ON WITH THE SHOWS!
The first season progressed, and it is somewhat a blur. One after another, the shows were outstanding. The shows ran five nights a week (Wednesday through Sunday) which was very ambitious, and we just rushed from one show to another. Two shows would be rehearsing while a third one was on stage. It was great!
I wish I could remember what everyone was doing, but I can’t. The second strike night—taking down the Barefoot in the Park and erecting the Arsenic and Old Lace set went so much smoother than the first strike. No one was rushed to the hospital. We didn’t have to build the stage floor. The crew found a rhythm and work was completed around 1:00 a.m.
Arsenic was delightful. We loved working alongside Dr. Helen Kelly, one of our drama profs at West Liberty. She was always the teacher/director at West Liberty, rarely breaking the teacher/student barrier. At Brooke Hills, she was the consummate professional, but she showed us her other side—the one that would joke around in the dressing room and share stories from her past at the cast parties. Dean Muriel Shennan, West Liberty’s Dean of Women, was a cut-up, it turned out, and both she and Dr. Kelly seemed to relish working with the young cast.
We don’t seem to have any photos of Arsenic and Old Lace in production, but I can share some publicity shots. You can see how the scenery worked—black burlap between the painted set pieces (doors, windows, etc.) and painted wooden frames.
WE MADE IT THROUGH HALF THE SEASON, AND WE KEPT ON GOING
One day when we were working away before the grand opening, a young boy came riding up to the theatre on his horse! He was fascinated by all the activity, and he rode over to hang around several times a week. He often shadowed Al Martin, who though not a father, was great with kids. I think the boy’s name was Steve Fluharty. Al often put him to work, and eventually, Al asked Steve if he’d like to be in the show Al would be directing, Fable Theatre. Steve said he would, but he had to ask his parents. They agreed, and Steve was the youngest cast member that year, maybe 12.
Fable Theatre was an original show, (Hooray! No scripts to buy. No royalty to pay.) The Playhouse was running on a shoestring, and by this time the shoelace was too short to tie up a baby’s shoe!
Al had chosen some favorite fairy tales and fables. One by one he would read the story to his cast, and different cast members volunteered to be various characters. The actors got up on stage and improvised the story. They worked out their entrances, their lines, their actions, and their exits. Al gave suggestions, steered them in one direction or another, and nixed a thing or two. After several rehearsals of creating, the action would be set. Al decided which stories/fables would go in the first act and which would go in the second, and he worked out the order.
All of the fairy tales/fables were full of action, gags, and laughs except for one—The Little Match Girl. It’s the story of a poor, little, orphan girl whose only means of support is selling matches, one or two at a time. In the end, she freezes to death. I hated the story, but Al loved it. He loved it so much, that he ended the first act with it. Of course, he was the director, and we did what he decided. The audiences all seemed appropriately quiet and sad at the end of the first act, and the second act livened things back up, so it turned out okay.
Mary K. Hervey DeGarmo came up with great costumes for the show. She bought cheap cotton cloth in lots of different colors and made a sort of tunic out of a square of cloth for each actor. The tunics were tied at the waist with a piece of rope, and we all wore our tunics over blue jeans.
Bill had given me a beautiful, new Gibson guitar for our wedding earlier in the summer. I was embarrassed as I had never thought to give him anything, and this was an expensive gift. I wrote introductory songs for each fable, and I used my new guitar when I played the troubadour/narrator for Fable Theatre.
SHOW NUMBER FIVE
The fifth show of that first season was The Four Poster, a two-character show spanning 35 years of a marriage, from 1890 to 1925. It is a great little show relating the trials and tribulations, laughs and sorrows, and hopes and disappointments experienced by Agnes and Michael throughout their life together. It all takes place in the couples’ bedroom.
In an earlier post, I wrote about the major flood which had inundated Wellsburg while we were still working on the remodeling of the barn. Our crew had gone down to my aunt and uncle’s home (Alice and Bob Hamilton) in Wellsburg to move all of the antique furniture stored in their basement (which was sure to flood) out to their garage. This was a bit of payback. They were letting us use their cottage at the Bellview Campground rent-free, as were Charles and Jerry Beall who were letting us use theirs.
