BROOKE HILLS PLAYHOUSE: A COLLECTIVE MEMOIR, PARTS 3 & 4

Brooke Hills Playhouse

GETTING ORGANIZED

So, how did the Playhouse incorporators (perhaps more accurately “dreamers”), Bill Harper, John Hennen, and Shari Murphy, go about starting a theatre production company AND turning a barn into a theatre simultaneously?  We started making lists!

The first important decision was deciding what plays to do, which play would run when, and how long each play would run.

We decided that our goal was simple. We wanted to entertain people, and our first season would consist of plays and musicals guaranteed to make people laugh. You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (2 weeks), Barefoot in the Park (1 week), Arsenic and Old Lace (1 week), Fable Theatre (2 weeks), The Four Poster (1 week),and Plaza Suite (2 weeks) were chosen to be produced and in that order. Once we named those plays, it seemed impossible to back out.

Then came the nuts and bolts. Where would we find the man- and woman-power?  We needed people to do the destruction/construction for the barn-to-theatre transformation, and we needed crew members–actors, directors, designers, builders of scenery, properties, and costumes.  We needed scene painters and lighting people, stage managers, box office personnel, publicity and program creators. The plays weren’t going to put themselves on!  Oh, and how would we get these people to work 10-12 hours a day for little or no pay?

In addition, we needed to find places for people from out of town to live. We needed a way to feed people! We needed theatre seats, lumber, hardware, paint, and steel. We needed a box office, phone service, and dressing rooms. Programs needed to be designed, and program advertisements needed to be sold. Season tickets and individual tickets needed to be designed, printed, and sold. Our $7,500 in capital would go fast. More than once we wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. Somehow, all of those things and more were found or accomplished by these dreamers. 

WHO WERE THESE DREAMERS?

Bill Harper of Chester, W. Va., a drama graduate of West Liberty State College, went off to Michigan after his college graduation in 1967. He taught in the Ypsilanti school system and at a community college there. He worked at several theatres in Michigan, including the theatre that produced a bill of melodramas in Greenfield Village, the Macomb County Community Theatre, and Meadow Brook Theatre. Bill also toured with several rock groups doing their lighting–Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, and Judas Priest among others.

Without Bill’s expertise in numerous areas, the Playhouse would never have happened. He looked at the barn, took measurements, and drew up all the plans for the barn’s renovation, plans that were quickly approved by the Brooke County Engineer without changes.

Bill had acquired a lot of theatre equipment–lighting, cables, rheostats for lighting control, curtains, hardware, etc.–that he had been renting out to various groups in Michigan. Without Bill’s stash of equipment, we would have been up that horrible creek or producing shows in the dark.

It was also Bill who located the movie theater in East Liverpool, Ohio that had closed and was about to be demolished. He went to the place and determined that the seats in the balcony were in good shape and would be perfect for the Playhouse. He oversaw the barn-to-theatre transformation, working tirelessly to make the Playhouse a reality.

Bill left the Playhouse after he and I divorced at the end of the 1981 season. He died in November 1996 at his parents’ home in Chester.

Shari Murphy (Harper) Coote I am from Wellsburg, W. Va. and graduated from West Liberty State College in 1969 with a major in Speech and Drama and a minor in English. After a year of traveling the country for my college sorority, I joined some friends to teach in Newport, Kentucky.

Shari Murphy (Harper) Coote, 1972

Bill Harper and I began dating in 1970, and we married on June 18, 1972, during all of the craziness of birthing the Playhouse. My parents gave us a lovely bedroom suite which I still have. Bill’s parents gave us a radial arm saw and a table saw, both on casters.  They could be wheeled out into the Playhouse lobby/workroom each day and rolled back into the toolroom/kitchen and locked up each night. Bill’s poor mother just hated those gifts, but we assured her that we would both use them and cherish them every day of the summer season. She eventually got over her dismay. The saws were indispensable for running the theatre and were left at the Playhouse when I departed in 1995.

During my 24 years at the Playhouse, I did a little bit of everything. I directed (starting in 1977), designed scenery, acted very occasionally, ran the box office, wrote the press releases, took, developed, and printed the publicity photos when the newspapers would only accept black and white photos, cooked for the company for the first 8 years, ran props or lights when needed, hated costumes but sewed them anyway, and oversaw the day-to-day operation of the barn.

