Inducted into the Dayton Theatre Hall of Fame, August 12, 2007.
My association with Ralph goes back to 1966. Ralph was in his second season with K-0 Community Theater. I had been tapped to direct Amphritryon 38, and Ralph was playing Mercury, costumed in a Greek chiton and brown jockey shorts. Ralph's scenes were on a "cloud" which was a plywood platform about 10 feet up on the audience's right. It could be reached only from outside the building. At the time, K-0 was performing in a converted barn, which had just one restroom - and it wasn't backstage! Ralph and fellow actor, Phillip Bolwell, on the way to their positions, would take the opportunity to relieve themselves against the side of the building. (A subconscious comment on the production? Who knows?)
Spanning four decades, Ralph has had a distinguished acting career - bringing his considerable talent to dozens of roles, large and small for such productions as: The Odd Couple, That Championship Season, I Never Sang for My Father, The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia, Ah, Wilderness, Death of a Salesman on the Victoria stage, Camping with Henry and Tom, Over the River and Through the Woods for the Human Race, and as the wonderfully portrayed Stage Manager in Our Town.
Ralph has had a close relationship with one of those plays - I Never Sang for My Father by Robert Anderson. In 1969, Ralph directed it at K-0. He then played the role of the son, Gene Garrison, at DTG in 1977, and at the Guild again in 2005, he played Tom Garrison, the father's role. A theatrical hat trick!
And Ralph has been no slouch at directing either. Here's a partial list: In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Pygmalion, Desire Under the Elms, The Lion in Winter, She Stoops to Conquer, Stage Struck on the Victoria stage, All My Sons, The Tenth Man, Da, Hadrian VII, A Life in the Theatre, and most recently, Brooklyn Boy.
One of his best received efforts was The Miracle Worker - a huge success both critically and in audience appeal. Ralph, however, was most proud of the fact that he managed to get an old-fashioned outdoor pump to work onstage. In 1988, Ralph strongly promoted the production of a little-known protest play called A Peasant of El Salvador. It movingly portrayed human rights abuses in that country. It took some courage to produce the play, and even more courage to cast a nice Jewish boy in the title role! But Ralph made it work beautifully, and the show was a tremendous hit.
Back in 1978, the Guild repeated an earlier success, The Lady's Not for Burning by Christopher Fry. Ralph, myself, and the late, great Bob Fish had prominent roles. The smell of ham was in the air. There was more mugging going on than on a moonless night in Central Park! Another show we three appeared in was Tom Stoppard's Artist Descending a Staircase. In that play, Bob's character meets a sad demise by falling down a staircase. After the first performance, some wag chalked a body outline at the bottom of the stairs. Although he denied it, Ralph was the prime suspect.
Speaking of stairs, Ralph and I were in a particularly satisfying show called That Championship Season. During the course of the play, the script called for me to drunkenly fall down a short flight. I was not relishing this prospect. But Ralph volunteered to pad me with foam rubber - from navel to coccyx, and it worked pretty well. Ralph literally saved my ass!
Outside the theatre, Ralph has two great loves: Number 1 : His wonderful, understanding wife, Katherine, and their children, and Number 2: Birdwatching. Ralph is an avid and expert birder. He's up bright and early nearly every day and outside with his binoculars for several hours. I think Katherine has kind of half suspected that he has been seeing a mistress who keeps very odd hours. I dabble a bit in birdwatching myself, and Ralph has been very patient with me. I'll call him on occasion to excitedly report my latest discovery...and Ralph will gently tell me that it has been sometime since anyone, other than me, had sighted a passenger pigeon, an ivory-billed woodpecker, or a dodo!
But, back to theatre. In addition to his performing and directing talents, Ralph has been a vital force for the Guild's growth. As board member and president many times over, as a faithful playreading committee member, and as an all-round spokesman for quality theatre, who has visited countless clubs and organizations around the Dayton area. Of course it's hard to quantify the hundreds of hours Ralph has spent cleaning the theatre, building sets, rescuing costumes from ruin because of a leaky roof, speaking to service clubs, schlepping furniture and props from one location to another, and drafting fundraising letters until his vision blurs. Just count the wrinkles on Ralph's wonderful craggy face and you quickly see that the joy and effort has all been worth it. And speaking of that face...and the throaty laugh and lanky frame - they are as easily recognized by theatre-goers all over Dayton as is his outstanding body of work.
Add to this, the kindest, gentlest, and most generous person on stage and off, and you have Ralph Dennler - who more than deserves this induction into the Dayton Theatre Hall of Fame. True Story! Ladies and gentlemen, I proudly give you Ralph Dennler!
-- Fred Blumenthal
Acceptance comments by Ralph Dennler
Well thank you very much. And thank you very much, Fred. Fred and I have directed each other, acted together, built sets and schlepped at least half of whatever the Theatre Guild has ever owned to and from more places than I care to remember. And we are still simpatico. And the Guild will always be our theatrical home.
When I was finishing the eighth grade, my mother (who I don't think had ever seen a play herself) took me to see a student production at my future high school. And like the dancer in A Chorus Line, I thought "I can do that!" Actually a little bit of the future director kicked in too. I found the lighting unnaturally red and the way people walked around on stage seemed disjointed. But I sure wanted to try it!
And here we are all these years later, I’m not sure if I've been persistent, bull-headed, or misguided-take your pick.
And what high points: in high school, Brother John O'Conner drafted me to be the juvenile in a production of the Blackfriars. Even at that age I knew that you were not supposed to station a prompter behind the couch where the leading lady sat. She was an older person (gee, just like me) who didn't hear as well as she once did (gee, just like me). As a result the audience got to hear the lines twice-once when the prompter bellowed them out and again when this good woman delivered them.
I can never forget our college production of Othello. Playing the minor role of Rodrigo, I was chatting with director Pat Gilvary about how well opening night was going. Only when the lights blacked out quickly did we realize that poor Iago had been left on stage with no one to talk to - because I had just missed my entrance.
I have a lifetime of stories but only three minutes...
The truth is that we are all here because we love and revel in this exercise in civilized neurosis called theater. It's what we all want to do - for free if need be, paid if it can be or some combination of the two for most.
Most of us could not be here unless some loving person was there watching the kids, minding the other part of our lives and most painful of all, cueing us. Endless nights of reruns, conversations not completed and projects deferred "till the show closes". At the time of my retirement I figured I had 43 years of deferred projects. Of course I plan to get to them as soon as the next show closes.
My dear wife Kathryne shares this award with me for all of her loving sacrifices for my benefit. And my daughter Mary usually learns my lines before me as she relentlessly forces me to get them right.
Why do we really do all this? Maybe it's because every now and then a skilled director matches the right script with a perfect cast and we feel that magical rush of taking an audience to a place they've never been to hear things they have never heard. And we all know that moment is simply glorious.
I thank you most sincerely for this award and I salute all the wonderful people I have directed or shared a stage with, basked in their beautiful light, looked good in their costumes, strutted in front of their sets, handled just the right property, profited from their direction and on and on-most especially those dear theater spirits, Ken, Bob, the two Toms, Dutch, Nancy and Carol.
I have only one regret. I wish I could do it all over again.