THE FIRST SEASON IS UNDERWAY
The first show, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, opened to great reviews and modest-sized audiences that loved every moment of the production. Many people throughout that first summer expressed their amazement when they walked up the steps to the second story for the first time and discovered a real theatre with actual fold-up, padded, theatre seats on platforms of various levels to enhance their view of the stage. After the show or when we were stopped on the street in downtown Wellsburg, people who had seen the show would say things like this:
“I don’t know what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t this!”
“When I walked into that lobby downstairs, I knew I had walked into a barn, and I thought, ‘oh, ooh.’ When I walked upstairs and saw the theatre, I had to pinch myself. It was incredible.”
“Absolutely everything amazed me—the barn, the theatre seats, the scenery, the costumes, the music, the incredible cast. I was blown away!”
Charlie Brown would run 5 nights a week for two weeks, and during that time rehearsals were underway for the next two shows, Barefoot in the Park and Arsenic and Old Lace, in the nearby Kiwanis Shelter, the yard outside the barn, and the Franklin United Methodist Church basement. Scenery was being constructed and painted in the lobby and the yard for the second show. Writing and sending out press releases, taking reservations, scheduling people for TV and radio interviews, collecting and building props and costumes were all getting done somehow. The barn was a beehive of activity during the day, although the lunch break often featured a quick game of croquet before work resumed.
The regular rotation of chores (cleaning the house, manning the box office, cleaning the restrooms, cleaning the dressing rooms, cleaning the lobby, and K.P. duty) were done daily without whining or shirking. Many of our crew had never worked summer stock theatre before. The college kids and the recent college grads that made up the majority of our crew had all performed and worked stage crew in places that had a maintenance staff. This introduction to the other side of the “glory, glitter, and glamor” of the theatre came as a surprise to many, but no one balked. People wouldn’t come to a dirty theatre. Actors and staffers wouldn’t come either. So, everyone was pitching in doing double and triple duty.
For instance, Judy Porter Hennen was cast in the first two shows—a member of the ensemble cast of Charlie Brown and the female lead in Barefoot in the Park. At the second round of auditions, she was cast as the female lead in the two-person comedy The Four Poster. She had tons of lines and blocking to learn, but she still did her daily chores and worked on scenery, props, and costumes. Honestly, I don’t know how she and others did it—an abundance of talent, great at memorizing, and a love of theatre must have spurred them on.
THE FIRST STRIKE NIGHT FIASCO
On the last Sunday of every production, as soon as the audience exited the theatre, there would be a strike night when the scenery of the just-closed show would be “struck,” taken down and removed, and the new set of the show which would open on Wednesday went up.
Our first strike night was on July 16, 1972. The “non set” for Charlie Brown should have made for the easiest strike night ever, BUT Charlie Brown hadn’t been performed on a raised stage. Bill had determined that there wasn’t the time or money to build a stage before opening, so Charlie Brown had been done on the barn floor. That meant that as soon as the Charlie Brown set pieces were removed and taken downstairs, we had to build the actual raised stage!
All of the pieces for the stage (numerous 4’x8’ platforms with 16” legs) had been built in the previous week and had been waiting, stacked in a corner of the lobby. Before the platforms could be put down to form the stage, however, the proscenium “legs,” which had been secured to the barn floor, had to be cut for the platforms to fit underneath. The proscenium would then rest on and be fastened to the new stage floor.
John Hennen was assigned or volunteered to cut off the bottom part of the proscenium. He had a circular saw and an extension cord ready to go as soon as the strike started around 10:30 p.m. The crew started hauling the Charlie Brown set pieces down to the lobby and carrying the stage platforms upstairs. (Remember there was no ramp until 1979, so everything had to be carried up the outside staircases and down through the audience. Ugh!)
John knelt down on one knee and started cutting the proscenium on stage left, but something went horribly wrong, and he cut his leg right below the knee. His jeans were a bloody mess, and his cowboy boots were filling up with blood. John went white as a sheet and probably into shock. We were speechless, but we did shift into high gear very quickly.
