Reading Civic Theatre

About Us

October 17, 1894 saw the birth of the society when the Reading Opera Society first presented a production of Bohemian Girl. The society then fell silent for many years until 1914, when the Civic Division of the Women’s Club established a Social Center in a public school on 7th Street of the thriving city of Reading.. In the spring of 1915 they presented The Mikado, a light comedic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan Though this group went on to produce shows for two more years, then they went into hibernation when our country was thrust into the throws of the First World War.

After the war ended, members of the original group felt a compelling need to return to performing. Conferring with G. Russell Strauss, they initiated the 1923 production of  The Mikado, in the Orpheum Theatre. They officially organized as a musical group and resurrected the name Reading Opera Society. They continued to produce operettas for the next five years.  In 1930, the group presented Iolanthe. This performance was encored two months later for the Albright College alumni. After a two-year hiatus, the group again reorganized and pulled into its clutches the well-known Professor George Haag as Musical Director, along with Mr. Strauss in the Dramatic Director position. During 1933, ROS gave its first performance in the grand and luxurious Rajah Theatre. In 1935, grief shocked the organization with the sudden death of Mr. Strauss, and Mrs. George Wolf was appointed to replace him. During this reorganization, the members decided to rename themselves as the Reading Civic Opera Society, and declared a purpose: to promote the knowledge and appreciation of operatic music, light opera and operettas among its members and the public.

In its first year under its new name, RCOS presented two Gilbert & Sullivan shows. Over the next several years, the group also sang a prologue during nine performances of the cinema production of Shakespeare A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Astor Theatre. They presented operatic concerts to the Women’s Club of Reading, and presented a delightful vocal program on radio station WEEU for the celebration of Maier Bakery’s 30th anniversary. RCOS presented concerts at the City Park Band Shell and in 1943 for the soldiers at Fort Indiantown Gap. Meanwhile, they still performed their two shows a year, performing at the Capitol Theatre, the Orpheum Theatre or the Rajah Theatre.

In October 1944, RCOS reached a very important milestone in its life cycle. The membership adopted a resolution to incorporate RCOS as a non-profit corporation under Pennsylvania State Law, and a Charter was granted to the ever-growing organization.

1945 was a huge year for RCOS. In addition to the major performances, the membership participated in several benefit concerts and other miscellaneous entertaining shows. This same year, RCOS incorporated another element into its ranks: the RCOS ballet, under the direction of Miss P. Margaret Hains. In 1947, they undertook something special: a musical production written and directed by one of its own members, Fred Cardin. In 1949, the group chose the most difficult show yet, De Fliedermaus by Johann Strauss. With the help of Mr. Theodore Walker, from the Reading Highs School vocal department, RCOS presented an outstanding performance.

After 26 years, 52 shows, numerous benefits and miscellaneous concerts, Mr. Fred Cardin pleaded with the organization for a leave of absence. Replacing Mr. Cardin was not a task the group relished, but after screening many applicants, they chose Mr. J. Carl Borelli, director of instrumental music at Southwest Junior High School. Again, with the wonderful support of the Reading community, the group thrived under Mr. Borelli. After doing two performances for each show since its inception, the group went one step further in 1951, and added a third performance. After Mr. Borelli’s term with RCOS, Mr. Theodore Walker took the baton for several years. The fifties proved to be a financially tumultuous time for the organization. They depended on lotteries to raise funds and cancelled shows to limit losses. It was a stressful time, but the ingenuity and perseverance of the membership created a teamwork effort that would impress the best of organizations of today.

This also was the time period when as the result of smaller and smaller audiences, the Board of Directors made the change from doing Opera to doing Broadway musicals. 1952 brought Anything Goes to the Rajah stage, starting a new era in RCOS productions. In 1956, under the leadership of three new directors, Mr. Ronald Noll, music, Mr. Robert B. McLean, drama, and Ms. Phyllis Latin, choreography, the organization began to thrive again.  They also decided to design and build their own scenery for the first time and brought in the very talented Mr. Ted Moore in 1957.

The next ten years brought a variety of directors and choreographers to the fold, and they continued to perform the first weekend of every May and every December, as is still the case today. However, using various rehearsal locations kept the group nomadic and homeless. But that all came to an end in May of 1969, when they purchased the building at 122 – 128 N.10th Street in Reading, where they remain today. Its large basement was cleared and provided a perfect location to construct and paint scenery. The main room on the first floor had been a ballroom. This room was perfect for auditions and rehearsals. The remaining smaller rooms on the main floor would eventually be utilized as meeting space, offices and a social room. During the 1970’s the Society, in addition to their two large-scale performances in the Rajah Theater, undertook productions that were held in their new home.

The 1971 production of Fiddler On The Roof was the first performance to be expanded to include a 4th performance in the Rajah Theater. In 1972 Robert Bruce McLean, the society’s dramatics director, wrote an original production entitled Sing Love which showcased love songs found in Broadway’s many musicals.  It was performed first in their new building, and then was taken on the road for a presentation in Atlantic City. 1975 saw the start of Children’s Theater productions when Thirteen Clocks was performed in the RCOS building. Children’s Theater productions continued through 1979. 1980 saw the start of a summer theater program that was presented as part of the Berks Summer Theater project. This summer theater program continued for 16 summers and presented numerous productions that were considered too small to be produced on the big stage of the Rajah Theater.

The turn of the century saw big changes at the Rajah Theater. The Shriners, who had owned the facility since the 1920s, sold it to the Berks County Civic Center Authority. This group undertook an 11 million dollar renovation program to the grand theater. The facility reopened in 2001 as the Sovereign Performing Arts Center and RCOS continued to produce their two full-scale productions there annually.

July 2004 was also another turning point for the society, when after many years of discussion and debate; the name of the group was changed to Reading Civic Theatre.  This change was done in an effort to breathe life into the group by updating their name to more closely reflect the productions being produced today, fulfilling its mandate of training persons in the arts, Reading Civic Theatre continues to find its alumni treading the boards on Broadway, in national touring companies, and in film working either as performers, stage managers, designers or technicians. Jessica Kostival, Michael Kabula, Shorty Long, Dick Ensslen Ann Sayre, Jason Marquette, Jill Gounder, Jamie Pisano, Ross Dillman, Brian Enzman and Brian Gibson just to name a few.

With its current membership of 150 adults and students, Reading Civic Theater continues to strive to produce great theatrical entertainment. Regarding their future, Reading Civic Theatre looks ahead with pride to reaching the 100-year mark, and the start of their 2nd century of productions. They continue to grow and entertain the Reading and Berks County community by living up to their motto of Bringing the Best of Broadway to Berks.

Reading Civic Theatre