Omaha Playhouse academy’s name a tribute to Henry Fonda

From now on, people taking classes at the Omaha Playhouse will be enrolled in a program that honors a great American thespian.

They will be studying at the Henry Fonda Theater Academy, recently named after a man whom critics have called one of the best actors of all time.

Fonda, who grew up in Omaha, got his start at the Playhouse and supported it throughout his life with money and time. He went on to star in numerous movies, but the stage always was his first love, his widow, Shirlee, said in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

When Playhouse Artistic Director Kimberly Faith Hickman arrived in June, staffers were in the process of restructuring the theater’s education department. They decided that they wanted to formalize the program into an academy and give it an official name.

As the theater enters its 92nd season, the timing for the name is perfect, Hickman said. “Many theaters don’t make it this long,” she said. “What better way to continue to build our future than by honoring the past.”

The academy has skills-based classes for youths and adults in topics including acting, musical theater and stage combat. It also sponsors one-time workshops and summer day camps and is known for its two-year Theatre Tech Apprenticeship Program that’s registered as an official apprenticeship with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Hickman said she believes that the tech program is the only one of its kind in the nation.

Academy classes are year-round: There are three sessions — fall, winter and spring — with camps and other events in the summer. Teachers also can bring their kids to the theater for academy-operated field trips. Fall classes began Monday.

The classes sometimes lead to participation in shows, though most people take them just for fun, said Liz Kendall Weisser, the Playhouse’s education manager. There’s a cohort of adults who have taken all the acting classes and now audition and attend shows together. And kids sometimes take a class to help them try out for a specific show, such as “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” a few years back, she said.

Hickman said some people even use the training in medical or law careers or just to get over a fear of public speaking.

Scholarships are available through a fund that’s also in Henry Fonda’s name, supported by his widow. With his sisters, Fonda had a role in “He Who Gets Slapped” at the Playhouse in December 1926 and eventually became an assistant director there before heading for the East Coast to launch his professional career. His children, Jane and Peter, also performed on the Playhouse stage.

Henry Fonda died in 1982, shortly after completing his final acting job, a role in “Showdown at the Adobe Motel” at a theater in Hartford, Connecticut.

He made personal appearances at the Playhouse long after he became a star and remained connected until he died. Shirlee Fonda said Playhouse President Tim Schmad keeps her informed about recent Playhouse events and sends letters from kids who have gotten Fonda scholarships.

She’s thrilled about this latest tribute to her husband.

“I want his name to be known forever, and what a wonderful way for that to happen,” she said. “He would be as extremely honored and happy as I am.”

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