BEYOND THE REMODELING
ANNOUNCING OUR ARRIVAL
One day in early June, Bill sent Judy Porter Hennen and me out to the Brooke Hills Park entrance to dig a 3′-deep hole for the post that would hold our sign announcing the current attraction. It was at least 85 degrees and maybe hotter. We were wearing cutoff jeans and bathing suit tops. Judy looked great and got a lot of horn honks from passing traffic. I learned that day that I never wanted to dig another hole.
We would dig and sweat and measure to find that the damn hole was only two inches deeper. We had to keep making the darn thing wider in order to get any dirt to stay on the shovels. It was horrible. We took about a million breaks. We’d walk over to Pizer’s Gulf Station and Store for a Yoo-hoo, that watered down chocolate milk-like drink, or a drink of cold water. The store was air conditioned, and it became harder and harder to drag our sorry selves back to the dreaded hole.
The next day a couple of the guys took the tall post out to our hole and erected the sign between our post and the telephone pole which held the sign for the park. Everyone zipping by the park entrance on Route 27 would now know we had arrived.
It had taken us hours to dig that 3’-deep hole, and Judy and I were mad as can be at Bill, and probably John, too, for making us do that job. I still consider it one of the hardest physical things I’ve ever done! (N.B. Some months later I was telling that story, and someone said, “Why didn’t you borrow the post hole digger from the park maintenance people?” I said, “Why didn’t someone tell us there was such a thing as a post hole digger? Ugh!”)
In addition to painting a 4’x8’ sheet of marine plywood for the sign that hung (thanks to our hole) out by the entrance to the park, a list of local newspapers, radio, and TV stations was compiled with the names of contact people for each. Press releases were written, many by my cousin Heather Otto, and sent out. These often piqued the interest of writers or news people, and some very nice stories about the barn transformation and the establishment of a theatre were published. Some of us went on local TV and radio for interviews. The Playhouse was getting noticed.
Those of us working like crazy to turn that barn into a theatre just knew that this was exactly what the people of the Ohio Valley wanted. The closer we got to July 5, opening night, the more excitement was in the air around the barn. We were going to be a big hit. I was dreaming about making an SRO sign to hang on the box office once 220 tickets had been sold for a performance! That turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.
Another of Bill Harper’s ideas was the Season Coupon. We called them “Season Coupons” because each coupon card was good for six admissions. The card was very flexible (use as many admissions as you wished any evening). The card was punched when an admission was used. You could use your card one time for each show in the season. You could bring a guest to three shows. You could use all six admissions in one evening to save a little money and then buy another one!
We were running our shows Wednesday through Sunday, five performances a week. Admission that first year was: Weekdays–$2.50, Season Coupon for Weekdays–$12.00, Saturdays and Musicals–$3.00, Season Coupon for Saturdays and Musicals–$16.00, Dinner-Theatre (buffet at Drover’s Inn and a theatre ticket)–$5.00.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that our ticket structure was too cumbersome. For the second season, I’m pretty sure we went with tickets for adults, students, and children—the same price for any night and a little more for musicals, which cost a whole lot more to produce. We eventually added a senior price that was the same as the student price of admission. A Season Coupon had one price, and the admissions could be used any day for a play or a musical.
Vernon “Iron Mike” Reimer, the beloved head of the West Liberty Speech and Theatre Department, and his wife Charlotte bought the very first two season coupons, and they bought them every year thereafter as long as they were able to come to the Playhouse—well into the 1980s. Our families and friends also bought coupons which helped buoy up our sagging bottom line.
Wellsburger Mary Jo Kull, a neighbor and life-long friend of my mother, was another one of our first season coupon holders. I think she only missed two or three shows over the first 24 seasons, and I remember how apologetic she was when she had to miss her first show, somewhere around Season 18! We always loved it when Mary Jo was in the audience because she had an infectious laugh, and she could get the audience into the comedy of the play right away.
Most theatres have reserved seating, but in order to do that, we would have had to have a full house set of tickets printed for each evening–dated and printed with the row and number of each of the 220 seats. Printing reserved seat tickets is a very expensive and wasteful. If each evening isn’t a sellout, unsold tickets are going into the trash each evening. Besides sets of reserved seat tickets have to be printed by a specialty company, and to my knowledge there were none of those in our valley.
Our tickets were printed with the top line reading “Brooke Hills Playhouse,” followed by an open space where the date was hand-stamped each day. The bottom two lines had our address, phone number, and the show days and times. Eventually there were four colors of tickets: adult, senior, student, child.
Each show day, the box office worker would go through the reservation book, pull the tickets to match the reservation, date stamp the tickets, and paper clip the tickets together. The name of the reservation and the total cost were written on one end of the top ticket. Over the years this method saved us a whole lot of money.
A DIVERSION: THE FLOOD OF 1972
As if we didn’t have enough going on with remodeling, auditions, rehearsals, wedding, you name it, in early June, the Ohio River decided to flood. Hurricane Agnes hit the east coast, and Wellsburg got lots of rain.
My Aunt Alice and Uncle Bob, who were so graciously letting us use their cabin to house Tommie and Al and Tom and Rachelle, had a big house on Main Street in Wellsburg. Bill and my wedding reception was slated to be held in their lovely home on June 18. Their basement was filled with antiques, and the basement was sure to get flooded.
Our entire crew went to town and emptied the basement, moving all the furniture out to their 3-car garage at the back of their big lot. It was a lot of work, but even this paid dividends. Over the years, we often used antique furniture and oriental rugs from that stash! The four-poster bed, trunk, bureau, dressing table, rug, and chairs in the comedy The Four Poster that first summer all came from the Hamilton garage.
In addition to all of the remodeling, we had shows to get ready. Auditions for the first three shows were held over the Memorial Day weekend. People showed up and the first three shows were cast. It was great!
Rehearsals for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown began immediately. With all the activity at the barn and still needing a decent piano, Mary Kay Hervey DeGarmo secured the Franklin Community Fire Hall and later the Fellowship Hall of the Franklin United Methodist Church (both very near the park entrance on Washington Pike) as rehearsal spaces. The Fellowship Hall of the church even had a tuned piano!
The second show, Barefoot in the Park, went into rehearsal a week later, which meant that Judy, who had been cast in both shows, was constantly in rehearsal as well as working around the barn. Tom Ott was also in the first two shows. Barefoot rehearsals were held out in the yard (where 1x3s were laid out in the grass in the same configuration as the scenery would be on stage with doors and windows indicated), in the nearby Kiwanis picnic shelter (scenery floor plan chalked on the concrete), and occasionally in the lobby, especially on the weekends, when the shelter was rented out for family picnics or reunions.
The picnickers used the Playhouse restrooms, and some of them couldn’t resist hanging around and watching a rehearsal for a while. Almost to a person, they were curious as could be about what the heck we were doing. Occasionally, one or two would return to see a show.
Once Charlie Brown opened, the third show Arsenic and Old Lace went into rehearsal. It was never dull around the Playhouse.
The second set of auditions was held right after opening night on July 8. Again, people showed up, and the final three shows were cast. We really were off and running!