Before Fred Applegate hit the Broadway stage and before he appeared on big and small screens, he remembers scrambling for a job.

In 1977, Applegate, who had recently graduated from Northwestern University, set out to start the acting career he had dreamed about since he was 7.

But he needed a job. His needed his first job.

So, he drove to Rock Island for an audition at Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse, which, at that time, had been open for about six months.

The show was “Fiddler on the Roof,” and Applegate had never seen it. While driving, he listened to the soundtrack and tried to memorize the words to each song.

“I was learning it on the spot,” he said. “I didn’t know how good my chances were, but I had to go for it.”

He got the job. From October 1977 to February 1978, he took on the lead role of Tevye.

Denny Hitchcock, Circa ’21 producer, remembers "seeing something special" in Applegate. 

"He was too young for the role, but he was incredible," Hitchcock said. "There are a lot of talented people out there; there aren't a lot of stars. He had that X-factor you look for but can never explain." 

Hitchcock was impressed enough to increase Applegate's pay — around $200 per week — and offer him a year-long contract. 

"That's one of the only times I've done that," Hitchcock said. "Here he is, 40 years later, still acting full time, and we had a small part in that."

"Fiddler on the Roof" was Circa’s third show; it followed productions of “I Do, I Do” and “Butterflies are Free.”

“It was a lot of new things. It was the first time anyone hired me to act,” Applegate said. “When I think about Circa, I think about how special that was.”

It was special for personal reasons, too.

During the show’s run, Applegate fell in love with Cherie Sprosty, who played his daughter, Hodel. The couple, married 37 years now, stayed in Rock Island for three years, performing in Circa shows such as “The Odd Couple” and “My Fair Lady.”

Applegate is thankful for lessons learned during those early years at Circa ’21, which he refers to as a sort of graduate school experience.

“When you’re no longer in school, you learn to shake some habits and some things you should stop doing,” he said. “You do that by being on stage with an audience and performing eight times a week. You learn quickly.”

As Circa ’21 recently kicked off its 40th anniversary season, Applegate says he’s thankful, and a little surprised, that the place he started out in is still in business.

“It can only be something of a miracle,” he said. “It’s hard to keep a dinner theater going anywhere, and the Quad-Cities is a small market. I think they’ve been incredibly inventive to keep it alive and so successful.”

Hitchcock, 75, credits much of the venue's success to its staff and performers. 

"We feel fortunate we've been able to sustain business in a smaller area and through some tough times," he said. "And we're still kicking."

It helps, he said, that Circa ’21 has become a landmark.

It’s housed in the historic Fort Armstrong Theatre, which opened in 1921 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, Circa ’21 is one of two dinner theaters in the country with a performing waitstaff.

“It’s so beautiful and important,” Applegate said. “It’s hard to define a community without the arts.”

Over the past 40 years, the stages have gotten bigger for Applegate.

He was in the original Broadway casts of "Tuck Everlasting" and Sting's musical, "The Last Ship." He's also performed in Broadway productions of “The Producers” and “The Sound of Music.” He’s currently on the national Broadway tour of “Wicked,” in which he plays the Wizard.

He also had recurring roles in “The Cosby Show,” “Night Court” and “Growing Pains” and has appeared in guest roles on a few dozen shows, including “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Will and Grace” and “Seinfeld.”

“The old standard is if you can think of something else you'd rather do, do it,” he said. “But if you can’t imagine anything else, don’t wait and don't stop. I started out in Rock Island and made it out to Broadway."

Hitchcock said there are dozens of talented people who have moved on from Circa ’21 to bigger things. 

Sean McDermott, who played Joseph in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," went on to perform in Broadway productions of "Miss Saigon," "Chicago" and "Grease." Robert Gallagher, who played Circa's first Phantom in "Phantom of the Opera," performed in "Les Miserables" on Broadway. Others have reached Hollywood, won Tony awards and worked behind-the-scenes on shows such as "American Idol" or "The Sopranos."

"It's rewarding and exciting to know there are such talented people who we worked with," Hitchcock said. "There's a sense of pride because not a lot of people get to continue on in the arts." 

Applegate and his wife, who live in New York, returned to Circa ’21 about five years ago to see the 2001 renovation that cost $225,000. It was different, but it was the same place they performed in “Fiddler on the Roof” and the same place that brought them together.

“You look at it, and you’re just thankful,” he said. “You’ll always think of the place you started. And it was a good start.”

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Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).