THE FIRST CAST OF CHARACTERS or THE BARNSTORMERS!
(NOTE: Part 5 has three parts–5A, 5B, and 5C. The parts are about the great friends and relatives who worked at turning a barn into a theatre. There were too many people to tell you about in one post!)
Amazing people came to help make the Playhouse a reality in that summer of 1972. They sweated and shivered. They worked long hours and never complained loudly. They did smelly, dirty jobs, and created a Playhouse, a theatre, where people in the audience were transported from a barn in West Virginia to an apartment in New York City, a street in London, a farm in Oklahoma, a village in Russia, or a comic strip by Charles Schulz. It was a lot of hard, dirty work, but when the houselights went down and the stage lights came up, these wonderful people made magic happen.
I’ll never remember them all, but here are some of those good friends and fine people who came to work with the four of us–John and Judy, Bill and me, that first summer. Some were promised the whopping salary of $5 a week plus room and board. Money did not come rolling in, so it was mostly undelivered. Most came not for the promise of remuneration but for the joy of indulging their love of live theatre.
Stanley Harrison taught the four of us and many of the other great friends who came to the barn to volunteer their talents. He grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri and graduated from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, where he was a member of the Penn Players, a summer stock company. The Penn Players was the baby of John Hulbert, the man the Bill, John, and I considered our artistic grandfather, and to whom we dedicated the Brooke Hills Playhouse.
As a member of the Penn Players, Stanley met Tommie and Al Martin. If John Hulbert was our artistic grandfather, then Tommie and Al were our artistic parents through our association with the White Barn Theatre in Irwin, Pennsylvania.
Stanley went on to Yale for his M.F.A. in acting, and one year he was named Yale’s Outstanding Actor. I’m not sure how he wound up at West Liberty State College, but luckily, he did, and many of us claim him as a major influence in our lives. He didn’t do any physical labor during that first Playhouse summer, but he checked on us and our progress often. I probably shouldn’t say that Stanley did no physical labor. Occasionally, someone would say to him, “Stanley, you’re not doing anything, come steady these boards for me, while I nail them together,” or “Stanley, would you go to the toolroom and get me a flat-head screwdriver off the back wall?”
Most importantly, Stanley brought his prodigious acting talent to Brooke Hills where he acted on our stage once or twice in each of the first five seasons. That first season, Stanley and Judy were incredible in the two-character show The Four Poster. None of us ever tired of watching the production.
In 1978, I think, Stanley started a summer company at West Liberty which produced shows in the Oglebay Park Outdoor Amphitheater near Wheeling for two summers. Then in 1979, Stanley left West Liberty for New York City. He received his Actors Equity card and acted on stage (at The American Globe, The Barter Theatre, and The Icehouse Theatre, among others) and screen (appearing in The Sopranos, for one thing). Most impressively, he established his own acting studio. When Richard and I visited him in NYC in 1999, he had numerous students, 30 of which had appeared or were appearing in A Chorus Line.
Sadly, Stanley was taken to Mt. Sinai Hospital in NYC on August 20, 2021, suffering with pneumonia. He died in the early hours of the morning on August 23, 2021.
Tommie and Al Martin, our mentors at the White Barn Theatre, came from Cleveland. They were lodged in my Aunt Alice and Uncle Bob Hamilton’s cottage at Bellevue Campground near Independence, Pennsylvania. When they weren’t busy at the Playhouse, Tommie (actually Joanne Thomas Martin) was happy sitting on the cottage porch, reading or working on a script, and Al was happy fishing in the lake just beyond their front yard. That first summer Tommie directed Arsenic and Old Lace which featured Helen Kelly (one of our theatre profs at West Liberty) and Muriel Shennan (the Dean of Women at West Liberty) in the parts of the two leading ladies.
The first thing Al did upon arriving at the Playhouse was make a little sign that proclaimed, “WE FIX FLATS,” which generated a lot of curiosity from our patrons over the years. (N.B. “We Fix Flats” is a little theatre insider joke. A flat consists of a wooden frame covered with canvas then painted. Some flats will have a hole where a window unit can be inserted. Some will look more like an arch where a door unit can be inserted. Some are solid and serve as flat walls. Several flats are put together on stage to make, for example, the walls of an apartment. Flats are re-painted and used over and over again. We made flats, and we fixed them. Over the years we had lots of audience members see Al’s sign and ask if we worked on tires on the side!)
Al worked on scenery and conceived and directed Fable Theatre, an improvisation piece, where Al read his actors a fable or fairy tale, and the actors acted out the story. Al decided when the piece was set and not to be changed. Most of the stories included some comedy, but The Little Match Girl, which he loved and I hated, was just tragic and ended the first act. I wrote little songs, played the guitar, and sang the songs which introduced each of the various sketches.
