BROOKE HILLS PLAYHOUSE: A COLLECTIVE MEMOIR, PART 7A

Brooke Hills Playhouse, Print by Russ Shaffer, 1982

BEYOND THE REMODELING

LODGING or HOUSING THE HORDE

My aunt and uncle, Alice Cree Hamilton and Bob Hamilton, had a cottage at the Bellview Campgrounds.  Located just across the state line in Pennsylvania, it’s about 10 minutes from the barn.  I had spent many happy weeks during many summers as a kid staying with them and playing with the other summer kids.  Those were “Tom Sawyer” summers.  We’d swim out to a floating platform in the lake and spend hours pulling ourselves up onto the platform just for the sheer joy of jumping or diving off again. 

Following a swim, we might fish until lunchtime when we would head back to our respective cottages for sandwiches and Kool-Aid.  Sometimes we’d just grab our sandwiches, and chips if we were lucky, and head back down to the lake’s sandy beach for a picnic. After lunch we might play hide-and-seek, cops and robbers, or put on a show, then head back to the lake for an afternoon swim.  We’d have a shower at the communal outdoor shower before heading home to get dressed for dinner. I’d set the table for Aunt Alice and maybe shuck corn or shell peas. It was all very laid back at the campgrounds which had originally been a Methodist Camp where various religious revivals were held throughout the summer. 

Across the lake from the Cree/Hamilton cottage (which was painted a beautiful, shiny, bright red) were a number of cottages in kind of a circle.  The largest of those cottages had actually been a hotel at one time.  In the middle of that circle were a number of log and plank “pews.”  They were really long benches with no back, arranged in two sections with a middle aisle. They were the seats for the congregations who came to the camp meetings.  At one end there was a small stage with a rugged pulpit for the itinerant preachers to use while delivering the evening messages.  When Aunt Alice was young and staying in their cottage for the summer, there were still a few camp meetings being held.

My family reunion, circa 1983, at Aunt Alice’s and Uncle Bob’s red cottage at the campgrounds.
(Uncle Bob, tallest guy, middle of back row. Aunt Alice under Uncle Bob’s chin, a little to his right. Her hair is pulled back. Author’s son Andrew–front row, third from left. I’m seated on the ground beside him.)

By the time I arrived for my idyllic summers at the Campgrounds, a cocktail hour had supplanted the preaching.

While Aunt Alice lived at the Campgrounds all summer (eventually with my three Hamilton cousins), my Uncle Bob, who owned Hamilton’s Wholesale Auto Parts at the corner of 12th and Charles in downtown Wellsburg, drove out after work each evening.  The cocktail party was a traveling affair, occurring each evening at a different cottage or in the yard of a different cottage.  While the adults drank, we kids just ran around and played. Eventually, the cocktail drinkers dispersed, and dinners were served.  After dinner and dishes, it was back outside for the kids to catch fireflies, play kick the can or some such thing, and occasionally roast marshmallows. Those weeks I spent at the Campgrounds were heavenly.

I’m not sure why, but my aunt and uncle quit going to the Campgrounds sometime in the late 1960s, and in 1972, we (the Playhouse producers) needed a place for crew members from outside the area to stay.

I asked Aunt Alice and Uncle Bob if we could use their cottage for the summer. They agreed.  Tommie and Al Martin stayed in that cottage for several years and loved their accommodations.  The cottage next door belonged to Charles and Gerry Beall who hadn’t used it in years either, and I approached them about renting their cottage. That cottage didn’t have any running water (buckets would have to be dragged up from the lake to flush the toilets), so they let us use it without charge, too. The Beall cottage refrigerator often froze everything in it, and with the exception of frozen heads of lettuce (which thaw out all mushy), we learned to live with eggs, bread, fruit, etc. that had to be left to thaw before being cooked.  Gallon jugs of water were brought from the Playhouse for face washing and teeth brushing.  Showers were taken next door in the Hamilton cottage or a bath was taken in the lake.  Occasionally, we bummed a shower in the dressing rooms at the park pool.

