BROOKE HILLS PLAYHOUSE: A COLLECTIVE MEMOIR, PART 6A

Brooke Hills Playhouse, 1972. Stage end of the barn and the side nearest the park entrance. No ramp until 1979.

FROM BARN TO THEATRE

To say that transforming an old barn into a theatre entailed a lot of hard, dirty, heavy work is a mammoth understatement.  Those who were there (See Parts 5A, 5B, and 5C) may remember the incredible feats of strength they summoned up daily resulting in aching muscles and bruises galore.  They may remember showering each night nearly too tired to rub the washcloth over their dirty, sweaty bodies. They may remember being so tired and hurting so much from the day’s work that it required a mammoth effort of will to pull back the bed sheets night after night instead of just lying down on top of the bed or maybe even on the couch or the floor.  Everyone was tired, sore, and dirty, but I really don’t remember anyone complaining.  Oh, sure, bruises were compared, as were splinters, cuts, and scratches, over the nightly beer, er, beers, but they were badges of honor.  People could see how their work was transforming the barn, and they showed up daily to dig back into those tough, heavy jobs.

I hasten to add that we all might have been sweating from the work we were doing, but April, May, and even June of 1972 was cold and WET, so wet that Wellsburg had a flood that spring. Fires were sometimes built in a 55-gallon drum outside of the barn in the yard for people to warm their hands.  Norma brought an electric space heater to warm up the box office, and chilly nights were prevalent the entire season, although it seems to me that as summer progressed, the rain eased up.

We were working on a super thin budget ($7,500), and there was no money for fancy, heavy-duty equipment.  I know we rented some scaffolding (to cover the gaps in the barn siding) and some heavy-duty jacks (to hold up the roof while the uprights were being removed and the steel was being installed).  Other than that, everything was accomplished with hand-held tools and brute force.  Now, really, how often do you associate drama majors with those words “brute force?”  I’m telling you, you should! I am still in awe of what transpired that spring of 1972 and how so many people came together in a glorious atmosphere of common purpose, laughter, and love to create a theatre and put on plays in an old barn in a park outside of Wellsburg, West Virginia.

Brooke Hills Park, Playhouse nearly in center of photo

Bill Harper, John Hennen, Bill “Nelly” Nelson, Judy Porter Hennen, Tommy Pasinetti, Larry Crofford, and a bunch of other great folks who had caught the Playhouse vision, started the actual transformation of the barn near the end of April. I was still teaching in Kentucky, but I drove home each weekend to work at the Playhouse and to make the final arrangements for Bill and my wedding which would be on June 18—dangerously close to our July 5, 1972 opening night.

Bill had located some theatre seats back in April that were in pretty good condition. They were in the balcony of an old movie theater in East Liverpool, Ohio which was slated for demolition.  We bought maybe 300 of them at a very low price hoping to get 220 that were in good working order. The bolts anchoring each seat were set in concrete, and the crew had to bust the concrete to free the seats. Then they had to lower them in sections of 4 to 6 seats over the balcony railing with ropes. The seats were loaded into a truck and transported to a space loaned to us by one of Bill’s high school friends in East Liverpool or maybe Chester. Eventually, 250 of them were transported to the Playhouse and stacked on the first floor of the barn which would become the Playhouse lobby. We worked around them.

Theatre seats stacked in the lobby, 1972. A young visitor wanders through.

I joined the crew in late May as did Norma Stone, Heather Otto, Janie Miller, and others that were introduced in Part 5. As the barn was transforming, one day Bill said to me, “We’re going to need a sink and refrigerator for the tool room/kitchen. We’ll also need a new toilet for the men’s room, and oh, a piano!” I pitched the list to all of our volunteers who were from there in Brooke County, the folks who were driving in each day. I made a few calls. I made an announcement (plea) in church that Sunday. My mom talked to her bridge club and the Wellsburg Civic League. The volunteers spread the word. I think we had everything we needed by the next weekend!  Honestly, things just kept coming together as if the Playhouse was really meant to be.

The Wheeling Symphony had produced Hello, Dolly! at the Capitol Music Hall in April.  Our West Liberty professor Stanley Harrison was a good friend of Bob Kreise, the symphony’s conductor.  Stanley had directed the show and had hired Bill to build with the scenery. I can’t remember, but I think John may have been in the show. Bill agreed to build the set if he could have the platforms that would be constructed to make a ramp extending in a semi-circle from one side of the stage to the other, extending out over the orchestra pit. Stanley didn’t care what was done with the set after the show, so Bill and John took all the reusable lumber including those platforms.  Of course, all of those platforms and wood had to be loaded up and transported to Brooke Hills.  I have no idea how all of that happened, but I know it would have taken several trips and, of course, manpower for loading and unloading.  Nothing was easy or simple, but it was done.

