It was early June, and we still had a lot to do on the barn and on the first show, but we were only going to unveil the Playhouse once, so we decided to have a real opening night with an invited audience and anyone else who wanted to buy a ticket. Following the show, everyone was invited to a champagne reception in the lobby. We had invitations printed, and we invited the county commissioners and their spouses, the park board members and their spouses, our program advertisers, and numerous newspaper writers, radio and TV personalities, family members and friends from all over the Ohio Valley. Press releases had been running in the area papers for weeks, and we had bought some radio ads. TV commercials were way out of our price range. In truth, I don’t know where we got the money for the newspaper and radio ads, but I was sure opening night would be a sellout!
For the first show, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, there was no stage. (There was no act curtain either, and there never has been one. Our audiences seem to enjoy our scene changes as much as they enjoy the shows!) Bill had told Director Tom Aston that building the stage was one big job we were going to have to put off until the first strike night. Tom agreed as he thought performing on the barn floor would be easier for the actors, who would do all the scene changes. Bill had a bunch of black curtains which were used to cover up the back wall of the barn and create a backstage crosswalk. Curtains were also hung left and right to create entrances and exits while masking the backstage barn siding which bordered the left and right wings.
I say “wings,” but the wing space was only 4’ deep on either side. When we started doing larger musicals (1977 with Fiddler on the Roof), it would get pretty crowded back there, and I decided (decreed?) that the maximum cast size would be 28. I have no idea how the wings (or the dressing rooms, for that matter) ever held 28 people. Over the decades our casts and crews have consisted of some of the most talented, creative, considerate, and accommodating people who ever put on a show.
All of the set pieces for Charlie Brown were brightly colored. Snoopy’s dog house was the most imaginative dog house you’ve ever seen–a ladder and steel pipes painted bright yellow which made perches for Snoopy down left and down right. Planks and large wire spools were shifted to various positions by cast and crew members. Various other set pieces (such as a big pumpkin) shifted on and off as needed. I’m sorry to say we’ve only discovered one, sad photo from that first wonderful production.
Most of the cast members of that first show have been featured elsewhere in this memoir. Tom Cervone (T.C.), as Charlie Brown, was joined on stage by Rachelle Dwaihy as Lucy, Tom Ott as Snoopy, Judy Porter Hennen as Peppermint Patty, Elliot Leib as Linus, and Bob Mancuso (West Liberty student from Weirton) as Schroder. Mary Catherine Brehm, a West Liberty student from Martins Ferry, Ohio was the piano accompanist, and Tim Christie played a borrowed trap set (poorly). He swore he’d played drums professionally, but he hadn’t.
July 5, 1972, was about as miserable as a July day and evening could be. It was COLD and not just cold for July, more like cold for late March! AND it was wet, raining for most of the day and early evening. And it was somewhat windy, just because it could be. Fortunately, people started arriving around 7:15 p.m. It was thrilling!
All of us who had worked so hard to get to this night were on tenterhooks, grinning nervously at each other through clenched jaws or chattering teeth. Then the house lights went down. Mary Catherine started playing the overture, and when the stage lights came up, people applauded! And as the show progressed, people laughed and bobbed their heads to the music, and applauded individual numbers. Many of us not involved directly with the production were sitting in the back two rows of our theatre. Believe me, we knew we were a part of something special.
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown! was a great production. The talent and energy just flew off the stage. It was colorful and playful, upbeat and charming. Tom Aston and his cast and crew made magic with their show. We were all so proud of the production, and the audience, which sadly was nowhere near a sellout, loved it also.
Following the show, we all (Playhouse people and audience) adjourned to the lobby for champagne punch and cookies. Keeping with the barn theme, the punch (spiked and un-spiked) was served from my Aunt Alice’s big canning kettles with big, metal, dipping ladles. Had we known it was going to be cold enough to see your breath, we would have served coffee and hot chocolate!