John and Judy, Tim Christie, Nelly, Bill and I stayed in the Beall cottage. Tommie and Al had the Hamilton cottage. We were able to rent suites and rooms at Bethany College (I have no idea where we got the money) for Tom Aston and Rachelle Dwaihy, Elliott, and maybe a few others.

The Beall cottage from across the campground lake, 2021. The Hamilton cottage was just to the right of this cottage. Cottage photos courtesy of Charles H. Beall, III (“Poke” to his friends and family).
The Beall cottage, close up, now with a screened-in porch, 2021

Each year the college kids would move out of the dorms, and our folks would move in, but the rooms were always filthy. The Bethany cleaning crew wasn’t in any hurry to get the dorms cleaned, so our group had to clean their rooms immediately after arriving. We rented there until they started having band camps at the college.  The high school kids were up and racing through the halls way too early for our gang.

In 1981, Dale and Rose Hukill moved out of the yellow farmhouse which was adjacent to the Playhouse, and the Park Board allowed us to fix it up—somewhat. Our crews lived there for a number of seasons. Eventually, the park decided to tear down that farmhouse, and they let us use the white stone house across from the golf clubhouse to house our staff for a few years.  It eventually became the park’s Haunted House.

Over the years Playhouse volunteers from the area also took staffers into their homes for a season or more.  Pauline Pasinetti housed Tom Cervone for his five seasons at the Playhouse.  Scott Martin and Diana Accardi stayed at my home one summer.  Anne and Skip Roberts housed a staffer or two at their home in Bethany, as did John and Judy Hennen in West Liberty.  Sometime in the late 70s, my Aunt Alice and Uncle Bob started using their cottage at the Bellview Campgrounds again, and Al Martin stayed in their big home in Wellsburg.  They loved having Al stay in their home.  He was a tinkerer and could fix just about anything around a house.  Every summer he found things to repair at the Hamilton home!  

In 1983, we bought two travel trailers for the crews to live in.  They were parked behind the stage end of the barn.  The first thing we did that summer was build a shower room under the ramp for the staffers to use, although occasionally a cast member also used it.  The crew had to use the Playhouse restrooms, so it was pretty much like they were going to scout camp all summer!

The Hukill House, 1972. Photo by Bill Nelson. 
Taken from just outside the Playhouse lobby.

We always needed storage space, so in 1986, I bid on the little shed that the construction guys had built at Brooke High School.  It’s still behind the barn.  We were going to use it for prop storage.  Instead, Heather Vulgamore Deerfield claimed it, and she bunked in the “Heather Shed” for one summer!

In 1990, we bought a mobile home and put it behind the stage end of the barn for our crews. Since they didn’t need the kitchen or bathroom, they built all kinds of bedrooms in the mobile home.  The lobby was their living room. When I left in 1995, the crews were still being housed in the mobile home.

FEEDING THE MASSES

For some reason (and I’m certain it was to save money), I was designated the cook for the company. I had never cooked in my life, and I was terrible! Besides we had no money for food. Once I bought a #10 can of sauerkraut. It was a huge can, and the price was unbelievably low. You cannot imagine how much sauerkraut is in a #10 can, but once that sour cabbage escaped the confines of that large can, it grew and grew, and I was too cheap to throw it away. We had sauerkraut for about four evening meals in a row–first with pork chops, then hot dogs, then hot dogs again, then with ham. Finally, the crew revolted and made me throw away the remaining kraut. It about killed me!

During that first summer, I would leave whatever I was doing at the barn and head back to the cottage in Independence, Pennsylvania to cook the evening meal. (Although for a while Mr. Harper parked his travel trailer behind the barn, and I cooked there. For the second and third seasons, I would drive down the hill to Bill’s and my apartment in Wellsburg to cook.) Always having to leave and drag food around was a pain in the neck. Finally, in 1975, a kitchen was added to the tool room with all donated elements–kitchen sink and drainboard, shelving with a counter top, and a stove.

