A LITTLE ANCIENT HISTORY, OUR FOREBEARS
The story of Brooke Hills Playhouse begins long before that first opening night on July 5, 1972. Albert (Al) Martin was a wonderful English and drama teacher at Kirk Junior High School in Cleveland, Ohio for years. Eventually, he became a traveling elementary drama teacher, and in 1972, he was named Ohio’s Teacher of the Year. Over the decades, Al worked at numerous theatres in the Cleveland area, and he met his future wife Joanne Thomas Martin (Tommie) while working at Cain Park. Cain Park is a massive, summer theatre in Cleveland. The outdoor theatre boasts an 84′ stage (the exact length of the barn which would become Brooke Hills Playhouse), uses 20′ high flats for scenery (the width of the Playhouse stage from proscenium to proscenium), and seats 3000 people!
That summer Al also met one of Tommie’s professors from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. John Hulbert was a director who became the head of the Allegheny drama department. Tommie and Al married in 1951, and in 1952, John Hulbert invited Al and Tommie to come and work for him at Allegheny’s summer theatre, the Penn Players. Al would be the designer and technical director, and Tommie would be one of the two leading ladies for the company. Allegheny students made up the majority of the company. One of those students was Stanley Harrison. (See the previous post to learn more about Stanley.)
Fast forward to the 1960s when Stanley was the drama director at West Liberty State College (now West Liberty University), and Al and Tommie Martin were running the White Barn Theatre in Irwin, Pennsylvania (28 miles east of Pittsburgh on U.S. Route 30). Stanley helped the Martins by recommending his students for their summer crews. John Hennen, Bill Harper, Bill Nelson, and I all worked for Tommie and Al during various summer seasons from 1964 through 1968.
We were paid $50 a week, room, breakfast (always orange juice and cereal), and lunch (always a baloney and American cheese sandwich on white bread). We did six shows that summer including The Odd Couple, The Owl and the Pussycat, and Luv. I wish I could remember the other titles, but they are long gone!
My very first job as a theatre professional was to hem the massive, brown velvet act curtain that Al had found in the auditorium of an old Cleveland high school which was about to be demolished.
At the White Barn, the curtain was hung on the long, curtain rod. I removed the heavy chain that ran along the bottom to keep the curtain weighted down as it opened and closed. Day after day, I sat on the stage with the heavy curtain draped on my lap, cutting off so many inches in length as I moved from stage left to stage right, sewing a new hem. The two, huge pieces of the curtain totaled some 80+ feet in length to accommodate the 30’+-wide proscenium. Once the hemming was completed, I threaded the heavy chain through the new hem and swore off sewing for years!
The White Barn Theatre was in a complex which included this stately, large, columned, antebellum building called the Colonial Manor which was a restaurant with banquet facilities and a pool club where children splashed and paddled all day during the summer. Their mothers sat under beach umbrellas on the pool deck playing Mahjong. A long, low building that had once been some kind of a store served as the shop where we built the sets and props. There was a two-story pool house with dressing rooms downstairs and a large apartment upstairs. The two guys on the crew, Bill Harper and some guy whose name I can no longer remember, lived over the pool house with Tommie and Al.
For some reason, I was relegated to a large room on the second floor of the Colonial Manor. After the restaurant closed for the evening, I would be the only person in that creaking, mammoth building. It was spooky! Among other things that summer, I read all the plays of Eugene O’Neill, and Bill taught me how to ride a motorcycle.
One quick White Barn story. The White Barn and other local, little theatres, had a 99¢ Preview Night before the opening of every new production. One massive guy, I’m ashamed to say we all (that is, the staffs from all the little theatres in the area) called him “The Walrus.” He came to nearly every preview. One time he missed one of our previews, and we were so worried about him that we called a couple of other theatres and ascertained that he was okay.
The problem with having The Walrus in the audience was his distinctive laugh. It was loud, and it was long. The rest of the Preview Night audience would start laughing immediately after the funny line or piece of comic business. While everyone was laughing, The Walrus inhaled, filling his lungs with air. THEN, as the rest of the audience’s laughter was tapering off, he started laughing on his exhale, going through the list of vowels, “A A A A A A A, E E E E E E, I I I I I I, O O O O O O, U U U U U!” The audience then laughed at The Walrus’s laugh! It was excruciating! His laughs added about 10 minutes to the running time of the show, and the actors always had to be warned ahead of time that he was in the audience, so they would know to hold an extra-long time for him to go through his laugh routine.
In the years following our time at the White Barn, whenever Bill Harper, John Hennen, and I would get together, we’d reminisce about our summers at that theatre, and one of us would always say, “One day we’ll have our own theatre.” It was kind of a dream, but we all believed it.