Forty-eight years ago this summer, an Illinois State University student named Mary Simon crossed paths with the man who would change her life's course.
At that moment in time, she was "an essentially burned-out theater major," as she once confided to us ... the consequences of too much theater, too much studying, too much social life.
One mid-June day, she was sitting in The Red Door, a long-gone campus coffeehouse near the old Milner Library on School Street, which was just a stagehand's holler away from the ISU Theater Department's ground zero.
Along came a fellow theater major who started in about "this crazy guy downtown at the Illinois House who has a dinner theater, and he’s doing auditions for his summer stock theater at Lake Bloomington tonight ... why don’t you come on down?"
"Why not?" figured Simon.
On a Monday night in mid-June in 1969 she auditioned; by Thursday night that week, "I was singing in the Bourbon Barrel Lounge at the Illinois House."
Not too many nights after that, she was doing a trio of back-to-back summer stock shows up at the lake: "Oklahoma!," "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Where’s Charley?."
"It was marvelous. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven," she recalled. "Finally, theater was fun!"
If Lake Bloomington was heaven, then Chaunce Conklin, that "crazy guy down at the Illinois House," was its genial deity.
In short order, he became a mentor, then a partner in life for Simon, an alliance that culminated in the October 1975 opening of the Conklin Players Theatre in a former cattle barn near Goodfield.
The rest, of course, is Conklin Players history, a colorful show biz saga that remains one of Central Illinois' longest-running.
It has twisted/turned through a dozen-odd dramatic cliffhangers over the almost five decades since, encompassing everything from bankruptcy and foreclosure to Chaunce's passing in 1999.
And so it goes today, as the latest chapter takes another turn in the wake of the late-summer tornado two years ago that rendered the Goodfield barn unplayable.
In an announcement this week, Mary said that the Conklin Players two-season stand at the Five Points Washington complex in Washington will come to an end at this season's finish in December.
"Due to the length of the ongoing legal battle with the insurance company that denied the company's claim for weather damages that closed the Barn in 2015, the Conklin Players Corporation will no longer be able to afford to produce commercially past the 2017 season at Five Points."
"A Grand Old Country Tribute," opening a four-performance run July 13 through 16 at Five Points, will mark the first of three farewell shows at the center, followed by "Smoke on the Mountain," Sept. 22 to 24, and "A Gift of Christmas," Nov. 30 to Dec. 3.
"I can't afford to produce anymore," Simon told us the day after the announcement. "I just don't have the funds to continue. I can't do it anymore."
Her primary goal now, she says, "is to try and keep the Barn afloat while we work with the insurance company."
She has nothing but praise for the crew at Five Points, which stepped forward with an offer they couldn't refuse in the wake of the August 2015 tornado: "I love ’em, they're terrific, and we really appreciate that they gave us a place to re-group."
But the fact remains: "It's a big venue ... and we only have a week," she says of the shows that have usually run Friday through Sunday and, in some cases, Thursday through Sunday.
It's a far cry from those wonderfully protracted two-month runs in the intimacy of that former cattle barn outside Goodfield.
"We can't get through to our audience and talk to them and feed them," Simon says. "We're geared to take of our audience over the 4 to 4⅓ hours they were there. We can't continue if we can't get to them. They touched all our lives ... that's what keeps us going. "
The interaction was reciprocal, Simon says of her faithful audience: "They loved that barn ... the barn was an experience."
Will the experience ever happen again?
"Let's just say that we haven't given up hope to be back in the area ... someday."