It could have easily been gardening, or a part-time job greeting shoppers at a local store. Lou “Mama Lou” Galecki of Forest Park just wanted a way to fill time after she moved back to the area.
But a conversation with one of her children would give her desire a new direction that would impact that lives of many residents of Forest Park, Oak Park and beyond.
“He said I love to sing and that I have a beautiful voice and suggested I go to one of the local restaurants and volunteer to sing through the dinner hour, and I’ll make $50 a night in tips,” she recalled. “I lived around the corner from Kevil’s in Forest Park and they had karaoke night, so I started going and got a very favorable reaction.”
That gig snowballed into an acting role in a local version of Guys and Dolls, which led Galecki to the friends who would help her found Suburban West Actors’ Guild (SWAG), in January of 2016.
The troupe believes in creating chances for those interested in theater “from 7 to 107.” The group includes retirees who are just starting to act; often they are newer to theater and have unrefined potential.
“They’re all given the chance to hone their craft whether it’s directing, singing, dancing, acting, or tech work,” Galecki said. “It’s rewarding to see performers have the opportunity to grow and develop their talents. It’s exhilarating to see them blossom.”
But Galecki’s theater experience started much earlier.
“My mother was a dancer in vaudeville, and she put me on the stage when I was three,” she recalled. “Starting that young, I have no idea what stage fright is. She said, ‘If you hear people laughing, they’re not laughing at you, they’re laughing because you make them so happy they can’t help but laugh out loud.'”
Galecki sang in her high school and college choruses and performed in a musical after college, but she took a 40-year hiatus from singing and acting. She earned a degree in broadcasting, then worked in advertising and then as a U.S. sky marshal. She raised her family and lived in Oak Park for 30 years, then became a real estate agent in Arizona before finally returning to the area at the request of her adult children.
Now she’s begun a chapter as a driving force for artistic expression in the tri-village area. SWAG’s first major production was a version of Fiddler on the Roof at the Beye Elementary School auditorium in Oak Park last November.
SWAG is ready to put on its next musical at Theater Wit in Chicago. It’s an original production, never staged before. Love Affairs and Wedding Bells is set during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
“It’s a beautiful show,” Galecki said. “It’s being showcased in a theater that has authenticity to it. We hired a director with a long resume. She said what we are doing is not community theatre; it’s legitimate theater — with no pay.”
Sonia Reppe of Oak Park is music director for SWAG. She and her sister, Anita Gabor are both involved in Love Affairs and Wedding Bells, Gabor as lead actress and choreographer. Reppe is music director and a member of the chorus.
“It’s sophisticated, but really catchy,” Reppe said. “There’s a lot of influences from Gilbert and Sullivan to [jazz], and the tempo is fast and fun.”
Galecki acts and sings in the upcoming show but, as producer, she does so much more. When the costumer quit, the completion of the wardrobe literally fell in her lap.
“I’ve been sewing since I was 12,” she said. “I made all 42 costumes for Fiddler on the Roof.”
Cheering on her efforts are all three of her kids, including the one who suggested that dinner-hour singing gig: Johnny Galecki, who plays Dr. Leonard Hofstadter on CBS’s The Big Bang Theory.
“I call him and tell him what is happening,” she relayed with a smile. “He says, ‘Welcome to the club.'”
Love Affairs and Wedding Bells will run Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., from Sept. 22 through Oct. 8 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are $30; $25, students and seniors. For more show info, call 773-975-8150. Anyone interested in being part of SWAG can call 708-669-8696 or visit www.swagtheater.com.