BY TERRY BIBO
Assuming life is a banquet, as Auntie Mame famously said, virtually every Peorian with an appetite for theater has had a chance to feast on the artistry of Bill Nolden.
Now 90, Nolden has graced local stages, particularly that of Corn Stock Theatre, in multiple ways for more than 60 years.
Would you like a sample from a never-ending buffet?
He’s been an actor — “The King and I” (1959). He’s been a singer — “Carousel.” He has been a director — “Detective Story.” He has served as set designer — “Streetcar Named Desire” and “Fanny” and “The King and I” (1988).
“Indomitable. Indomitable. Indomitable,” said former Journal Star arts critic Jerry Klein, himself 90. “He was always there.”
“I didn’t do props or costumes, but I did practically everything else,” Nolden drily said in early July.
The American Association of Community Theaters in Fort Worth, Texas, says it represents more than 7,000 theaters and one million volunteers, though not all are paying members. It doesn’t keep track of volunteers’ ages or job descriptions. So it may not be possible to say for sure, but even in a field renowned for passion and unpaid hours, it would seem Bill Nolden stands out. He was the recipient of Corn Stock’s first Gretchen Iben award, named for one of the group’s founders. He will be honored again at a reception from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 6, at Corn Stock.
At this point in his career, the sometime actor/director/singer/set designer may be best known for all-the-time artwork on Corn Stock’s program covers, the play/cast guides you receive upon entering the tent.
It’s not back-to-the-drawing board with Nolden. It’s never-left-the-drawing board.
A well-used drafting table dominates his living room at B’Nai B’Rith Apartments, a room decorated largely with his artwork. (His meticulous rendering of the apartment building itself hangs on the wall near the entrance.) Nolden not only designed the cover for Corn Stock’s 25th anniversary brochure but, in 2003, its multi-page, multi-photograph 50th anniversary retrospective. And he’s still going strong.
“He did the program covers for the current Corn Stock season,” said board member Rebekah Bourland, via email.
Her mother, Jane Bourland, was one of the original Corn Stock members in 1954. Rebekah Bourland grew up in the local theater — acting, singing, directing — which often meant working with Nolden.
“He began doing the covers in 1967,” she said. “For a few years, there were others who did some, too, including Fred Larke and Christ Thompson. But for many, many years Bill has done all five or six shows each season . . . . The length of his involvement (60 years) is amazing, and the fact that he is still doing it is even more amazing.”
Over five decades, it does add up.
“I’ve now done 200, almost 300, program covers,” Nolden said.
A U.S. Navy veteran of World War II who did some moving around as a child, he ultimately kept Peoria his home base. He is a graduate of Woodruff High School and, after the war, Bradley University.
When Nolden and Corn Stock were starting out in the 1950s, Nolden made his living as a fashion illustrator, hand-drawing advertisements for Block & Kuhl Co. department store in downtown Peoria. (For those of shorter memory, that much-beloved local institution at the corner of S.W. Adams and Fulton Street became Carson Pirie Scott & Co., predecessor of the recently-departed Macy’s at Northwoods Mall. Its downtown building is now occupied by Chase Bank.)
He didn’t intend to become a theater stalwart. His gift to the community started with a speaking part in Peoria Players’ production of “Ondine.” (“Audrey Hepburn originated that role on Broadway and I was madly in love with Audrey Hepburn at the time.”) Theater hooked him for real when he was directed by Gene Holmes in “Plain and Fancy,” which included an Amish barn-raising with intricately-designed sets by Juliette Whittaker beyond anything found in the Broadway production. (“They said, ‘What are you going to do next year, burn down the tent?’ ”) While he appears to have had a hand in just about every play performed in American community theater, he remains circumspect. (“I have many ‘children.’ It’s hard to pick a favorite.”)
Once hooked, he never kicked the habit.
“Next to my job, it was the biggest thing in my life,” Nolden said.
As he pages through scrapbooks and sifts through countless hours of memories, he seems well-pleased with that choice. Is there anything he’d do differently?
“Oh my God, no,” he said firmly.
Then he paused.
“Yes, there is one,” he mused.
Though the name of the play doesn’t come immediately to mind — there have been so many — Nolden recalls the audience looking down on what was supposed to be a penthouse. Given the configuration of the tent at Corn Stock, the view was understandable. In retrospect, Nolden says, he would have rebuilt his set design so the audience was looking up.
Mame would be pleased. If everyone dishing up life’s banquet had Nolden’s passion for detail, no poor sucker need starve to death here.