PART TWO: NOW OR NEVER
In the summer of 1971, during an impromptu get together at Ye Olde Alpha in Wheeling, W. Va., Bill Harper, John Hennen, and I once again talked about those great summers at the White Barn Theatre. The old “One day we’ll have our own theatre” came up, and then someone said, “If we don’t do it now, we’ll never do it.”
I remember a great quiet following that statement. I don’t think we moved–bodies, arms, heads, nothing except our eyes. Our eyes moved from one person to the other. We knew it was true. We couldn’t wait any longer to start our theatre. We would soon be going our separate ways. John was heading to a theatre to act in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Bill was going back to Detroit to work on his M.F.A. at Wayne State University, and I was returning to my teaching job in Newport, Kentucky.
Someone said something like, “Look. We don’t care where our theatre is, right? Let’s all scout out places around where we’ll be working. Look for an old theatre, defunct church, barn, or some big open building, wherever. Let’s keep in close touch and meet up again at Thanksgiving.” And that was the plan.
It’s a long story, but I wasn’t the only person from Wellsburg teaching in Newport, Kentucky. My friends Norma Stone, Susie DeMundo, and Marti Hubbard McEllis, and my cousin Heather Otto were also working there. One fall evening we were together with some other friends, and I was telling them about needing to look for a place to start a theatre. Out of the blue Marti said, “What about that barn in Brooke Hills Park?” Holy smoke! That was it! I just knew it, and I couldn’t wait to call Bill who was now my fiancé.
Of course, Bill and John would have to see the barn, so we arranged to check it out at Thanksgiving. Bill had helped to convert an old barn in Michigan into a theatre, the Macomb County Playhouse, and he knew what was required.
The barn Marti had suggested was a pre-Civil War apple barn in Brooke Hills Park. In the early 1960s, the Gist family willed their 750-acre farm to Brooke County for the express purpose of creating a recreational area for the county’s citizens–a park. Several picnic shelters, a Girl Scout cabin, a small lake for paddle boating, and a swimming pool were built. In 1963, Brooke County’s Centennial Committee was charged with planning the celebration for West Virginia’s 100-year anniversary. They decided to have an ox roast and a barn dance in the Gist apple barn, there in the park.
The barn needed some updating to make the celebration feasible. Restrooms were added, and the barn’s first floor was concreted. The second story received new tongue and groove flooring, and the roof was replaced with corrugated metal (I think from Follansbee Steel as Tom Boyd, the president of Follansbee Steel, was on the Brooke Hills Park Board). The barn was supplied with electricity, and someone created the wagon wheel chandeliers that serve as the house lights for the Playhouse today. Without these major improvements (especially the installation of electricity and plumbing), the Playhouse might never have gotten off the ground. We could never have afforded to install those two necessary items.
I remember attending the ox roast with my whole family. The centennial celebration was a huge success. In the years following the centennial, the barn had little use. Other than several family reunions, some picnics, and a few square dances, the barn sat empty year after year.
Bill, John, and I went to see the barn the day after Thanksgiving 1971. It was a cold, wet day, but the barn was nice and dry, meaning the roof didn’t leak. Bill and John measured this and that, and I took notes. We adjourned to Betts’s Bar for beer and talk. (Bett’s was actually Harold’s Club. It was located on the first floor of the old bank building with massive square columns on Main Street, between 8th and 9th Streets in downtown Wellsburg. We called it Bett’s because Betty Tarr had taken over the operation from her husband years before.) Betts’s soon became our corporate office!
To say we were excited or thrilled is a huge understatement. Bill declared the barn, a two-story structure 28’ wide and 84’ long, to be perfect. He knew exactly how to take out the huge, 12”x12” columns holding up the roof and replace them with big steel rods and plates. Bill’s dad could do just about everything from piloting a plane and building a house to selling cars and teaching seventh and eighth-grade science. Bill, Sr. could also do all the steel cutting, welding, shaping, and threading that would be needed. He also owned the necessary welding and cutting tools.
The three of us determined that our next move would be to figure out how to get permission to convert and use the barn for a theatre. Somehow the permission part fell to me, so over the Christmas break, we met with the Brooke County Commissioners, and I presented our grand idea of starting a summer stock theatre in that old barn in Brooke Hills Park.
I have no idea what I said, but incredibly, the commissioners (Sam Kirchner, Roland (Rollie) Crabtree, and Elmer Vincent, all great guys and true public servants) made and passed a motion on the spot. We were given permission to use the barn, rent-free and utility-free. (The electricity for all the shelters and cabins beyond the barn went through the Playhouse service and picnickers used our restrooms all summer. This was why we did not have to pay for electricity or water.) We were also given permission to make whatever modifications were necessary to turn the barn into a theatre, as long as we had the structural changes approved by the county engineer, Robert Gates. Finally, we were asked to meet with Park McMullen, the county’s attorney, to secure a lease. (Although I knew Park personally and called on him in his office several times in the next few years, we never received a lease in the 24 years I was at the Playhouse.)
We left the meeting in shock and went straight to Betts’s for a celebratory pitcher. Holy cow! We were really going to do this! We were going to have our own theatre.
The next day the three of us met again and made two phone calls–one to Stanley Harrison, our drama teacher at West Liberty, and one to Tommy and Al Martin, our first theatre employers. We gave them the news, and we asked for their help. They were instantly as excited as we were, and they all signed up as our first staff members.
I can’t remember when we decided on the name Brooke Hills Playhouse, but I do know that Bill pretty much demanded that that be the name. Over the years, this decision proved to be very wise, as every time our ads, press releases, and reviews went in the area papers or one of us went on TV or radio, the park also reaped the publicity, a bargaining chip I often used with the park board over the ensuing years.
During that Christmas break, we started the incorporation process and filed our papers with the Secretary of State to be known as The Brooke Hills Playhouse, Inc., a for-profit corporation with 100 shares of stock to be divided thus: Shari, Secretary-Treasurer, and John, Vice President, 33 shares each, and Bill, President, 34 shares. A share couldn’t be divided into thirds for some reason. We each put in $2,500. We opened a bank account and rented a post office box (P.O. Box 186, Wellsburg, WV 26070).
We met several more times that Christmas break at our company’s office (because every theatre decision is made better over beer), before heading back to our real jobs. We kept in close contact and planned like crazy over Spring Break, deciding on an ambitious season of six plays and an optimistic opening night–July 5, 1972. To say that the three of us were excited and maybe a little scared is a gross understatement. There was no turning back, and a mountain of work lay ahead.