The Four Poster required antique furniture—a four-poster bed, armoire, trunk, vanity, and bedside tables. We found it all in Aunt Alice’s and Uncle Bob’s garage! And more—a large oriental rug and matching chandelier and sconces. Best of all, they were happy to let us use whatever we needed! What a gold mine; what a treasure trove! Over the years, we would return to that garage many times!
Judy Porter Hennen played Agnes. This was her third show, and second lead, of the six-show season. Stanley Harrison, another of our drama professors at West Liberty, was making his Playhouse debut, as Michael. Judy had just finished her junior year at West Liberty. Stanley had his M.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama, and he had been named Outstanding Actor for one of the years he was at Yale. (N.B. Paul Newman was also at Yale when Stanley was there, but Mr. Newman was an undergraduate at the time.)
John Hennen directed the show. This meant that Stanley was being directed by a former student and was starring with a present student. The show was just great—lots of laughs and some tears. There were several quick scene changes during the show to indicate the passage of time, and the audience enjoyed watching that “magic” happen, too.
In one scene, Michael is mad about something, and he picks up his riding crop (also found in the garage). Stanley loved that riding crop! He’d whip it this way and that as he ranted and raved. He would have the audience and the backstage crew in stitches. (Remember the scenery was black burlap, so those of us backstage could see all the action on stage.) We never knew how Judy stayed in character when Stanley had that crop in his hand.
One night Stanley made one of his exits (to change into a smoking jacket) with the crop still swishing. Between changing clothes and delivering lines to Agnes on stage, he said to those of us backstage, “Look at that guy in the front row. He has his feet up on the stage! I’m going to get him with The Crop!” and back onstage he went. He did take a downstage cross pretty close to the guy and took a good swipe with the crop, but of course, he didn’t hit him. Sadly, I can’t remember if the guy took his feet down or not!
Before the show started from then on (until we took out that front row of seats), the house manager would ask people to refrain from putting their feet on the stage!
Later in the show, Judy’s character was mad about something, and she took up the crop. She had as much fun as Stanley whipping that thing right and left and getting great laughs!
NOTHING WAS SACRED. IF WE HAD IT, WE USED IT!
That first summer required a lot of hustling. After all, we didn’t have a collection of set pieces, props, or costumes yet. Those would grow over the years. Many of our local volunteers scoured their parents’ and grandparents’ attics, basements, and closets for props, costumes, and furniture. We took anything we could get and always tried to thank the generous loaners in the show program.
Someone’s mother loaned us a full-length fur coat for the mother in Barefoot in the Park. We put a notice in an early program for a working refrigerator and got two! Someone found two tuxedoes (in the right sizes!) for us to borrow for Plaza Suite.
Bill and I had received a lovely silver-plated tea service for our wedding earlier in the season from my students in Newport, Kentucky, some of whom came to our wedding. The tea service appeared for the first of many times on the Playhouse stage in the second show that first season, Arsenic and Old Lace.
The last show of the first season, Plaza Suite, calls for a bride to make an entrance and cross the stage in the final scene of the show. I don’t remember who played the part, maybe Wendy Hopper, but I do remember she wore my wedding dress.
That dress actually appeared on stage in several shows over the years before it had to be retired. Someone got a cut finger during a show, and a few drops of blood got on the front of the gown before a Band-Aid appeared. We couldn’t get the bloodstain out at intermission, so we used White Out to cover the stain for the remainder of the run. My lovely gown was then relegated, very unceremoniously, to the burn barrel! (N.B. Since I have three sons, it turned out fine. I didn’t have anyone to pass the gown on to, anyway.)
A VERY INTEGRAL THEATRICAL ELEMENT—CAST PARTIES
Cast parties were open to anyone in or working on a show. They were almost always held after the Saturday performances and usually included a bonfire at the Kiwanis Shelter next to the Playhouse.
The Playhouse provided the essentials–hot dogs to cook, ears of corn to roast, marshmallows to toast, and potato chips. Oh, and beer, lots of beer! Cast members often augmented the menu with casseroles or desserts. The cast parties were always a lot of fun with people telling stories or offering a song.
The parties often lasted for hours, and occasionally, some members of the casts and crews would make their way up to the park swimming pool. The fence would be scaled, and swimming cooled people off after a hot night onstage. Eventually, Joe Thomas, the park manager for a number of years, gave us a key for the pool. In 1979, it was Joe who helped us to secure funding for the ramp from the governor’s special fund or some such thing, and Joe and Bill Harper oversaw the ramp’s construction. Pizer’s Gulf Station and Convenience Store was on Rt. 27 near the park entrance. Occasionally, Mr. Pizer would give John or Bill a quart or more of his homemade moonshine. Those parties with moonshine were off the charts! Burn barrels were set ablaze. People would make their way to the stage to perform under strobe lights. Skinny dipping ensued! People slept onstage, in the audience, in the lobby, on a picnic table. How young and resilient we were! What fun we had!
THANK YOU, MR. BEALL!
At the end of the first season, we owed the Robert Scott Lumber Company at the corner of 8th and Commerce Streets in Wellsburg $1,256, and the three founding partners were still owed their initial investment. I went to see Mr. Charles Beall, the owner of the lumber company, and told him our situation. We were broke, BUT we would open again in the spring of 1973, and we would pay him what we owed. Remember, too, he was already allowing six of us to live in his Bellview Campground cottage (okay, there was no running water, but there was that nearby lake, and we were young) AND his business had paid for a program ad—in cash!
Of course, when that next spring rolled around, I had to go back to Mr. Beall and explain that we needed lumber, paint, nails, and hardware to get our second season underway. He allowed us to add to our tab and charge whatever we needed. Fortunately, by the end of that second summer, we were all square with the lumber company and Mr. Beall.
At some point in time (maybe in the late 1980s), 84 Lumber, a local chain lumber yard, built a branch in Beech Bottom. Each summer someone at the Playhouse would suggest that we might go to 84 Lumber once in a while. I always answered the suggestion with the $1,256 story. There was only one lumberyard for the Playhouse, and that was Scott Lumber.
Really and truly, Mr. Beall was another of our angels. Without his and his wife’s generosity and kindness, the Playhouse would have been a one-hit wonder, or more accurately, a one-season wonder!
HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED
Thinking about Mr. Beall and the lumberyard got me thinking about the program ads. Forty Brooke County businesses took ads in the program for the 1972 season. My sister Kay had taken over the chore of selling the ads, something that I detested but that she relished. Think about it. Many of those business owners didn’t even know what a summer stock theatre was, but they supported our efforts by buying a program ad. Most of them would continue to support us with an ad for years.
I went through the first program recently and counted the ads. Thirty of those businesses no longer exist! Ten are still in business, but a few now have a different name. In those early years, it was so easy to run down the pike to Wellsburg or Follansbee to Murphy’s Five and Ten, Federman’s dry goods, Alco, City Plumbing, and of course, Robert Scott Lumber (now Brownlee Lumber and Supply) for a prop or piece of hardware. By the time I remarried and left the area in 1995, many Brooke County businesses were closed, and we had to go to Steubenville or Weirton to find what we needed. The Internet was in its infancy, but I hope it has made finding props, costumes, and set dressing a little easier for those at the Playhouse today.
THE FIRST SEASON COMES TO A CLOSE
After the final strike of the 1972 summer, we took down all the lighting equipment and curtains and moved them, along with all of our make-up, paint, tools, and the wedding saws, to Bill’s family home in Chester. The lobby furniture was locked in the tool room. A group was going to use the Playhouse for something the weekend after Labor Day and wanted to use the stage, which was fine with us.
Bill and I quickly moved to Mt. Vernon, Ohio, where Bill was slated to produce a musical based on the life and career of Mt. Vernon’s favorite son, Daniel Decatur Emmett. Emmett was a contemporary of Pittsburgh songwriter Stephen Foster in the Nineteenth Century. Emmett’s big claim to fame is that he started the Christy Minstrels, and he wrote “Dixie,” among other popular songs of his day—“The Blue Tail Fly,” known better as “Jimmy Crack Corn, and I Don’t Care,” “Old Dan Tucker Was a Mean Old Man,” and “Turkey in the Straw.” John Hennen returned to Williamsport, Pennsylvania where he would be acting, and Judy Porter Hennen returned to West Liberty as a senior drama major.
We bought big rolls of heavy-duty plastic sheeting, and after the last event held at the Playhouse, Mr. and Mrs. Harper drove down to the Playhouse and covered all the seats in the house with plastic. Thank goodness! When we returned to the barn the following spring (1973) for the second season, pigeons had taken up residence in the second story of the Playhouse. The plastic had collected a lot of dirt and pigeon crap that would have ruined the seats.
