Dramatist transforms into historian
Sharlot Hall Museum archivist Tom Collins happened to start a new chapter of his professional life after he retired.
A student of speech and dramatic arts, Collins, 64, received a doctorate at Indiana University before starting a career at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville where he presided over the drama department for about 31 years, he said.
"I'm a director and my wife is a costume designer, so we're a team," Collins said, estimating he directed more than 100 productions in Wisconsin and ran the Shakes-peare Festival that he started with his wife for about 23 years.
"My whole life has been theater, so one of the nice things, I didn't even know until we moved here was that this town has a fantastic history of theater," he said of choosing Prescott as the place to retire in 2001.
Shortly after relocating, Collins volunteered for docent work with the Sharlot Hall Museum, where researching the history of the Elks Opera House inspired him to dig deeper into the history of the dramatic arts in the area, and eventually write "Stage Struck Settlers in the Sun Kissed Land" about amateur theater in territorial Prescott, published in 2007.
"We all had to do, sort of a graduation project, to be a tour guide and what not. I did this relatively short thing, and I just kept looking, and I kept finding more and more stuff, and decided this is worth a book," he said.
"I'm totally fascinated. I've always been a real history buff, and that's one of the things that attracted me to the Sharlot Hall Museum," he said, adding that he was so engrossed with theater productions in Wisconsin, that he never had time to do research.
Interested in the story of the Fremonts, particularly Frank Fremont's involvement with amateur theater, Collins started out at the museum as a docent in the museum's Fremont House, before moving into archives, where he now works on Tuesdays.
"One of the neat things about that is being able to help people who are looking for their own relatives, their great-great-grandmother, grandfather, or whatever, or they're interested in some particular subject like the mines, the Chinese in Prescott, or whatever," he said.
"We've got great documentation of all that stuff, wonderful photo collection ... mind blowing. And of course the new facility we're in is really great, so much more comfortable and inviting for people."
Collins said he's working on another project about theater history elsewhere in Arizona, such as Williams and Tucson.
"Most of these things have not been touched. It's just a really open, fertile field for me," he said.
Collins is also researching the work of "Silver Tongued Orator of the Pacific" Thomas Finch, a Prescott attorney sometime around 1870 who founded the Prescott Amateur Dramatic Club with a few other local lawyers.
The Daily Courier has published Collins' articles in the Days Past series.
Collins will present his slide show based on the book on July 9 on the Courthouse Plaza as part of Sharlot Hall Museum's educational series, and on Aug. 2 for Arizona's Living History Celebration at Yavapai College.
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