Warren M. ‘Doc’ Lee inducted into BHB&L Tourism Hall of Fame

Warren M. 'Doc' Lee inducted into BHB&L Tourism Hall of Fame
The Black Hills, Badlands & Lakes (BHB&L) Executive Committee has inducted the late Warren M. "Doc" Lee, professor emeritus of theatre and namesake of the Warren M. Lee Center for Fine Arts at The University of South Dakota, into the "Black Hills Tourism Pioneers" hall of fame.

Lee's daughter-in-law Shebby Lee, granddaughter Lorna Lee and great granddaughter Kanya Lee accepted the award on his behalf.

Lee's name, in addition to the names of three other Tourism Pioneer inductees, will be engraved in the hall of fame located in the foyer of the Black Hills Visitor Information Center, and will join 37 other "pioneers" who have made outstanding contributions to the development of tourism in western South Dakota and whose visions and labors have helped shape the destiny of South Dakota's visitor industry.

Back in 1946, a determined University of South Dakota professor of dramatic arts headed west during summer break.

He had packed up his wife, Margaret, infant son Byron and a trailer full of scavenged bits of stage scenery. Dr. Warren M. "Doc" Lee had a novel idea that tourism in the Black Hills would take off in the postwar years, and was convinced the traffic could support a theater company.

Undaunted by car problems and a failed promise of housing for cast and crew at the upscale Coolidge Inn in Custer State Park, Lee and his fledgling theater troupe landed at the primitive Civilian Conservation Corps. (CCC) camp.

Having been involved in every facet of theater life during his career, from stage hand to actor and playwright, Lee held fast to his dream of running a professional theater company.

Lee and his cast staged Claudia at the Coolidge Inn on June 19, 1946, as well as five other productions that summer. They also staged performances in Lead, Sturgis, Rapid City, Hot Springs and as far away as Igloo.

But the traveling took its toll on the cast and crew and the budget, so Lee built the Frontier Theater near Legion Lake using Game, Fish & Parks' (GF&P) lumber and war surplus tarps.

The third season brought the premiere of Lee's original play The Legend of Devil's Gulch and a partnership with The University of South Dakota. The canvas theater was moved to the park campgrounds during the fourth season, and Lee made the decision to convert the old CCC mess hall into a theater.

Unfortunately, it burned down and never made it to the first performance. Several successful seasons at the post exchange building convinced Lee that a proper theater was needed, and he formed a partnership with the GF&P officials to construct a new theater.

It was a rocky first few years, but by 1960 the Black Hills Playhouse had entertained its 100,000th patron, and established a standard for excellence in South Dakota theater that stands to this day. This summer marked the 61st season at the playhouse.

For more information, contact Bill Honerkamp at 605-355-3600.

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