Al also acted over the years, most memorably as the Old Actor in The Fantasticks, but he also did numerous bit parts (The butler in Sound of Music comes to mind.) and some larger supporting roles. He played the lead with his second wife Betty in On Golden Pond in 1985.
During that first season, Al played the Rev. Harper in Arsenic and Old Lace. He was discovered onstage having tea with the two, crazy, old sisters when the lights went up at the beginning of the play. It was a walk-off part, as opposed to a walk-on part. He was in the opening scene, exited, and was never seen again until the curtain call. Al would say his few lines, exit the scene, walk downstairs and through the park to a nearby lake in his costume (black suit with black shirt, and clerical collar). He’d then fish for an hour or so. He’d return to the barn in time for his bow. He often had interesting encounters on his way to and from the lake in that costume with his fishing pole and tackle box!
Al was an incredible scene painter (when he painted a brick or stone wall, you were sure it was a solid brick or stone wall!) and a great stage carpenter. During the day, the downstairs area, our lobby, was also our scene shop. Al was diligently working on a complicated casement window one afternoon. Unfortunately, he will also be remembered for building that window around one of the lobby pillars. He had meticulously glued and screwed the joints, so the beautiful window had to be partially destroyed in order to remove it from around the pillar! Eventually, Al saw the humor in the incident (but it took about a week), and we all laughed about it for years.
After Tommie directed Arsenic and Old Lace that first summer, she went on to direct one show a summer, usually a British farce, for the next three seasons. Tommie had started out as an actress at Allegheny College, and she was the primary ingenue for Allegheny’s summer company, the Penn Players, for several seasons. I got to see Tommie act on stage once. She played one of the giddy Pigeon sisters when we did The Odd Couple at the White Barn Theatre in the summer of 1967, I think. She was wonderful. Her British accent was spot on, and she played the part with such seriousness and focus on Felix and Oscar that she was a riot.
At some point, Tommie transitioned into directing, and she directed shows for a number of community theatres around Cleveland. She had impeccable comic timing, and she always knew exactly what she wanted of her actors before rehearsals even started. If an actor absolutely couldn’t produce the business, line reading, or take that Tommie wanted, she would walk up to the rehearsal area and demonstrate exactly what she wanted. Her actors usually got it after that!
Tommie and Al worked at the Playhouse for four seasons together. Tommie died in 1976, and Al came that summer and the next four alone. Eventually Al married Betty Marks in 1981. Betty was a friend that Tommie and Al had worked with in Cleveland theatres and socialized with off and on for many years. Betty and Al then came to the barn for several weeks each season for Al to direct and build and paint scenery until their last summer, 1986.
Sadly, Betty died in 2003. Al and I kept up our friendship, visiting each other in the off seasons and writing to each other often. I have a 3” stack of letters that Al wrote to me. I have often wondered what I wrote to him over all those years. Al died in 2015 at the age of 101. Before he died, Al wrote a fascinating memoir titled I and the Drama. It’s a good read.
Bill had met Tom Aston, the founder of the Theatre Department and the Mime Ensemble at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan when the two of them were working at Meadowbrook Theatre, the resident equity company on the Oakland campus. Later Bill and Tom helped to convert a barn in Michigan into a summer theatre. It might have been the Macomb County Playhouse. At any rate, Bill asked Tom to come and direct and design the first two shows at Brooke Hills for $100 per show. Tom asked if he could forego his salary and bring his friend, an accomplished mime and actress, Rachelle Dwaihy, with him. We agreed. Rachelle worked on scenery, seat-scrubbing, and general clean up along with the rest of the gang.
I recently googled Tom who had gained quite a reputation in the Detroit Metro area as a writer, designer, director and teacher and discovered that he had had an incredible career, working with a number of celebrities over the years. I also learned that Tom, an exceptionally talented and very nice guy, had died in 2005 at the age of 66.
On a whim I googled Rachelle Dwaihy, who had played Lucy in our very first production, and up popped her name and a phone number. I thought, “What the heck?” and dialed the number. There was no answer, but I left a voice message explaining who I was and why I was calling. Shelley returned my call that evening. After a nice chat, I got her email address and wrote to her the next day asking her what she had been doing over the years. Remember, we hadn’t seen each other since the end of July in 1972.
Here’s her response to my email:
“Your voicemail amazed me because, after all these decades, in a moment of nostalgia, I had googled Brooke Hills Playhouse just the week before! So sorry to miss your reunion, and the Drover’s Inn – flash from the past! Also remember going regularly for lunch to…was it the Elks? You put us up at a nice old house with a big fireplace. It was July – why do I remember that? How did you find places for everyone to stay? Your “Collective Memoir” is a great idea, and I’m happy to contribute.
