Big Fish- Bellevue Little Theatre

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The Bellevue Little Theatre celebrates its golden anniversary this year as one of the oldest and most celebrated community theaters in the region. While the theater has benefitted from countless dedicated volunteers and board members over time, no one has had a greater impact on the last fifty years than founding member Bette Swanson. She was kind enough to sit down with Jennifer Gilg and I recently to reminisce about the theater’s history.
Like a number of BLT founders, Bette grew up in South Omaha. She graduated from Omaha South High School several years after Ed Swanson, her future husband, who fought as a bombardier on B-29 bombers in the South Pacific during the Second World War. After the war they met for the first time at church. “A pretty safe place to meet a guy,” recalls Bette. The couple settled down to raise a family, and Bette began working as a fashion merchandiser, traveling from coast to coast for her job.
The seed that became the BLT began germinating at Avery Elementary School PTA in Bellevue. Bette and Ed and their fellow PTA parents began putting on talent shows as fundraisers. Bette had experience singing in high school, college, and her church, but she credits Ed as being a much better performer. “I was more of a character actor,” she admits.
Perhaps. But no one has ever questioned Bette’s superior organizational and business talent. After some successful talent shows, Bette was introduced to Marion Kennedy, an experienced actor and director interested in establishing more of a theater presence in Bellevue. This eventually led to the founding of Bellevue Little Theatre as a non-profit in 1968. Initially the theater was itinerant and focused on melodramas. In 1977 the theater purchased the 240 seat Roxy, a 1940’s era movie theater in the heart of Olde Towne Bellevue. It has remained BLT’s home ever since.
The theater was not in the best condition when they purchased it. Bette recalls that “every one of my kids was in that theater, cleaning and painting.” In less than five years, the board had paid off the mortgage. Ten years later they purchased the Coast to Coast store and converted it into the Class Act Thrift Shop, which is operated by an all-volunteer staff. The proceeds from store sales are used for theater maintenance.
The purchasing of an old 240 seat theater, renovating it, and putting on full theater seasons seems like a remarkably daunting task, but Bette describes the process as if it was routine. They just did it and made it work. The theater has remained financially sound ever since it purchased its own space. Yet anyone who knows Bette cannot be surprised at the outcome. A force of nature, her organizational skills and her love of the Bellevue Little Theatre are legend. Her dedication and her attention to detail also made her an ideal producer. While an occasional character actor on stage, she always played a leading role behind the scenes.
Her beloved Ed passed away in 2009, and as she approached her ninetieth birthday, Bette has pulled back from her duties at the theater. Nonetheless, she is still a regular at the theater, and was celebrated at BLT’s fiftieth anniversary show this summer by taking to the stage and singing “Almost Like Being in Love” from “Brigadoon.” She is a Theatre Arts Guild Lifetime Member, and it is impossible to tell the story of community theater in the metro area, much less in Sarpy County, without her. As the Bellevue Little Theater kicks off its golden anniversary season, it is time for Bette Swanson to take a bow.
The Bellevue Little Theatre kicks off its golden anniversary season with the musical “Big Fish.” Directed by Dr. D. Laureen Pickle with music direction by Chris Ebke. “Big Fish” explores the relationship between Edward Bloom (Jay Srygley), a travelling salesman and teller of very tall tales, and his adult son Will (Shane Brichacek), who is on the verge of marriage and fatherhood. As his father’s health declines, Will tries to discover the truth behind his father’s far-fetched stories about witches and giants and mermaids.
“Big Fish” will run at Bellevue Little Theatre for three consecutive weekends, from September 14 through September 30. Shows are Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30, with Sunday matinees at 2:00. There will be a TAG Nite Out on Thursday, September 13. Ticket prices are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors and $10 for students with proper ID. The Bellevue Little Theatre is located at 203 West Mission Avenue in Olde Towne Bellevue. Tickets are available by calling the Bellevue Little Theatre Box at (402) 291-1554. For more information, call the theater or check out their website at: