Ghosts of Christmas Past #19:
James Edward (a.k.a. Seamus) Tierney
James Edward Tierney was born on his parents’ farm beyond Fahnstock in 1933, a Depression Baby who learned the hard way to do more with less. Hindsight shows us how his family’s Meatless Fridays and Coal-less Tuesdays prepared Jim for a career in theatre, which, under normal circumstances is among the last places to seek your fortune. Hindsight tells us that money was the least of Jim Tierney’s goals.
It is unlikely that Jim Tierney participated in any dramatics at the small school in Fahnstock; plays at the rural Presbyterian church — Sunday School exercises put on for the adults — are about the only exposure to theatre Jim may have had before the age of fifteen. But there is also the possibility he may have been among the last to witness some of Reinhold Kölb’s puppet performances in the Commons during the early 1940s: part therapy, part morality plays for the “clients” at his private retreat. It’s tempting to speculate.
He enrolled at the Normal School in 1951 with no declared major, dabbled in art and theatre, but left after two years for a stint in the Korean Conflict and returned for a string of retail jobs on Broad Street. During those years, Tierney took minor roles in local theatre productions; Shakespeare seems to have been his preference. Then in June 1961, he founded the Prairie Playhouse, a company that rented space in the Auditorium, and scheduled a “season” that raised the bar for small town theatrics.
Never afraid to stir the pot, the Prairie Playhouse staged several plays that either dealt with current events — “Advise and Consent” for example, that had just ended a successful run on Broadway — or recast an old warhorse with new relevance — Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” to which the Bishop of Sioux City took special offence. “A Thurber Carnival” was sandwiched between them to provide something non-political—a rarity for someone who believed the arts were made to poke and prod. By Christmas that year, the people of Agincourt had seen that quality entertainment was possible without a long, long drive to (but especially back from) Omaha or Des Moines.
Most of us accepted that the Prairie Playhouse existed but few knew how it survived; Paul was always paid with Peter’s Pence, we now know. If you had run into James at Cermak’s, you’d have seen a spartan selection in his shopping cart: broccoli, pears, oatmeal, butter brickle ice cream, and Dr Pepper. The Playhouse survived on discrete contributions from “silent partners” whose names never appeared in program credits. We may never know. What we do have is a litany of regional premiers, an honor roll of local talent like Marielle Leer who graduated to careers of note, a legacy of elevated expectations.