Someone applied pressure to John’s leg, maybe Judy. Nelly, I think, ran to get his car and pull it up to the barn. Bill and some others carried John downstairs. Someone ran to the box office and called the police to explain the situation. By now it was after 11:00. Nelly drove like crazy with Judy keeping pressure on John’s wound. The Wellsburg police joined the frantic dash at the bottom of Washington Pike and escorted the car/ambulance to the Ohio Valley Hospital in south Wheeling. The rest of us went back to work under Bill’s direction and waited to hear from Judy or Nelly.
I don’t remember when the call came to the box office that John would be fine, but we all heaved a tremendous sigh of relief. John had needed a lot of stitches and a tetanus shot, and he was given pain pills. Nelly took John and Judy straight from the emergency room to the campground cottage owned by Charles and Jerry Beall in Independence, Pennsylvania, where a bunch of us were living. Nelly then returned to the barn at some ungodly hour to help complete the strike.
So, the platforms forming the stage went down. That sounds so simple. Ha! Each platform had to be leveled to match its contiguous platforms, and then the plywood of the platform tops had to be covered with Masonite to muffle the sound of footsteps on plywood. It was another big job.
After many hours of platform leveling and covering, we hauled up the scenery for the next show, which had been constructed and painted as soon as Charlie Brown had opened. We started to erect the complicated set for Barefoot in the Park (which requires a staircase to an outside entrance, a set of steps up to a bathroom, a large skylight, and a platform behind the skylight, supposedly the ledge along the outside of the building, that characters would have to crawl and walk across).
It was pretty late, probably around 3:00 a.m., so we stopped to grab a few hours of sleep. Miraculously, everyone, except John, showed up at the barn the next morning at 10:00. We finished the Barefoot set, and the cast was able to rehearse on stage Monday and Tuesday evenings, before opening on Wednesday.
John had a couple of rough weeks, complicated by the fact that he was playing the telephone repairman in Barefoot in the Park. Unfortunately, this little part required him to kneel, now a very painful piece of blocking for him, to “wire” the phone jack in the “new” apartment. John came to Monday’s rehearsal, but he did his lines from the front row of the audience with his leg propped up. After that first day, somehow, he carried on, doing his part in the show and getting several laughs from his few lines.
NEVER A DULL MOMENT IN LIVE THEATRE
One night during the run of Barefoot an interesting/amusing/terrible (you choose) thing happened. Tom Ott was playing Paul, and his new bride, Cory, was played by Judy Porter Hennen. The show had gone well for a couple of evenings, getting great laughs in all the appropriate places. “Paul and Cory” were carrying on a conversation about some such thing and were the only ones on stage when Tom went up, that is to say, he forgot his lines.
Judy said she could see it in Tom’s eyes. “He had no idea where we were in the script,” said Judy. “In those days, I could remember lines so quickly. In my mind, I could actually ‘see the page and where lines fell on the page.’ My mind was racing, seeing that script in my head and where we had to go, thinking how I could get him back on track. All of a sudden, Tom exited! Left the stage! He went up those steps to what was supposed to be the bathroom, closed the door behind him, and STARTED GARGLING! I started improvising, talking to the door, wandering around the apartment, chatting away. He kept gargling, for what seemed like an hour, but was probably about a minute.”
Backstage Tom signaled frantically for someone to hand him a script, and someone did. He found his place, quit gargling, reentered, and picked up the scene, much to Judy’s relief, although, “I was ready to kill him!” she said.
The sad truth is that usually when someone forgets a line or an entrance, it’s the other person or persons who end up with egg on their face, looking foolish. Judy had just finished her sophomore year in college, and while she had been in plays in high school and college, she wouldn’t have been considered a “seasoned” actress at this time, but she was amazing! She improvised in a level tone of voice, not knowing if Tom was going to reenter! You knew then that Judy was born for the stage. I’m not sure the audience knew that something had gone amiss. She was that good. I’m pretty sure I remember that Judy did lay into Tom during the intermission and after the show, but there wasn’t much else she could do.
I wrote to Tom about this incident recently to asked his permission to tell the story. He admitted that he didn’t remember it happening, but he got such a laugh out of it that he posted it on Facebook. Meanwhile, it’s a story that Judy will never forget!
It’s sad that we only have one, bad photo from Charlie Brown (posted in Part 7E) and none from our second show—Barefoot in the Park. Here’s a photo of Tom and Judy from a Charlie Brown rehearsal.