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Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

Small town dream keeps glowing

By Janie Southard

The ninth annual St. Anthony Dinner Theater opens tomorrow for a sold-out eight-. . .

ST. ANTHONY - There is a gathering of angels in this western Mercer County hamlet where a special happening is about to begin. The small town's annual Christmas show starts this week, and once again, for the ninth year in a row, it is sold out before the curtain even goes up.
The old schoolhouse is decked out, the food is being prepared for the dinner beforehand and the costumes are ready for this year's show, "Angels Unaware."
It all began more than a decade ago with a dream.
Janie Timmerman, born and raised in St. Anthony, had no background in community theater when, 14 years ago, she began having a recurring dream.
"At first I kind of dismissed it, thought it was stupid but the dream became stronger and stronger until I was dreaming the same thing almost every night," she says while having lunch with her husband Jim at the Padua Pub in downtown St. Anthony.
Finally, the dream was so vivid she could see the smallest detail right down to the table linen, chairs and silverware. In that dream she saw, time after time, the angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary.
"I didn't keep track of how many times I dreamed that dream, but I see now many remarkable things have come true with our dinner theater that I dreamed about," she muses.
The first year's performance took shape while she was attending a Catholic Youth Organization meeting where one of the leaders expressed concern about the group's lack of money.
"I told her I knew how we could raise the money," she says about the first time she suggested putting on a dinner theater. "I don't know what made me say that. I really had no idea in the world how to (put on a play) ... And she thought my idea of a dinner theater was too ambitious for such a small town."
But, Timmerman took on the project anyway and has never looked back.
That first year featured one performance in the old schoolhouse.
"We had nothing. We had to rent everything - chairs, tables, tablecloths, plates, the whole works," she says.
About the only thing the group had was the schoolhouse, as it was closed in 1978, leaving it for parish storage and a few meetings.
"My dream took place in the school. I could see where everything would be positioned in the gym - the tables, the stage layout. No, we could not have had it anywhere else," she says.
She had a location, but had no idea how to begin even getting a play. Finally she got the number of a publishing firm in Florida from one of her husband's friends whose wife had directed several community musicals.
"When I called, (the sales person) asked me what I wanted and, of course, I had no idea. I told them what we were trying to do and they suggested the play, 'Bethlehem Inn.'
"When it arrived and I started reading it, I just couldn't believe it. The play was exactly the dream I'd been having night after night, even including a scene with Gabriel and Mary," she says, adding this was the first of many extraordinary things that have happened during the past eight years.
One year a local eighth-grade girl (Jessica Rauh) who was helping with the play came to Timmerman. "She said she was so inspired by the play that she had written a song, even though she'd never done anything like that in her life. It was amazing. How many kids in the eighth grade just go out and write a song?" she says.
Jessica again wrote music for last year's show "A Family's Christmas," with lyrics written by local resident Julie Brackman.
Rounding up volunteers has never been a problem. The first year Timmerman called 20 people and not one person said no. Seven people came together to decorate the school that first year; 35 attended to that task this year under the direction, as always, of Sue Brown and Jennifer Cheeseman, neither of whom are associated with decorating professionally in any way. Yet the impressive decorations completely transform the little school into a Christmas phenomenon.
A self-confessed worry wart, Timmerman says she never worries about the dinner theater. She does not organize kitchen duties or who will provide what, "because volunteers just show up with what is needed. The jobs always get done," she says.
Last year on the day of the first performance, Laura Post, the dessert lady, worried because there weren't enough cookies. So Post drove to town and bought more than $30 worth of cookies. But, by the time she got back a couple hours later, more donated cookies were already at the schoolhouse.
Jim Timmerman brings up that two brothers (Don and Carl Eischen), who are in charge of the sound and lighting, "practically live at the schoolhouse while we're getting ready for the play."
"They do a wonderful job and they can do anything that needs done. I can't praise them enough," Janie Timmerman says, adding the brothers are not electricians. They deliver feed.
"There are so many wonderful people making this dinner theater successful. I could go on and on naming them," she adds.
The play sells out all performances every year and that is already true for this year. Proceeds are given to area needy families.
"We've never advertised. The word spreads from person to person. We have whole families getting together and making this the beginning of their holiday season," she says, adding a special blessing is the many people who have been touched by this annual event.
"We've made over $40,000, which means we've been able to help many, many local families who need some help. This is what is most important to me. I've even received many letters over the years from people in the audience who say something about their evening with us touched them and brought on positive changes in their lives," she says. "It's a very special time."
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