A man who played a role in Tyler trademarks, such as the Tyler Civic Theatre Center, the Texas Rose Festival Coronation and the Tyler Junior College Apache Belles, was recognized Wednesday with a historical subject marker unveiling ceremony.
The ceremony honored Alfred “Al” Gilliam, whose marker now sits outside the theater on Rose Park Drive.
Historical subject markers, according to a program for the unveiling ceremony, celebrate “diverse topics including the history and architecture of houses, commercial and public buildings, religious congregations and events that changed the course of local history as well as individuals who have made lasting contributions to our city, community organizations, businesses, military sites and much more.”
Historic Tyler President Lucinda Kittrell said Gilliam became “a builder of our community.”
“He basically built and directed the Tyler Civic Theatre, he built the Apache Belles into the organization that they have become and … he directed and choreographed the coronation for the Texas Rose Festival,” Ms. Kittrell said. “Those are three outstanding feature things in our community … Those are all famous here in Tyler, and … he built and developed and grew those organizations.
“He didn’t just do the theater. That was his first love, I think, but he also loved the Texas Rose Festival.
“I think people need to realize what a builder of our community he really was, a director so to speak.”
Ms. Kittrell also called him “a wonderfully fun man,” “a great friend” and “a great director.”
She said Gilliam, as a civilian in 1943, was actively involved with the Camp Fannin U.S. Army Infantry Replacement Training Center’s Special Services Department, performing in productions as a singer, dancer and stage director.
“One production, ‘Texas Yanks,’ premiered at Camp Fannin and was later performed in Gladewater, Longview, Greenville, Mount Pleasant, Marshall and Palestine as part of the effort to sell war bonds,” she said, adding that she remembers Gilliam talking to her about war bonds.
Ms. Kittrell said Gilliam became a member of the U.S. Army in 1945, and when World War II ended, he went to the separation center at San Antonio’s Fort Sam Houston. He was discharged the following year and then performed plays at the San Antonio Little Theatre.
In 1949, Ms. Kittrell said, Gilliam came back to Tyler and directed the Circle Theatre at Tyler Junior College; “staging productions with audiences seated on all four sides.”
“The shows proved so popular that a group of Tyler citizens rallied to revive its own city theater,” according to the unveiling ceremony program. “In 1949, Tyler Civic Theatre was born, and Gilliam was named its first resident director.”
The group a couple years later opened the country’s first in-the-round theater, and the facility now holds the record for “the longest continually operated theater-in-the-round in the nation,” Ms. Kittrell said.
Gilliam served as choreographer for the Tyler Junior College Apache Belles and choreographer and director for the Texas Rose Festival Coronation. He was the managing director of the Tyler Civic Theatre from 1951 until he died in 1988.
Joyce Paro, past president of the Tyler Civic Theatre, on Wednesday shared memories of her friend.
“Many times I would hear Al say, ‘A play without an audience is nothing,’” she said. “And while he was rehearsing a play, he would be calling for somebody to bring him some coffee.”
She also recalled Gilliam as a chain smoker who carried around an ashtray.
Ms. Paro, a former Apache Belle, met Gilliam in the 1940s, and at one point, she said, he and the Apache Belles director at the time gave her the nickname, “Little Bit.”
She said they also introduced her to the Tyler Civic Theatre, and she “became a part of the family at the theatre.”
She said she has memories of fun times, happy times and some frustrating times.
“Working with Al taught many of us so much more than I ever learned in school about drama. I also became aware that ‘Yeah, I can audition for a play and I can be in a play and I can work backstage, but doing public speaking was not my forte,’” Ms. Paro said.
Additionally, she said, Gilliam enjoyed searching out plays at other theaters and was aware of the makeup of those who came to the civic theater.
Ms. Paro went on to say that she never saw Gilliam in a bad or disagreeable mood, and he was non-confrontational. Still, Gilliam would get annoyed if people backstage made too much noise, and repeatedly told actors offstage to listen to the other actors when they were speaking their parts, and to “not think ahead,” she said.
“He would approve of the state of the theatre today. He would be very proud of it,” she said.