The Hello, Dolly! platforms became the wall in the east end of the lobby, the wall separating the tool room from the dressing room, and the dressing room walls.

Bill and John putting up walls on the first floor using the Hello, Dolly! platforms. Jim, J.C., Sheets hands tools, nails, tape measure, etc. up to them.

There were several huge jobs during the remodeling that required a lot of hands–re-locating the staircases, removing the 12”x12” columns on the second floor which were supporting the barn roof, building and raising the back porches, building all the platforms for the seating, and replacing the missing barn siding.

The biggest job, removing the ancient, hand-hewn 12”x12” uprights on the second story of the barn and replacing them with steel, was tackled immediately.  Removing the uprights would open up the second floor so that no posts would obstruct the view of the stage.

Back in the winter while he was still in Michigan, Bill had drawn up meticulously drafted plans showing the removal of the uprights and their replacement with steel.  Sometime in mid-May, Bill had met with Mr. Robert Gates, the county engineer, and showed him the plans (as we’d been instructed to do by the county commissioners). The plans were approved.  As the work progressed, Bill was continually updating the plans and creating new worklists.

Bill revising the remodeling plans or creating worklists during the renovation.

Day after day, Bill’s dad, my new father-in-law, Bill Harper, Sr., drove the 35 miles from Chester, W. Va. to the Playhouse. He cut, welded, bent, threaded, and shaped the big steel plates and bars so that the big uprights on the second story could be removed. Without Mr. Harper, and his welding equipment, and his access to thick steel plates and rods at reasonable prices, we would have been sunk! Actually, I’m pretty sure that Mr. Harper donated all the steel.

A staged photo for a newspaper story, 1972.
From left: John, T.C., Judy (under Larry’s arms), Larry, and Bill
 muscling one of the big upstairs uprights.
We needed all the publicity we could muster!

Bill and Nelly were like monkeys climbing over the rafters on the second floor and installing the steel plates and rods with turnbuckles needed to hold up the roof. It was an ingenious plan. Most of the guys were needed to hold the 12x12s when they were cut down, and it took 6-8 guys to carry just one of those monsters down the stairs.

The steel rods and the plates on the ends of the rods are installed. 
Mr. Harper supervises. Bill gets ready to cut the upright. T.C. and maybe Larry in the background and John in the foreground look on.
This upright and one other at the back of the house were not hand-hewn. Notice the square holes in the floors where uprights had already been removed. Obviously the siding needed some work!
Square holes were left in the lovely tongue and groove floor when the uprights were removed.

Eventually, all six of the 12x12s had been removed and replaced with an ingenious system of steel plates and cables.  There would be no obstructed views and not a bad seat in the house!

Here’s the end result of removing the uprights. Notice the steel plates (by barn wall and out on the beams) and the steel rods going under the sawn-off upright. There is more steel on the ends of the cross beams on the outside of the barn where the rods are attached. Pictured: Erich Zuern and Jim Cirilano, two of our former designers, at the celebration of the Playhouse’s 50th Season.  Photo taken in 2021.
The steel rods running under the uprights and the turnbuckles which were tightened to keep the whole thing from collapsing!  All of the steelwork is still holding up the roof 49 years later! Also notice the light plugging strips and light hanging pipes installed by Erich and Jim from the previous photo. Photo taken in 2021. 

There was just one problem that Bill Harper and his dad could not solve. At the back of the house there were two, big, 6”x12” diagonal beams running from the horizontal beam about 12’ or 14’ up on the back wall down to the floor about 10’ out from the wall. If those diagonal beams had some important function and could not be removed, we were going to lose a bunch of seats.

All we could do was hope. Mr. Gates was asked to come out and inspect the work that had been done (the beam removal and steel installation). Thankfully, he was very pleased and complimentary about the work. Bill then asked Mr. Gates about the diagonals at the back of the house. Mr. Gates looked them over. He asked for a ladder, and he climbed up and looked at them from a higher angle while Bill explained that they were taking up a lot of space where we had hoped to put seats.

Mr. Gates came down from the ladder and asked if we had a chain saw. Of course, Mr. Harper had one in his trunk! (Don’t all junior high science teachers carry a chainsaw?)  Mr. Gates took the saw and did the honors of cutting the diagonal beams off at floor level. He then gave the saw to Bill and pointed up on the back wall and told him, “Have at it cutting those beams off up there!” He laughed and said he would be reporting back to the county commissioners about the great things that were going on at the barn.

He left after watching a little bit of the rehearsal of Barefoot in the Park that was going on in the lobby and complimenting every member of the crew that he encountered on doing an incredible job. As he got into his car, he said he was looking forward to seeing our shows. We had been worrying about so many things, and it was so great to get this wonderful feedback. He and his wife attended many shows over the years.  And Norma and I both taught his very bright and very fun-loving twin daughters.

The first of the massive jobs was complete.  The renovation saga continues in Part 6B.

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