I taught school and directed shows at my schools for 27 years, first in Newport, Kentucky then at Follansbee Middle School, Wellsburg Middle School, and Brooke High School. At Brooke High, I wrote and directed the first 16 Madrigal Dinners, collaborating with Rick Taylor and his Madrigal Choir.  I also wrote and directed several revues for the high school and directed them using Rick’s music students. Sodas, Sundaes, and Songs featured music and skits from the Gay Nineties, and The Club Soda was set in the Roaring Twenties. 

When I produced and directed Julius Caesar at the high school, other area schools sent busloads of students to see it.  One father who was chaperoning said, “I wish we’d read this play about Julius Caesar.  This one was interesting.”  I assured him this was the same show that he had read but that seeing a production is much better than reading a script.  I didn’t change a word that Mr. Shakespeare had written, but you have probably noticed how often our friend William repeats himself.  Those repeats I cut out, not a scene, not a character, just repetitive verbiage. It remains one of my favorite productions.

I loved every minute of teaching, and my teaching career afforded me the luxury of running the Playhouse in the summer. Although, I always insisted on being reimbursed for props, royalties, costume material, mileage, etc., (my thought being I shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege of working at the Playhouse), I never took a penny in salary for this labor of love, and none of us, Bill, John, or I was ever repaid for our $2,500 investments to get the Playhouse up and running.

Bill and I had married during the first Playhouse season in 1972. We divorced in 1981, and Bill left the Playhouse. For the next 13 years, I raised our son Andrew, taught school, organized and served as president of the Brooke County Arts Council, President of the Brooke County Teachers’ Association, and was a loyal member of the Wellsburg Shakespeare Club. I directed shows in the Brooke County Schools, at West Liberty, Wheeling Jesuit College, and the Brooke County Museum in addition to the Playhouse.

Richard Coote had been sent to Wellsburg in 1975, as the General Manager of what was then the Westvaco bag plant on Commerce Street. Bill and I met Richard and his wife Betsy when Bill and Richard joined the Wellsburg Elks Club. Richard and Betsy lived less than a mile from the Brooke Hills Park entrance, and they were frequent Playhouse goers and often attended our cast parties as well.

Richard was promoted to regional manager and transferred to New Orleans in 1979.  Fortunately, the Wellsburg plant was in his region, and we kept in touch for a while.

In 1994, after not hearing from him for eight years, Richard called one day in May from his home in San Jose, California. We were both divorced, and he said he wanted to see me.  We talked each night after the shows that summer, and he came for a visit in August.  We became engaged in December and married in June 1995, after I directed Oklahoma!, the season opener.  I inherited two more wonderful sons, John and Kevin, and Andrew and I moved to California to join our new family.

After California, Richard ’s job next took us to Memphis, Tennessee for a short while, and in 1998, we moved to Little Rock, Arkansas where I eventually became the senior pastor of the Pulaski Heights Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) for seven years before retiring. Presently, I am a feature writer for a local magazine, play a lot of golf, read, cook, and attend plays. Our sons live in Oak Park, Illinois (John), Memphis, Tennessee (Andrew), and New Orleans, Louisiana (Kevin).

At this point in my life, I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever direct a play again.

John Hennen from Wheeling, W. Va. attended West Liberty State College, dropped out and served a stint in the U.S. Army, and returned to West Liberty to graduate in 1966. It was when John returned to West Liberty that John met the love of his life, Judy Porter, another theatre major.  John and Bill Harper became friends while working on shows together at West Liberty, John onstage and Bill behind the scenes. Prior to starting the Playhouse, John acted at the little theatre in Williamsport, Pennsylvania and spent a couple of summers at Cape May Playhouse in New Jersey.  

John Hennen, 1972

John not only worked on the barn conversion twelve hours a day, but he also directed The Fourposter, a wonderful, two-person show which featured Judy Porter and Stanley Harrison. John had the small part of the telephone repairman in Barefoot in the Park that first summer. We teased him that it was pretty bad when he could only get one small part during a six-show season in his own theatre!  He could tease and take the teasing with the best of them!

In his five seasons at the Playhouse, John directed and acted in plays too numerous to count.  John and Judy left the Playhouse following the 1976 season, going first to Charleston, W. Va., where John was the Assistant Director of Arts and Humanities at the Arts and Cultural Center.

John and Judy returned to the Playhouse in 1979 to star in the two-character comedy Same Time, Next Year. At one point, John’s character was to play a Chopin piece on the piano. We put a fake spinet piano onstage for John to “play,” and a real piano offstage where staff member Scott Martin actually played the piece each night.