We always had donated refrigerators in the hallway outside the tool room. The first two lasted for years.  They were the small type, about 5’ tall with a rounded top and a little freezer inside the fridge.  My research says they were from the early to mi-1940s, and they just kept working. At the end of the season, we’d empty them out, wash them down, unplug them, and prop the doors open.  A few weeks later, I’d drive back out and shut the doors. One worked for at least 12 more years.

Not one of our long-lasting fridges, but one just like ours.

Unfortunately, the freezers in the darn things had to be defrosted every three weeks or so. I got a little impatient one time and took a hammer and screw driver to the ice. The screw driver slipped, punctured the freezing coil, and the freon gas escaped.  It was ruined, but we didn’t throw it out. Instead, it was converted to a “dry” fridge, in other words a pantry, to keep bread, cereal, flour, sugar, chips, and other dry goods safe from prowling animals and mice. We made a plea for a “new” refrigerator, and one was donated within days.

At the same time the kitchen was added, we also added a toilet backstage, mainly so Stanley Harrison wouldn’t have to make his mad dash across the lobby to use the public rest rooms before his first entrance.  Stanley was the consummate professional and would never, ever appear in public in costume or make-up.  So, he would wait behind the big door that led from the lobby to the tool room until the last audience member headed upstairs.  Then he would dash across the lobby to the public toilet, take care of business, rush back across the lobby through the hallway and up the steep steps to the backstage area to make his entrance.

T.C. blocks Stanley’s pre-performance dash to the restroom!  Photo by Bill Nelson, 1972.

The new facility was named The Stanley Harrison Memorial Hall. The walls of that toilet stall were covered with graffiti that chronicled the little jokes and gaffes that accompanied each season.  When crew members would return to the barn for a visit, they always checked out the graffiti. They enjoyed reminiscing about the things that were written or drawn during their summer or summers on the staff. Sometime after I left in 1995, I hear that someone painted over all the old graffiti.  Several former staffers were incensed and almost broke into tears when they heard that news.

As the company cook, I made lots of chili and sloppy joes those first summers. I made tuna casserole and mac and cheese, corn on the cob, and hamburgers. I made spaghetti with Ragu sauce from a jar, and I learned to make meatballs. (For some reason (and it something to do with me marrying Bill, her fair-haired substitute son), Tommie Martin never really liked me.  Actually, she hardly ever spoke to me, but one day she said to me, “You make good meatballs.” She was a wonderful cook according to her husband Al, so I took that as quite a compliment.) Mrs. Hubbard often brought us eggs, and once in a while I’d splurge and buy bacon, and we’d have breakfast for dinner or fried egg sandwiches.

One of the crew favorites was baloney and cheese melts.  I bought a big chunk of baloney and a box of Velveeta Cheese.  Using my mom’s meat grinder, I’d grind the two together.  To that mixture, I’d add some dehydrated, minced onion and enough mayonnaise to hold it all together.  Then I put a large spoonful of the mixture on half of a burger bun and put all those loaded buns under the broiler long enough to melt the cheese and brown the tops a little.  Much later when I became a much better cook in the late 1990s, I made these for my family.  Richard was not a fan, but my boys thought they were great, and I like them, too!

So, the menus were pretty limited.  That’s about it! Cereal and toast were always available for breakfast or a snack, as were cold cuts for lunch sandwiches.  Picky eaters, (of which there were very few, thank goodness!) might substitute a sandwich or a bowl of cereal for their evening entree, but I never heard one complaint. They may have been too tired to complain, or more likely, they were just too wonderful.

One summer we had a staffer from Elizabethtown College named Nathan Guttman who kept kosher. I couldn’t possibly prepare separate meals. I was struggling to cook one! Nathan ate a lot of tuna fish that summer, and although he made kind of a thing about being kosher, he never complained about taking care of his own meals, if he was unable to eat what the cook was serving!