“In fall of 1967, as a 17-year-old incoming freshman at Oakland U in Rochester, Michigan, I attended the New College orientation session. This was the first year for New College, a small experimental college within OU, which followed an interdisciplinary model that appealed to me. Staff and faculty were scattered among students in the audience. I was sitting right behind a man whose hair was long enough to fall over the back of his black turtleneck. He was the image of an early 60’s beatnik. New College requirements included offerings in dance (which I’d studied all my life), music (also part of my background), and theatre (which interested me but, having sewing skills, I’d been stuck pumping out costumes for high school plays.)
“When I walked into the first Theatre class, there was Tom Aston, instructor – and beatnik! He encouraged anyone interested to attend the Barn Theatre’s current show, and to audition for the upcoming fall show. New found friends and I trudged through the mud surrounding the Barn, entering into a whole new world of experiences. Fittingly, the Barn sat at the edge of campus, with only forest beyond. S.E.T. (Student Enterprise Theatre), which had been started by a group of students, was underfunded and otherwise under-supported. The University’s gifts to S.E.T. were: use of the Wilson’s former dairy barn and creamery set in a small corner of Meadowbrook Estate; and a staff member to provide guidance (Tom!) We all appreciated his easy style and focused dedication, and were awe-struck by his varied artistic and technical knowledge and skills, and his engaging and humorous approach.
“My academic classes took a back seat to Barn Theatre shows (directed by Tom) and mime classes (taught by Tom). After three years, as his most serious pupil, I was determined to study mime in Paris. Tom generously worked with me throughout the summer of ’70, to prepare for my audition with Marcel Marceau. I was thrilled to receive the acceptance letter but, a dutiful daughter, I caved under desperate parents’ pleas to stay at OU one more year, complete my BA & teaching certificate – then go to Paris the following year. That next year, Marceau closed his school to go on tour. So, instead, I co-founded The Mime Ensemble with Tom. We did a lot of freebies, but also wrote grants for funds to support our performances. Over the next seven years, we visited hundreds of schools, colleges, cultural centers, art fairs, etc. The troupe’s numbers increased to four, then five or six. Tom acted as Artistic Director but, in his usual fashion, welcomed creative input from all. I served as Managing Director, but we all performed, toted, and did anything necessary to keep the show going. Tom and I started a ‘clown school’ at OU that was really a series of mime and theatre classes, emphasizing technique but also creation of scenes – what my nephews now call “devising” through improvisation.
“So, that’s a really long – but essential – telling of how I happened to join the inaugural season of the Brooke Hills Playhouse. Tom and I held tremendous mutual respect for one another – creatively, professionally, personally – and Tom trusted me to give my all to his friend Bill’s project. I had graduated OU in 1971. By 1972, I had managed, performed and taught with The Mime Ensemble for two years, costumed at Meadow Brook Theatre for the first of my three seasons there, acted and directed wherever I could, taught as a sub at local public schools, and anything else that would pay living expenses.
“Back to the old Barn Theatre and its glorious surroundings: we students worked hard, fell in and out of love (à la late 60’s), and forged lifelong friendships there. Though Tom was a staff member, each of his students felt they had a deeply meaningful connection with him. He was always present, with listening heart. Recently, I came across the 2008 obituary for Bill Gregory, one of Tom’s professors at Western Washington in Bellingham. Bill had brought Tom along when he came to Detroit to direct the Vanguard theatre in 1959. The obit’s description of Bill’s character, approach, and abilities could have as easily been written about Tom.”
Shelley recently wrote me again gently reminding me that she had played Lucy in our first production, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and not Peppermint Patty (a gaffe I’d made in the original post of this section, something I have corrected above.)
In addition to the correction, Shelley sent a great story. She wrote:
“I’ve been meaning to share an anecdote of an onstage gaffe that – like so many theatre stories – was humiliating at the moment, but funny afterwards. It’s sweet of you to give me cover by crediting me with the role of Peppermint Patty (played beautifully by Judy Porter) instead of my role as Lucy Van Pelt.
“One day, as in every other performance, I began my scene by entering stage right with unstoppable force. The action was Lucy’s temper tantrum. Crying and screaming, I dived face down center stage, pounding my fists against the ground, kicking my feet behind me in the air, and yelling at the top of my lungs, to the always out-of-frame parent, “IT’S NOT FAIR! IT’S NAHHHT FAAAIR!!!”.
“Lucy’s hysterical rant was interrupted by two sets of feet stopping just short of my head. Judy and Eliot had entered stage left, speaking Patty & Linus’ lines for the scene that should have taken place.
