THE FIRST CAST OF CHARACTERS or THE BARNSTORMERS
As I wrote at the beginning of Part 5A—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 more 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.
Tom Cervone, T.C., was a West Liberty drama student from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, recommended for our staff by Stanley. T.C. spent four summers (1972-1975) with us, acting in numerous shows and working on the running crews when he wasn’t in the show. He wouldn’t eat anything that was green which was always good for a laugh.
That first season he played Charlie Brown, Teddy in Arsenic, an ensemble member in Fable Theatre, and the Bellhop in Plaza Suite. Such are the vagaries of summer stock–playing the lead one week and a bellhop with just a couple of lines the next. Laughing, T.C commented, “I’m pretty sure I was fabulous as that bellhop!”
Graduating from West Liberty in August, 1975. T.C. went to the University of Tennessee for his master’s degree in Theatre Criticism and Acting Theory. He returned to Pittsburgh where he spent twelve years in the corporate world at American Water Works while acting in any community theatre show that would have him. During that time, he knew there was “something missing.”
T.C. returned to Knoxville in 1989 to obtain his M.F.A. in acting at the University of Tennessee, and he never left.
In 1993, T.C. met Susan Creswell during a retail buying experience. Susan was managing a clothing store, and T.C. needed a new shirt and tie for an interview. He didn’t get the job, but a year later he got the girl. They were married in 1994 in a Feed and Seed Store in Sevierville, Tennessee, home to Dolly Parton, who, did not attend the wedding, but did send her best wishes. They are a blended family, each having a son from a previous marriage, and, oddly, are named John and Jon. T.C. and Susan maintain their marriage was meant to be.
Upon graduation in 1993, T.C. was put on the staff of the university’s professional theatre company, the Clarence Brown Theatre. He was promoted to general manager in 1995 and managing director in 2000. He left the university briefly from 2012-2015 to serve as executive director for the Tennessee Theatre, the state theatre of Tennessee, a historic theatre building and primarily a presenting, as opposed to a producing, theatre.
T.C. returned to the university in 2015, as the Managing Director, again, but added some additional duties on the academic side of the house as Program Director, where he has studied, managed, and now has taught pretty much every class over the last 30 years. And in the vein of never having enough degrees, T.C. picked up his M.B.A. in 2010, just because he needed to learn the “tricks of the for-profit trade” and integrate those into the business of theatre. Occasionally, he does a role to keep his creative juices flowing, but he primarily partners with the department head/artistic director to keep the ship afloat.
I recently heard from T.C. who wrote, “Those four summers, along with my time at WLSC (now WLU), remain my most cherished, most formative, and, perhaps, most impactful experiences for so many reasons, not the least of which would be the fellow travelers with whom I had the pleasure of sharing company, camaraderie, and, well, I think we can call it, LOVE.
“By the way,” he added, I have learned to appreciate, and even eat, green stuff. Actually, Susan and I are non-meat eaters!”
Tommy Pasinetti was another Wellsburg native who was a rising senior theatre major at West Liberty in 1972. Stanley recruited Tom to work on the Playhouse conversion, and Tom remembers most vividly, that massive job of building the high porches for access to the second-story theatre, taking down the big, inside staircases, moving them outside, and putting the stairs back up. He also remembers shooting bats with a BB gun, something I’d rather not talk about!
Tom’s mother, Pauline, was so generous, and she made the staff some wonderful, much-appreciated meals that first summer. Both Tom and T.C. lived with Pauline in the summer of 1972. Actually, T.C. lived with Pauline during all four of his summers at the Playhouse. Pauline was not only generous with her home, she was also a dedicated Playhouse patron rarely missing a show for a number of years long after Tommy left the area.
Just before our first opening night, someone took a long piece of black material and pretty much slapped it up right behind the proscenium to cover up the steel rods which run from left to right and went under the cut-off barn beams to hold up the roof. The thin, cotton material kind of swagged or drooped like cheap bunting. It did the job of covering the rods, but it looked pretty bad and collected dust. For some reason, we never fixed it, but when the season was over, Tommy went out to the barn, took down the swag, ironed it, and re-hung it nice and straight. He said he couldn’t stand it looking so horrible for another season!
Following the 1974 season, Tom, John, and Judy all headed to West Virginia University to work on their M.A.s. Tom became the graduate assistant in the theatre shop, and he met two other guys who would eventually serve as Designers/Technical Directors at the Playhouse–Bobby Shreve and Mike Switalski.
Tom returned to the Playhouse in 1975 to act in That Championship Season which Judy directed. (More about this production later.) Following the 1975 season, Tom served as the Technical Director for the Bethany College Theatre before moving to West Liberty to take over the classes of our beloved Dr. Helen Kelly who had died.
By and by, Tom moved to Charleston, West Virginia, where he worked at the West Virginia Cultural Center, eventually becoming the director. In 2001, he moved to the Clay Center, an arts and science center, where he worked on its development, and then its opening in 2003. Today he is the Director of Technical Services for the Clay Center.