As the crowd thinned out, John, Bill, and I made our way upstairs to the stage. All three of us, unbeknownst to each other, had snuck a bottle of champagne from the cases. It was a bit of overkill, but we sat in the first row of seats and drank a toast to all of the wonderful people who had helped us bring about the evening. Then we drank to each other and then to the amazing thing we had accomplished in two short months–Brooke Hills Playhouse.
Photos from the opening night reception in the Playhouse lobby. How I wish there were photos of everyone who was there!
In the next day’s Wheeling News Register, Don Daniels (above photo), a well-known, area columnist and a bit of a curmudgeon, wrote a smashing review of the show. We were beside ourselves and didn’t stop smiling for a week!
Later in the week, a Letter to the Editor from Nancy Paull (who will figure again this saga) was published in several area papers.
It had been a grand opening indeed, albeit cold and wet. Although we didn’t know it when we started on this grand adventure, establishing the Playhouse near Wellsburg was a godsend. Our proximity to West Liberty and its great drama department supplied us with so many wonderful volunteers, talented actors, and willing crew members. I hadn’t realized how many Wellsburgers were theatre majors or minors at West Liberty and how much talent we had in the surrounding area, but it certainly worked to our great advantage. Wellsburg friends and many other friends and strangers from all around the Ohio Valley, theatre majors or no, were indispensable in getting the barn transformed into the Playhouse. Additionally, they auditioned and were cast to act onstage, or they volunteered to work behind the scenes. And in the years to come, many more would join us.
*Following is the transcript of the press release at the beginning of this post:
Theater Debuts in Ohio Valley
Professional theater has come to the Ohio Valley.
“We have pooled some of the professional, talented people we have worked with, and our resident staff is solid,” said John Hennen of Wheeling, one of the Brooke Hills Playhouse’s three founders.
Hennen, of Wheeling, [sic] joined Chester’s Bill Harper and Wellsburg’s Shari Murphy to launch the theater program which includes comedies and musicals, optional dinner theater and a four-week training program in theater.
Besides drawing from talent “we have worked with,” the trio has a share of talent themselves. Hennen worked this winter as an actor in Williamsport, Pa. Harper works professionally in Detroit and Miss Murphy teaches drama in Kentucky.
“We are using actors from this area,” Hennen added. Stanley Harrison, Dr. Helen Kelly, and Muriel Shennan from West Liberty State College, all with theater experience, will appear at the Playhouse, too.
“And auditions will be held from 1 to 5 and 7 to 10 Friday at the Playhouse, located four miles east of Wellsburg on route 27 in an abandoned barn in Brooke Hills Park.
Auditioning actors will be cast in the first three shows of the six show season: “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “Barefoot in the Park,” and “Arsenic and Old Lace.” And Hennen said rehearsals for “Charlie Brown” will begin immediately.
“Charlie Brown” will be cast among the 25 roles available at this week’s auditions. He said those interested in auditioning for “Charlie Brown” should prepare a ballad and rhythm number. He added that those who have had dance training should prepare a three-minute routine.
With “Charlie Brown” playing July 5-9 and 12-16, the only professional summer stock theater in the state has “Barefoot in the Park” July 19-23. “Arsenic will run July 26-30 and “Story Theater” Aug. 2-6 and 9-13. A yet-undetermined offering is planned Aug. 16-20, and Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite” is scheduled Aug. 23-27 and Aug.30-Sept. 4.
Theatergoers may also take advantage of dinner at the Drover’s Inn in a combination ticket price. Season tickets and group rates are available and Saturday performances are slightly higher.
Students may elect to participate in the Summer Theatre Arts Review (STAR) which includes four weeks of training in acting, directing, lighting, scenery, costuming, make-up, theater history and promotion.
Beginning July 9, STAR will hold classes Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. with afternoons to be used for rehearsal.
Information may be obtained from the Brooke Hills Playhouse, 1714 Marianna St., Wellsburg, or by calling 527-3787.