FROM BARN TO THEATRE CONTINUES
The first massive job–removing the big, wooden uprights on the second floor was complete. (see Part 6A) While that was being done, other crew members had been working on another huge undertaking—erecting the high outside porches and stairs giving second story access to the audience.
The two large staircases that now lead from the lobby level to the theatre level on the outside of the barn were inside the barn when we took over. One was in the northeast corner (the ladies’ dressing room corner where extremely steep stairs to the backstage were located for decades). The second staircase was in the opposite, southwest corner (near the ladies’ restroom and where the original box office was). These staircases originally went upstairs inside through large holes in the second story floor and took up a lot of the second-story floor space. Bill had determined that they had to be taken down (requiring a mammoth effort and tons of “friend power”) and relocated to the outside of the barn, or we would lose a lot of seating capacity upstairs and lobby and dressing room space downstairs.
Two high platforms were constructed on the back (west) corners of the barn, requiring another herculean effort. They were braced and cross-braced and tied into the framing of the barn with massive bolts. We always called the old timbers of the barn “ironwood” because it was so weathered and tough. Regular nails would often just bend instead of going into that wood. Attaching the high porches to the barn beams sometimes took two guys turning the wrench on the big lag bolts!
Concrete “patios” with one concrete step to hold the bottom of the stairs had to be poured and allowed to cure. Entries for the audience to enter the theatre on either side of the back of the house had to be cut out and new doors constructed and hung. THEN the tall stairs had to be carefully disengaged from their moorings top and bottom and lowered down into the lobby in one piece. Next, they were pushed and pulled and maneuvered outside where they were muscled up by ropes and propped up with varying lengths of four-by-fours to the height of the platforms. The stairs and the high platforms were bolted together and railings for the porches and the stairs were added. Finally, the audience had access to the upstairs theatre.
I really cannot adequately describe how difficult all of this was. We didn’t have heavy equipment to lift up the platforms or the stairs. We did have a lot of determined, dedicated friends. Of course, once one side was completed, the entire process had to be duplicated on the other side! When both staircases were up, everyone was exhausted but thrilled with the result. Bill really shone through all of the remodeling. His knowledge of structures, how to make things work, and the order of the steps to get something accomplished was incredible.
Mark Murphy, my dad, thought we were all a little crazy, but he was also impressed with the work that was being done on the barn. He would come out to the Playhouse after work or a round of golf and mix Sakrete, supervising the building of the footers and the pouring of the concrete for the patios outside the arches of the lobby. Dad worked hand-in-hand with the other volunteers transforming the first floor into a lobby, box office, dressing rooms, prop storage rooms, and a tool room (to which a kitchen was eventually added).
With two of the big jobs finished, Bill and I were married on June 18, 1972, at the Wellsburg United Methodist Church. Our reception was at the beautiful home and rose garden of my wonderful Uncle Bob and Aunt Alice (Antalis to our crew), who were also generously lending us the use of their summer cottage at the Bellview Campgrounds for some of our crew to live in this summer.
The work continued while Bill and I spent a guilty week in the sun on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. When we returned, we were amazed to find that all of the seating platforms were in place upstairs waiting for Bill to supervise the installation of the seats. Building the numerous seating platforms and legging and leveling them at their various heights turned out to be the easiest of the big jobs for our crew. Mary Kay Hervey DeGarmo somehow got the Franklin Volunteer Firemen (Their station is just a mile from the park entrance) to volunteer to help the crew build and leg all of those platforms while Bill and I were on our honeymoon!
Bill had left an extensive worklist for John and Nelly to accomplish with the crew while we were away. One of those jobs was constructing the super steep staircase from the downstairs dressing rooms to the upstairs backstage area. Our actors would have to be in good shape just to get onstage!
I think that all of those jobs, in addition to the seating platforms, were completed as well. Honestly, I believe our “motley crew” could have built the Pyramids at Giza or the Taj Mahal if they were told we’d be putting on plays in them when they were finished!
If you remember from an earlier post, the 1963 W. Va. Centennial Celebration in Brooke County really made it possible for us to create the Playhouse. The Centennial Committee had installed plumbing and restrooms, the tongue and groove solid flooring on the second story, a good corrugated steel roof, electrical service and the wagon wheel chandeliers, and the concrete floor on the ground level. Without those improvements to the barn, I don’t think we stood a chance of opening a theatre. Those were all big-ticket items, and we didn’t have the capital.
Anyway, during the centennial celebration a huge, old, Victorian, grand piano was somehow carted up the steps to the second floor to accompany the square dances held around those uprights we had removed. By now, nine years later, the piano was weathered beyond redemption and repair and took up way too much space. It had to go, but it was heavier than you could ever imagine. The legs on that piano alone were the fattest things you’d ever seen, as big as the posts on a pier jutting out into a river, nearly as fat as a slim telephone pole! I’ll bet they weighed 75 pounds or more each. Oh, how I wish there was a photo of that piano somewhere!
The guys removed the big wooden cover over the strings. One after another they jumped up inside the behemoth. They would take massive swings with a big sledge hammer at the lead sounding board, at the sides, at the big plate holding the strings. Everyone on the crew took a turn at trying smash that piano into manageable pieces. Blow after blow was struck. Nothing budged! That piano, too, was obviously made of “ironwood.” So there it sat for us to work around.
Once the staircases (remember they were originally inside) were removed from the back corners of the barn, and the floor where the stairs had come up through, was filled in, the crew pushed the lummox piano over to one of the newly cut doors where the audience would enter. The platforms (back porches) were yet to be built, so out the second-floor door the piano went. That did the trick. It hit the ground and exploded into a million pieces which we could finally carry to the dumpster!
One job that wasn’t so terribly hard (except for the need to move the scaffolding often) was “patching” the numerous “holes” in the barn siding. I really can’t remember where we got the lumber to nail up over the gaps which were letting a lot of light in. It seems to me that the park had a lot of weathered planks stacked somewhere in an outbuilding that we were able to use. I know we didn’t put up any new lumber. There’s also the possibility that Mr. Harper, who owned his parents’ farm just outside of Chester, W. Va., had some old barnwood from a building on the farm that he had torn down. Regardless of where the wood came from, we all took turns putting up barn siding and moving the scaffolding until the sides were relatively free of holes.
Eventually, Bill oversaw another big undertaking: the construction of the proscenium, that big picture frame through which we watch a play. The first proscenium was made of two large, black flats, maybe 12’ high and 4’ wide, stage left and right with 1”x12” returns for depth. A third even larger, black flat with a return (I think it was 28’ long so that we had a 20’ opening) was mounted horizontally across the top of the stage left and stage right upright flats to complete the picture frame. Hefting that top flat into place without breaking it into pieces required another gargantuan effort, but the crew continued to do what was asked of them regardless of the effort and strength needed to get the job done.
I know I’ve used words like “huge,” “massive,” “big,” “gargantuan,” and “mammoth” in this section of the Brooke Hills Playhouse story (Although I think I showed great restraint by not using “colossal.”), but those descriptors all apply. If you talk to any of the first season volunteers, I think they will agree that I have not exaggerated a lick! There were also plenty of smaller jobs yet to do before opening night, but compared to all of the enormous jobs that were needed to turn the barn into a theatre, putting on a play was going to be easy!