Early History of IPAL
Iberia Performing Arts League has an interesting history in an area with an amazing history. The organization took shape after a group of theater lovers, energized by a theatrical production put on by the Iberia Senior Olympics, joined forces with Todd Lemaire. The Iberia Performing Arts League or IPAL as it has become known, held its first membership drive on July 14, 1998 and was incorporated July 23, 1998. IPAL received tax exempt status on July 23rd also. The play Cheaper by the Dozen, a dramatization by Christopher Sergel from the book by Frank Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey was selected as IPAL's first production. Leigh Simmons agreed to direct with Norma Lester as assistant director. Auditions were held on July 27th, 29th, and 31st in the building behind Todd's Car Wash. When over 60 young ladies showed up to try out for the four roles of the Gilbreth girls, Norma Lester suggested we add some pre-show entertainment. This gave an additional thirty-two would-be actors a chance to get on stage. Todd's Car Wash became our first PARTNER IN THE ARTS as IPAL members, under Todd Lemaire's direction, volunteered their time to build and paint sets while the cast began to practice at another member's house. Troy Leleux, a local artist, designed and painted a seven panel backdrop for the preshow. The singers and dancers practiced under the direction of Twinkle Ruff and Norma Lester. When the set was erected the cast rehearsals moved to IPAL Hall as the space behind Todd's became known. Three days before the play opened, everything was moved to the Sliman Theater on Main Street in New Iberia. Cheaper by the Dozen combined with the entertainment of the 1920's songs and dances that kicked off each performance, involved 50 actors, one dog, and a host of support staff. We were thrilled to be the first production in the Sliman Center for performing arts and as the Mayor said on opening night, "This is history being made." Cheaper by the Dozen ran for eight performances October 1-4 and 8-11. That paved the way for many more great seasons of plays. On January 1, 1999 Ms. Leigh Simmons became the official executive director of Iberia Performing Arts League. Todd Lemaire remained as President with Fred Comeaux as Treasurer, and Lynn Derouen as Legal Council. In June the Daily Iberian joined IPAL as a PARTNER IN THE ARTS. At the urging of many IPAL members, we began work on our first musical when You're a Grand Old Flag was added to the year's program. There were 55 actors involved and they ranged from age 7 to 70. The Children's Workshops started with acting classes in June of 1999. They performed Twelve Dancing Princesses July 16th and 17th. Twenty-one children were on stage for this performance.
On October 31, 2000, IPAL bought the Essanee Theater from Mr. Freddie Decourt and began the renovation process to bring it up to code. The last play in the Sliman was an acting classes production of Shakespeare Unbound. Acting classes performed the first play in the Essanee, Roomers, practicing in the midst of drilling and hammering. The building was brought up to code just in time for the play. The first regular season play in the Essanee opened to much more fanfare. A Grand Opening Gala was a huge success, the opening night for More Than Meets The Eye in October 2001, nearly one year after the purchase of the Essanee. Also in 2001 IPAL was chosen as The Daily Iberian's man and woman (organization) of the year. IPAL was very grateful for the honor. Work continued, and still continues on the Essanee, while wonderful plays and musicals are being performed to entertain the community. IPAL wishes to thank each and every person who has helped out with the organization.
About the Essanee
Built in 1937 the Essanee theater was state-of -the-art at the time of its original opening. The plans were drawn by noted architect Owen Southwell and designed to be "one of the finest and most beautiful picture houses to be found in any city New Iberia's size in the country." The theater was equipped with the latest super simplex projectors and 2 RCA high fidelity sound machines. The original owners were Julius Scharff and Elias Elias, which is where the Essanee got it's name (S&E), for the first letters to their last names. It opened to hundreds in November 1937. The theater closed in 1980 and sat dormant for years. Then local businessman Freddie Decourt began plans for it to become a museum. At the same time IPAL was looking for a new, permanent, home. Mr. Decourt, graciously decided to sell the building to IPAL. Thanks to the Bayou Art Gallery, which closed and divided up the moneis from sale of its building among area charities, several thousand dollars was donated to IPAL for the down payment. On October 31, 2001 the building became property of the league.
Then the hard work began, the process of bringing the building up to code. IPAL members joined forces the first weekend in November to start cleaning the seats, washing the walls, and cleaning the bathrooms. Most of the work was done through volunteers and professionals brought in only when needed. The building contains many of the original theater seats, which had the gum on them to prove it. Scraping off fifty years of gum was not an easy task. Also, the seats had to be oiled which was a slow task. Every theater needs a stage, and the Essanee's original stage was way too small and not functional for IPAL's needs. Work began on a large, beautiful hard wood floored stage. It was quite an undertaking. The original sloped floor in the building was kept, and the stage had to be constructed on that very floor. Along with the stage on the to-do list was carpeting, fixing up the restrooms and installing a handicapped restroom. Lots of painting was done. Also, seat cushions were added to the wooden seats to make them comfortable. A restroom and changing areas were added backstage. Another feature not part of the original building was hallways from backstage to the lobby so actors and support crews can go from one end of the building to another without being seen by the audience. A state of the art sound system and lighting system were installed. Today, though there is still work left, IPAL has brought the Essanee back to its former glory. The building, at 126 Iberia Street, is one of the restored jewels of the historic district. It can seat up to 200 people to be entertained by one of IPALs plays, talent shows or another IPAL production