In 1980, John and Judy and their daughter Rayna moved to New York City where John acted in over 50 shows and directed 10 more.  He was a member of the Actors Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild, and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. He also taught theatre while in NYC and did some part-time construction work.

John returned to West Liberty in 2008 to teach and direct at West Liberty University and to remodel a house that he and Judy had bought in the town of West Liberty. John taught Acting and Directing during the summers of 2009 and 2010 for the prestigious West Virginia Governor’s School for the Arts; a program to provide training and opportunities for talented West Virginia high school students, chosen by audition and proven participation in all areas of the arts. John continued to teach, act, and direct in the Ohio Valley until his death in April 2020.

Judith (Judy) Porter Hennen is from New Cumberland, West Virginia, and she, too, majored in theatre at West Liberty State College. In 1971, Judy met and started dating John Hennen. When May of 1972 rolled around, Judy joined Bill, Shari, and John, and the Playhouse’s founding trio became a quartet.

Judy Porter Hennen, 1972

Judy acted in three of the six shows that first season, including the opening show, Charlie Brown, playing Peppermint Patty, then as Cory, the female lead in Barefoot in the Park, and later in the season as the female lead in the two-person comedy The Four Poster. In The Four Poster, Judy more than held her own onstage with Stanley Harrison, her co-star and acting teacher at West Liberty.

Judy did whatever needed doing at the Playhouse from assistingwithset buildingand painting to installing seats. Judy remembered, “I was helping to build the platforms for the seats and a Franklin Volunteer fireman (a bunch of them had come over to help us with this huge job) remarked he had never seen so many women using tools!  I was proud of that and enjoyed it immensely!” 

Judy just did what needed doing, and that entailed lots of cleaning, sweeping, and opening jars! Honestly, she was the strongest woman I ever met! She could open jars that even the guys couldn’t! Thank goodness, because Ragu Spaghetti Sauce on pasta was on the menu at least once a week that first summer, and those jar lids were impossible to open–except for Judy!

Judy acted in at least 20 shows in her five years at the Playhouse and directed several shows including the only drama we ever produced, That Championship Season, in 1975 with John playing the leading role of the coach.

Judy and John left the Playhouse following the 1976 season to go to Charleston, W. Va., where she taught acting and directing.  She also directed the productions at the University of Charleston including Jesus Christ Superstar and The Little Foxes.  While in Charleston, Judy and John performed at the Science and Cultural Center and participated in the West Virginia State Theater Festival where they both acted and directed. Judy, once again, directed a successful production of That Championship Season and played Reno Sweeny in the musical “Anything Goes” among other roles. Judy also performed in shows at the Charleston Civic Center, including a very well-received performance as Blanche Dubois, in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Judy returned to Brooke Hills the following summer to direct Veronica’s Room at the PlayhouseThat summer Judy also reprised an earlier character. In 1972, she had played Agnes, the wife in the play The Four Poster. In 1977, she appeared as Agnes in the two-character musical version of the play, I Do! I Do!, opposite Playhouse newcomer Rick Taylor.

John and Judy returned to the Playhouse stage again in 1979 to appear in another two-character comedy, the very popular Same Time, Next Year. Judy and John moved to New York City in 1980, and Judy returned one last time to the Playhouse in 1981 to direct an incredible production of Godspell.

In New York City, Judy took a job as the Administrative Manager of a law firm to allow John to pursue his acting goals, but she also received her Actors Equity and Screen Actors Guild card and acted in numerous Off-Off Broadway shows.  Over the years, she also acted at the Independent Eye, Pen to Stage Productions, Lincoln Center, and others, in addition to doing some soaps and commercials. Judy wrote a play that was showcased– An Un-natural Occurrence at Buffalo Creek, based on the West Virginia coal mining disaster that had made headlines in New York City.

John finished remodeling their home in West Liberty in 2009, and Judy moved back to W. Va. and took on the challenge of administering the West Liberty University Foundation.

John and Judy, both, were always elated to know that Brooke Hills Playhouse was “alive and well” all these years. “We looked forward to the season’s offerings, and it was a great place to get to know ‘the theater crowd’ upon our return to West Virginia.”

On two separate occasions, John and Judy acted together at West Liberty. First they appeared in the challenging two-character play The Gin Game (a favorite of theirs), the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Donald L. Coburn.  One of those productions was their last time on stage together. They also worked together directing Almost Maine in West Liberty’s new studio theater.

Judy is now semi-retired as an adjunct professor at West Liberty where she has directed, acted, and is teaching in the West Liberty Theatre and Communications Department. She continues to appear in shows around the Ohio Valley.

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