It’s tricky for Eunie Denenberg to pinpoint exactly when her life in show-biz began, but she gave it her best shot. “Let’s say it started with my 5 year-old belting out of all 10 Hit Parade Hits at my folks’ Sunday afternoon poker games. Or maybe the neighborhood show I co-produced on my friend Marie Calandra’s driveway. My poignant rendition of ‘Alice Blue Gown’ is still being discussed. By me,” she added, laughing.
Ask Eun to list the shows she’s been in since those singin’-on-the-driveway-days and she mentions Council of Jewish Women’s Trouping Theater, Red Stockings, plus a slew of Beth El Synagogue and Hadassah shows in-between. “And let’s not forget The Fourgone Conclusions,” she says. “That nightclub act with Dick Mueller and Lou Filbert and me and you, Oz. Back in the 1970s. Remember when Skee Fisher hired us to play the Red Lion on Good Friday because no other acts were available and how Skee thought he’d lose money on us but we packed the place?”
Oh, you bet I remember. I also remember Eunie’s first audition at the Omaha Community Playhouse in 1963 because I was there, too — both of us angling for a spot in Pajama Game. Here’s Eun’s recollection. “We had a Saturday night date with Ozzie and Don, and Normie suggested we do something different — like Oz and Eun try out for the musical being cast at the Playhouse. I figure my mom will kill me if I get in a show and leave the kids. A nice Jewish young married mother appearing onstage was the unspoken ‘no-no’ here. But Normie, the original women’s libber, offered to watch the kids. So, ignorantly blissful, each of us scrambled on stage to do our auditions, a cappella — Ozzie, ‘On the Good Ship Lollipop’ — Eunie, ‘Goody, Goody’. The stunned directors cast us both. I even got a line. Three memorable words — I et already.”
In the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Eunie Denenberg went on a theater tear. “I played one of the daughters in Garcia Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba in the Studio Theater at the Playhouse. Next, I played the lead in both Oh, Dad, Poor Dad and Oh, What a Lovely War in the Studio. We did shows by Brecht, Kopit, Durrenmatt, and had wonderful innovative directors like Jane MacIver and Don Ruble. The Studio Theater was edgy adult theater, maybe a little risqué and always thought-provoking.”
In no particular chronological order, sometimes in a supporting role but more often as leading lady, Eunie appeared in “West Side Story, Little Me, and Solomon Grundy at Chanticleer in Council Bluffs; 40 Carats, The Fourposter and Fiddler on the Roof at the Upstairs Dinner Theater; 6 Rms Rv Vu at the JCC Theater; Any Wednesday and Cactus Flower at the Playhouse. “As one gets more experienced, auditions become more and more terrifying,” Eunie said. “Each time you try out for a part, you recognize how stiff the competition is. When I realized the gal reading against me for Cactus Flower was too young to be the nurse — the lead role — the pressure was off. I figured I’d probably get the part. That was a yippee moment.” Her work in Cactus Flower brought Eunie the 1964-65 Omaha Community Playhouse Acting Award. She took home the Best Actress Award from the Metropolitan Actors Guild in 1971 for her portrayal of the madcap young Belle Poitrine in Chanticleer’s Little Me.
When the Upstairs Dinner Theater staged Neil Simon’s two-character romantic comedy Same Time, Next Year in 1981, Eunie found her favorite role as Doris. “The show also gifted me with a precious small-world moment. During one rehearsal, I was going through scenes with our Stage Manager, Paula Clowers, and we got to the part where I’m seated on the bed with my lover, showing him pictures of my kids from my wallet. Paula had supplied the stage wallet and stage pictures. So, I’m opening the wallet, saying my lines, taking out the first picture, and everything stops — fast. I’m staring at a picture of Roswell Howard, a dear friend from Central High who died at age 35, one of the first in our class to go. I said, ‘Paula. Where’d this picture come from?’ And she said, ‘I brought it. It’s my dad and me and my brother.’ And I said, ‘Roz Howard was your dad?’ And Paula said, ‘Uh-huh.’ Who knew. So every night when we did that scene, I had plenty of emotion to draw on, with my old math buddy, Roz, guiding me perfectly.”
From pagan tribal chants to contemporary poetry, Eunie considers the arts critical to society. “Those who can, need to support the arts just as they need to pay taxes for the streets. Through the arts, children and adults develop imagination, learn to express themselves and enrich their lives along the way. Beside the immediate pleasure we receive from a great concert or play or short story, we learn what other people thought or are thinking and how they lived or currently live their lives. And maybe, hopefully, we stretch our social awareness and empathy.”
“Except for the joy and gratitude for being able to participate in the lives of husband, children and grandchildren, the theater was my most fulfilling activity,” Eunie continued. “Performing is deeply personal, scary, fun and constantly surprising. You can never totally anticipate what’s going to happen in front of a live audience. Rehearsals were my favorite part. Learning from the other actors, the director, the script, your own instincts. Realizing what it means to develop a character, discovering what you can do — cry on cue, get a laugh, control an audience. Being onstage was always new. And on closing night, I inevitably said, ‘If I could only do it one more time, I think I could get it right.’ Not a bad epitaph, either.”