Every week or so, Mary Harper, Bill’s mom and a school teacher in Chester, W. Va., Jeannette Murphy, my mom, a school secretary at Brooke High, and Helen Hubbard, Marti and Mariana’s mom, and a Brooke Hills Park Board member, from Wellsburg, brought food for the company. Those were the best meals ever–roast beef, ham, turkey, chicken, pork chops and all the fixings. Once the Playhouse opened, the occasional patron would provide an evening meal for the crew as well, and those were always appreciated by all of us!

That first summer Al Martin started a tradition that lived on even after he retired. After lunch and again after dinner, everyone, and I mean everyone, who had shared the meal played croquet in the yard between the Playhouse and the Kiwanis Shelter.

Some local TV weatherman invited people to challenge him at some sport or other which was filmed and played during his segment of the evening news.  Always looking for ways to promote the Playhouse, I challenged him to a croquet match somewhere around 1976 or so. He brought a cameraman and did a little blurb about the Playhouse before the match commenced. After a few wickets, I was leading him when my “coach,” one of the crew members said, “I think you’d better let him win. I had a ball go off the side of my mallet and got derailed. The guy won fair and square, and the barn got some nice publicity.

I think we played croquet for five or six years until Al joined a volleyball league back in Cleveland. That’s when he made us switch to volleyball after each meal. Whether croquet or volleyball, we had some pretty spirited matches and a lot of fun. Renewed by lunch or dinner and bloodthirsty games, we’d then get back to the work of the theatre!

During my tenure at the Playhouse, we had at least three other cooks that I can remember: Paula Welch, Teresa Taylor, and Jim Matterer.  All were much better cooks than I was.  Those crews from the ninth season on have no idea how lucky they were to have Paula, Teresa, or Jim preparing their evening meal!

REMUNERATION

The first few summers the “official” crew members were paid $5 a week plus room and board. Well, they were promised and received the room and board, but the $5 was hit or miss. The volunteers often ate with us, but they drove in daily and probably never even got gas money!

By the time I left Brooke Hills in 1995, we were paying $50 a week plus room and board for the first season worked. Actually, crew members were paid $25 a week, and they received a $25-a-week bonus for each week they worked—if they stayed through the end of the season. This ensured that the crew had something to show for their summer’s work, and it ensured that we had a staff to strike the final show and to winterize and close up the barn.

For each returning summer, we paid an extra $25 a week up to $150. Heather Vulgamore (seasons 1988-1992) held the record for the number of years of being on the crew (7 years) by the time I left.  Thank goodness we capped the salary at $150 ($125 plus the $25-a-week bonus)! Heather would have put us back into debt!

Coming soon: Beyond the Remodeling continues in Part 7B.

6 thoughts on “BROOKE HILLS PLAYHOUSE: A COLLECTIVE MEMOIR, PART 7A

  1. Believe the house trailer bought in 1990. My last year their 89 (?) I did plumbing in the old Ghist house out by clubhouse for us to stay in .
    And yes I remember picking on Paula about her cooking. Then the crew found out about Peggy baking abilities. Still remember the day you found in Paula refrigerator the cream puffs that Paula hid and forgot about. You took one bite and they had spoiled.

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  2. Shari,I love the stories about the Playhouse. You certainly have quite a good memory. It would have been fun to help out at the Playhouse but I was not in WV long enough. But I did make some of the plays in the summer. I couldn’t believe the local talent especially those who sang. All of the behind the scenes work is amazing. Good job. Cheers, Marti

    Sent from the all new AOL app for iOS

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    1. Thanks, Marti! It is strange how vividly that summer of 1972 is in my mind. Maybe it’s because we were doing so many new things that summer, things we were learning for the first time. But like so many others of our age, don’t ask me what I had for breakfast yesterday!

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