased from eight to 23, there has never been a man involved.
“I suppose that was because of the women who started it,” Lawrence said. “It was their idea and their baby and they wanted to run with it.”
And indeed, the early years of Town Hall also attracted a primarily female audience.
“For the first year’s attendance, they had 1,100 women. They sold 1,100 tickets at $10 apiece. Out of that, they gave $2,000 to charity when they were done.” Lawrence said.
That first year, a ticket to the entire Town Hall lecture series cost $10 for six performances, and an optional follow-up celebrity luncheon was $2.50 each. Current season ticket prices are $120 – $135 for five performances, with luncheon tickets an additional $125 for the season.
Unlike technology today where ticket sales move on digital platforms such as Ticketmaster, in the 1950s, selling the series was managed differently.
“It was unique how they sold the tickets and how they got them out to the people they sold them to,” Lawrence said. “They had a ladies tea, they would invite their friends to come to this tea and then sell tickets. They also recruited ‘town captains’ and these women made direct sales to women that they knew. The town captains were in Yale, Lexington, Harbor Beach, St. Clair and other outlying areas.
“And then for the first board meeting in September, as many board members as could, would bring a portable typewriter and they would type out all the individual tickets and hand address them for mailing.”
Invariably, during those first years, the names on the mailing address continued to be all women. It wasn’t until humorist Art Buchwald came to town in 1964 that things changed some.
“Due to many requests, Port Huron Town Hall is making an exception,” announced an ad in the Port Huron Times Herald. “Men interested in hearing Art Buchwald are invited to attend this program.”
The other exception to that performance was the ability to acquire a one-time ticket to hear Buchwald instead of purchasing the entire series.
“That was the first time they sold single tickets…and then I think it was in the ‘90s that we decided we would sell single tickets but only the week before the performance,” Lawrence said. “You can buy a single ticket but only the Monday before if there’s any left. So if we have a sold out season, which we have had over 40, then you are out of luck.”
The series of 1966-1967 was the first year of sold out performances. The following year marked the first time tickets were sold by mail, town captains were retired and the ladies’ teas ended. Also by this time the series had moved from the old Desmond Theater to the McMorran Place venue and began to attract more men attendees.
What didn’t change and hasn’t to this date is the Monday morning schedule of performances, a tradition going back to the founding of the series when men were usually the bread winners, at work during the day, while women were available to attend the performances.
“It was a very social outing for some of these women,” Lawrence noted.
While there have been discussions about doing some evening performances over the years, there have only been two such events. It seems with Monday morning ticket sales still strong that it is likely to remain on that schedule. Currently, the mix of attendees still skews towards women, with men in the minority, but the age demographic skews toward retiree. With very little exception, the theater is packed well before the 10:30 a.m. speaker introduction takes place, and that bodes well for the continued success of the lecture series.
That success over more than six decades is a testament to the work the board of directors has done in building programs featuring speakers the community wants to hear.
“We have to fit five performances into a budget,” said Lawrence. “We want to have a name that people will recognize. We try to be current and people seem to like some sort of entertainment in December. It’s relevant for our series to keep it fresh. A lot of people like authors, some like entertainers, you also like someone involved with current events and current issues. Athletes have been good for us—our mission is to entertain and educate.”
Since the beginning, part of the mission has also been to provide financial contributions back to the community after each season. To-date, Town Hall has donated more than $180,000 to Blue Water Area non-profits.
Entertaining and educating while giving back to the community, Town Hall has stood the test of time in its relevancy and its philanthropy, and St. Clair County residents have benefited from an idea eight women struck over tea, 65 years ago.
“Mrs. Taylor Summers, Mrs. Frank Conroy, Mrs. Thomas Bottomley, Mrs. Granger Weil, Mrs. W.A. Schaeffer, Mrs. Clarence Button, Mrs. Fred Riggin, Jr. and Mrs. Roy Briggs,” Lawrence said as she ticked off the names of the Town Hall founding mothers. “These were really eight smart women that put this together. They set up a really well-oiled machine and that’s why we are still going, and how fortunate Port Huron was that they were here.”
The 2019-2020 Town Hall series begins on October 7 with astronaut and Arizona U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kelly. Other programs this year include presentations from Elizabeth Smart, Steve Hartman from CBS News, Three Men & a Tenor, and the political satire group The Capitol Steps.
For more information, visit the Port Huron Town Hall website.