Someone had left a 3′ potted, plastic, green plant used for set dressing over on stage right when we went our separate ways at the end of that first season. When Bill and I arrived at his parents’ home for Thanksgiving, there was the prop plant in the Harper home. Bill’s mother, Mary, had discovered the plant when she and Bill’s dad were covering the seats. Mary took it home and had been faithfully watering it for three months!
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
In other posts, I’ve referred to the 10-page letter that Bill Harper wrote to John Hennen, Larry Lebin, and me. (Larry dropped out before ever receiving the letter.) Bill started the letter on November 1, 1971, before he and John had even seen the barn, and he finished it on November 21.
With Bill in Ypsilanti, Michigan, John in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and me in Newport, Kentucky, we decided to meet in Wellsburg on November 24, the day after Thanksgiving, and drive out to the barn together, so Bill and John could check it out. I had been familiar with the barn since June 1963 when my family had attended an ox roast there for the W. Va. Centennial Celebration. Bill never mailed the letter. He gave John and me our copies when we were at the barn.
The letter detailed that the three of us would be the original investors in a for-profit corporation that Bill called the Brooke County Theatre. Earlier in this memoir (before re-discovering the letter), I said we each invested $2,500, but that figure has nagged at me. I was only making $6,300 a year teaching school. There was no way that I could have saved $2,500 and still paid my share of the rent and groceries, bought my furniture and clothes, and paid for entertainment, incidentals, AND my car payment. John was probably making even less as an actor. Bill was teaching, as well as doing free-lance theatre work on the weekends. He spent most of his money on theatre equipment—lighting instruments and cables, dimming equipment, curtains, a scrim, and more.
Anyway, at one point in the letter, Bill defined what each investor’s responsibilities at the theatre would be (directing, designing, constructing scenery, publicity, acting, etc.), and then he went on to discuss finances. Let me quote the letter:
Everybody: Depending upon how much financial help we get for the remodeling, we may not need a thousand apiece for the summer, maybe $750. Even so, I would like to be left out of the cash department and after seeing the barn at Brooke Hills I would like to convert my capital to equipment and start to build two light pipes, complete with electrical circuits, plugs, batter boxes, etc. to put up in the theatre. I will also have the following ready by May:
Bill went on to list 50 (!) lighting instruments, cables, scrim, dimming equipment, and a cyclorama that he would be contributing.
So, amazingly, it looks like we started the Playhouse with John and me ponying up $750 each, for a TOTAL of $1,500! How in heaven’s name did we do it? And how naïve were we to have incorporated as a for-profit corporation?
I know that John and I never were repaid our $750 investments. Bill was never reimbursed for the use of his equipment for the 10 seasons he was at the Playhouse, and there was no way we could have purchased or rented what he brought with him. Our shows would have played in the dark!
Money and equipment aside, the three of us have had the immense joy of knowing that we started something that has had an incredible influence on the lives of thousands of people over the years. Steelworkers, accountants, teachers, insurance agents, radio and TV personalities, flight attendants, students, and many more have shared their numerous talents with our audiences over the last fifty seasons, and our audiences have cheered them on and applauded their efforts.
Many of our Playhouse alumni (some on the paid staff and some who volunteered) went on to make their living in the theatre. We can boast about our former players and crew members who work/worked in regional theatres and college and university drama departments. Our alumni include producers, playwrights, designers, Broadway and Off-Broadway actors, Disney Imagineer, nightclub performer, radio host, television and film actors and crew members, an NYC acting coach, and an actress who works steadily in shows and series for Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Showtime, HBO, and Hulu.
Some of you will remember those Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movies, where someone says, “Let’s put on a play!” They made it look so easy. It isn’t.
When you start making something as complex as a theatre out of a barn in order to put on a play, it takes a lot of love, a lot of work, and a shared vision. I hope those who worked so hard for so little that first season take as much pride as I do in what we accomplished. We turned a barn into a theatre and produced six shows in twenty weeks!
Finally, when we started the Playhouse in 1972, I’m sure none of us looked ahead through the decades to come and thought about 2021 when the fiftieth season would be produced. But here we are—fifty seasons in the can and number fifty-one being planned. Brooke Hills Playhouse has never been just a barn with theatre seats. It has been and continues to be talented, creative, passionate people producing shows to entertain the Upper Ohio Valley. Once more let’s say, “Break a leg!”