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Grand Rapids Community Summer Theatre (also known as Circle at the Rowe) was conceived in 1952 and held its first season in 1953. It was housed in the Rowe Hotel, at the corner of Bridge Street and Monroe, for eight years, during which time the theatre grew and flourished. Because of the shape of the rented room, it was decided that the play performance area should be arena-style or, in the round with the audience seated around the actors.
Though two of its founders left after several years, those who remained created a Board of Directors in 1956. The Board decided to use local directors for productions with one guest director each year. Arena theatre was so new that a representative from the Michigan State University Theatre Department was asked to present workshops for prospective directors, incorporating the technical aspects of directing in the round.
In 1962, a change in the Rowe Hotel ownership forced Circle to find a new home.
The Pantlind Hotel (now the Amway Grand Plaza) offered its Continental Room, which offered similar elegant ambience and dining options as the Rowe. However, after two years of competing with the noise emanating from the Back Room Saloon, the theatre sought another venue.
Sitting in the middle of John Ball Park was a boarded up pavilion, long in disuse, save for the basement which housed the Zoo's caged monkey families during the cold months. It was a far cry from crystal chandeliers and brocades. But when Parks Superintendent Fred See suggested the facility as a new home for Circle, the Board approved. With the help of park personnel, Circle volunteers freshened the building with a new roof, paint and canvas drops for the open sides, just in time for the start of the Theatre's twelfth season.
Circle's new home came complete with animal smells and sounds, buzzing and biting insects and Mother Nature's other surprises, all which seemed perfect for the Theatre's informal, intimate arena.
The high quality of productions continued through the sixties during which time Circle tapped those actors who showed interest in directing. It also saw many changes, including the addition of Magic Circle, which presents plays for children; the hiring of professional directors; and, new permanent seats replacing the canvas chairs.
The Pavilion in John Ball Park has remained Circle's home for 40 years. But with growing audiences and a need for more technically adequate facilities to produce the high quality entertainment patrons have grown to love, Circle Theatre sought a new home and ended its search in a partnership formed with Catholic Secondary Schools and Aquinas College with the opening of a new Performing Arts Center at the College in 2003.