“I looked up at them, they looked down at me. I rose, dusted myself off, and huffed off in typical Lucy style. True pros, they continued their scene without cracking up. I waited for my turn, then repeated – and, this time, completed – the scene. Lucy’s tantrum always got a laugh but, that night, it received two. Still, I don’t think we kept that bit in.”
Eventually, Shelley became a school counselor. She is now retired and lives in Michigan with her husband.
Bill Nelson from Boston, Pennsylvania was another Speech and Drama major at West Liberty where he usually worked behind the scenes. In my mind’s eye, however, I still can picture him running frantically from hidey-hole to stashing place, searching for his lost fortune as Harpagon, the lead in Moliere’s The Miser, which he played in 1968 at West Liberty. During one performance, the great Alexander Scourby, a film, stage, and voice over actor, whose deep voice was often used as the voice of God, was on campus for a convocation. Scourby attended one act of the show and sent word backstage via Dr. Kelly, one of our theatre professors, that he had enjoyed Nelly’s performance. Nelly said, “It was the highlight of my acting career!”
Nelly, as we called him, had worked at the White Barn for Tommie and Al for two seasons before graduating from West Liberty in 1968. After teaching a year, he joined the army. When his army stint was over, he checked in with Stanley, as we all often did. Stanley told him about the Playhouse-in-the-making, and Nelly immediately came on board.
Nelly was on hand from Day 1 and was an incredible asset to the barn’s transformation. He was on the crew that busted the concrete around the bolts holding the theatre seats in place in the balcony of an old movie theater in East Liverpool, Ohio, lowered the seats over the balcony by ropes, dragged them out to a truck, and hauled them, load by load, back to the Playhouse.
Nelly could usually be found hanging from one of the barn’s rafters helping Bill Harper and his dad, and John get the major structural changes done. I can still see Nelly watching Mr. Harper cut the steel, needed for the barn renovation, with his arc welder. Eventually, Nelly had the face shield on and was cutting steel himself. Nelly was really a jack-of-all-trades, and I shudder to think how we could have done without him. I’m especially grateful to Nelly for sending me the photos he took of the barn and our crew before and during the renovation, many of which are in this memoir.
Nelly became a speech therapist, rehabilitation counselor for the deaf and blind, and adjunct college instructor in Greenbrier County, W. Va. Nelly retired in 2008, moved to Georgia and subsequently to Greenville, South Carolina in 2019 with his wife Linda.
Norma Stone, from Wellsburg, was a Speech and Drama major at West Liberty. Norma and two other Wellsburg friends of mine had all gotten jobs with the Newport, Kentucky School System right out of college in 1969. I joined them from 1970-1972.
Norma taught in Newport for four years before returning to Wellsburg in 1973, to teach English and Drama at Brooke High School. She directed numerous musicals and wrote and directed the Madrigal Feast there for many years.
That first summer at the Playhouse, Norma worked alongside us building, painting, sweeping, straightening nails (one of her fondest memories), finding or making props, cleaning toilets, running the box office, you name it!
Norma also took on the role of director of a program that we hoped would be a talent incubator for the Playhouse as well as a money generator. We called the program STAR (Summer Theatre Arts Revue). STAR was designed for high school students who would attend workshops in scene design and construction, acting, lighting, make-up, and other production areas.
We did have some students sign up, but we had bitten off more than we could chew for that first summer. We were so busy getting the barn converted while mounting the season of plays that we just didn’t have the time to deal with the STAR participants. I know Norma worked hard getting the program organized (with very little direction from the founders, I hasten to add), and it was a great idea. We were just too ambitious, and we should have waited a year or so before trying to launch STAR.
Norma spent the summer of 1972 driving her 1966 green Chevy Impala tank (it seemed that big) named Betsy to the Playhouse every day from her home in Wellsburg. That first summer had lots of cold, rainy days, and Norma brought a space heater from home to give her some warmth in the box office in the evenings. One day as she was driving to the Playhouse on the road inside the park, some guy, apparently thinking she was going to turn into the pool, pulled out and smashed into Betsy, totaling her. It was a very sad day.
I remember that John Hennen always called Norma “The Boomer.” I don’t think I ever knew why, but I know it was a very affectionate nickname.
Norma was active at the Playhouse from our initial season until 1981, and she was always willing to do whatever needed to be done, including doing the costumes for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1980 and directing Babes in Arms in 1981. After the 1981 season, she took a well-deserved break, but she then returned to do the costumes for Camelot in 1987.
Norma retired from teaching in 2007 and lives in Wellsburg with her faithful dogs Scooby and Lizzy.
(More great friends and relatives to come soon in Parts 5B and 5C.)