Tom is married to Nina Denton, the Artistic Director and Choreographer of the Charleston Light Opera Guild. Tom has a son and a daughter and three grandchildren. Pre-pandemic, Tom and Nina would travel to New York City several times a year to take in plays and to have breakfast with Stanley.
Like so many others, Tommy remembers how much fun it was eating dinner together each evening on the picnic table outside at the Playhouse. He also remembers returning to the Playhouse in the spring of 1973, to be greeted by a Playhouse full of roosting pigeons and their disgusting calling cards! Thank goodness the seats had been covered with plastic that first winter, protecting them from the droppings!
Elliot Lieb was from Michigan, and he heard about the Playhouse from Tom Aston. One day in mid-May of 1972, he just showed up, and we “hired” him. Elliot was majoring in theatre management, and he helped Norma organize and run the box office. Elliot played Linus in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. (I can still see him hugging his blanket.) He worked hard on the scene-building crew during the day, and worked on the running crews for the other shows during the season.
Elliot was a dwarf, and he was a big hit at Betts’s as the other customers, all locals, were fascinated by him and often bought him pitchers of beer which he always shared with the table.
Some evenings we would stop at the 19th Hole on Washington Pike on our way back to our lodgings in the Beall Cottage at the Bellevue Campgrounds. A few times Elliot would jump up on a bar stool. A few beers later, he would jump down, and the other guys, all locals, at the bar thought he disappeared or fell into a hole! We’d crack up. Those guys would buy Elliot bottles of beer, and again he always shared with the crew. The last I heard (and this was years and years ago) he was working for the massive Nederlander Theatre Organization or the Shubert chain.
Tim Christie was another friend of Tom Aston who just showed up! At least, I think he was a friend of Tom’s and was possibly from Michigan. We could never believe much of what he said. For instance, Tim claimed to have been a professional drummer, so we found him a trap set, and he “played” drums for Charlie Brown. Of course, he’d never been a drummer, and it was pretty obvious! He did work pretty hard during the day on the remodeling of the barn and on scenery. He also acted in a few shows that summer. He and Bill Nelson shared a room that had bunk beds in the Beall cabin that summer. I don’t think they had much, if anything, in common!
Richard Ferguson, a St. Clairsville, Ohio native, and a speech and drama major at West Liberty, showed up for the first auditions and was cast in Arsenic. In his 16 seasons at the Playhouse, Rich was a stalwart company member. How he ever learned all those lines in play after play, I’ll never know. He was in every single production during the 1980 season, several times playing the lead!
We always used to tease that Rich was born at the age of forty. He just had this maturity and seriousness about him, and a prematurely receding hairline didn’t help either. He was a great character actor, successfully playing roles that were meant for much older men. He had wonderful comic timing, and his slow burn was up there with the best of them.
One of my favorite things each spring was writing up the program notes for Rich that season, and he never got to read his blurb until opening night. One year I said that he was a skateboard aficionado. Another year he was on a roller derby team, another year he was a mountain biker, and so it went year after year. Rich would be the first to admit that he didn’t have an athletic bone in his body, and he always got a good laugh at his alleged hobbies.
After a stint at teaching, which he hated, Rich became the secretary to the West Liberty College President. He put a tremendous number of miles on his cars over the years going between St. Clairsville and the barn and later between West Liberty and the barn. From what I can garner from former staffers, casts, and crews, Rich left us after the summer of 1987, and moved to Pittsburgh. I can’t even imagine how many shows he was in all told.
Over those many years, Rich proved to be a great talent–so solid and dependable on stage and off, and one of our most valuable assets. Sadly, Rich died in 1996.
Mary Kay Hervey DeGarmo was a drama major at Fairmont State College who grew up and lived about 3 miles from the Playhouse. That first summer and for several seasons following, she did our costuming on a shoestring. She occasionally appeared in the chorus of a musical, also.
After designing the costumes for Charlie Brown, Mary Kay met with the director, Tom Aston. Tom was very worried about the budget, and after hearing Mary Kay’s plan, he asked, “What is all of this going to cost? We don’t have any money.”
Mary Kay answered, “$60–including shoes.”
Tom said, “Oh, okay!”
Mary K. then went to work sewing on her very little, black sewing machine, often on one of the cable spools in the lobby, turning out costumes that turned our actors into the “Peanuts” of the comic strip.
I like the above photo of Mary K. with her two cousins, Mariana Hubbard, who worked at the Playhouse during the first summer, and Mariana’s sister, my dear friend Marti Hubbard McEllis, who suggested that we look at “that old barn in Brooke Hills Park” as a possible site for our theatre. Mariana and Marti and their brothers Sam and John and their mother Helen weren’t the only members of Mary K.’s family to volunteer that first summer. Mary Kay’s brother Russ was very involved, and brothers Fred and Jim Bob did some volunteering as well. Finally, Margaret Ann, Mary Kay’s mom, cooked the occasional, delicious meal for the crew. The Herveys and the Hubbards were instrumental in getting the Playhouse open.
Mary Kay continued to volunteer at the Playhouse until 1981 working on costumes, but she also remembers running lights for one of the early shows when the light board was downstairs on the floor in the passageway from the kitchen/tool to the dressing rooms. She enlisted her little brother Russ, a seventh grader, to help her as the light cues often required that certain lights be unplugged and other lights plugged in for the next cue. Our limited number of rotary rheostats, couldn’t handle all of the instruments at once. “Standing on electrical cables in a thunderstorm made for an interesting evening,” said Mary K.
Oklahoma opened the 1980 season with Rock Taylor as Curley and Marla Mercer as Laurie. “Marla had a quick change at the end of the show into a wedding costume,” said Mary K. “I had made with a blouse and a gathered skirt, and we would race down THE steps to change in the dressing room. I made the skirt with a Velcro closing to aid in the quick change, but by the end of the show, her waist band would be popped somewhat open. I was in the chorus, and I kept watching that waistband.
“No matter what I did that stinking waistband would still pop. It took me into the second week of the run before I figured out to have her breathe as if she was going to sing before I Velcroed her in. Oh, my goodness, the waistband didn’t even meet! I remember saying, ‘Marla, do that again.’ I had never seen anyone breathe so deeply that it expanded her back as well as her diaphragm. She said, ‘That is part of my diaphragm. Doesn’t yours expand when you sing?’ I said, ‘Nope.’ What a powerful singer she was! She also said she liked it when it rained. It was always so noisy from the rain on the metal roof, and she said she could ‘finally open up and really sing.’ Meanwhile, the rest of us were struggling to project enough to top the rain with our collective voices!”
Mary K. was a guidance counselor in the Brooke County School System for a number of years before becoming an administrator and eventually the Superintendent of Schools. She and her husband Alan are the parents of two grown children, Kathrine and Patrick, and she is the NaNa to eight grandchildren. Mary K. and Alan built their home very near her family’s home just a few miles from the Playhouse. Mary K. retired from the school system in 2010, and she now enjoys quilting, singing in the choir and serving at the weekly Franklin United Methodist Church Soup Luncheons, and doing paper crafting to make boxes for sweet treats for the loves of her life–the grands!
Mary K. concentrated on costumes and performed in several shows, but she made two other major contribution. One was getting the Franklin Volunteer Firemen to come out to the barn to build and leg all of the seating platforms so the house for the audience would be raked in addition to having the seats staggered. It was a mammoth contribution. Bill and I were on our honeymoon when this occurred, and when we returned, it was like a wonderful, delayed wedding present!
I think it was during the third season that Mary K. and I started the tradition of making gallons and gallons of spaghetti sauce at the beginning of the summer. We’d set aside a day and go to the Franklin UMC kitchen and chop, mix, and boil the sauce for hours. We then froze it in large containers, and I served some kind of a pasta dish each week. It made my job as cook so much easier!
Tom Ott from nearby Follansbee, West Virginia, graduated from West Liberty in 1968 with a speech and English degree and went on to earn his M. A. in theatre from West Virginia University in 1975.
Tom said, “I am very proud to say I acted, sang, and danced in the very first play produced at Brooke Hills. We ushered in a bright, artistic opportunity for audiences and performers alike in our community, and we made a difference.” Tom played Snoopy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Don Daniels of the Wheeling News Register came to our first opening night and gave the Playhouse and the show a great review, and he really raved about Tom’s performance.
Tom taught English at Wellsburg High School from 1969-1971 and transitioned to teaching theatre, speech and English for the next two year at the new Brooke High School when it opened.
During the 1977 season, we presented Tom’s mime show, Circles of Silence. It was nearly a one-man show, but Tom incorporated several of the staff members in the production, much to their delight! The set consisted of black curtains and two large comedy and tragedy masks painted white. Those masks graced the front of the old proscenium until the canvas proscenium was replaced by a barn wood proscenium at the end of the 1984 season.
In the following years, Tom was a theatre professor in Syracuse, New York at Onondaga Community College where he taught speech, acting, make-up, and mime. He returned to the Ohio Valley and was an adjunct speech professor at Eastern Gateway Community College both on-line and in-seat. In addition, he served as a college prep instructor in Theatre History at Big Red High School in Steubenville, Ohio.
Over the years, Tom did summer stock theatre in Wilmington, Ohio, at the Plowright Playhouse in Warren, Pennsylvania, the Rochester Music Theatre in Rochester, New York in addition to his five summers at Brooke Hills. Tom has also done shows with the Steubenville Players and Towngate Theatre in Wheeling.
“Today I spend my time painting,” said Tom. “I concentrate now on the visual aspects of communication and just recently finished three enormous works on the walls of Eastern Gateway Community College in Steubenville, Ohio.”
(More great friends and relatives to come soon in Part 5C.)