Brooke Hills Playhouse: A Collective Memoir, Part 11A

Butterflies Are Free opens the 1973 season (Cast–Judy Porter Hennen, John Newton,
 Marlene Marston Bringarden, Bob Afflerbach)

SEASON TWO, 1973

          Season of Shows                                                      The Company

Butterflies Are Free                                               Bill & Shari Murphy Harper

Mary, Mary                                                           John & Judy Porter Hennen

The Owl and the Pussycat                                               Al & Tommie Martin

Bus Stop                                                                                      Bob Afflerbach

The Fantasticks                                                                            Christy Vickers

U.T.B.U.                                                                                Marqueta Stephens

The Last of the Red Hot Lovers                                                    Norma Stone

The Clown Who Couldn’t Laugh                                                  Rich Ferguson

                                                                                              Tom (T.C.) Cervone

                                                                                   Mary K. Hervey DeGarmo

                                                                                                    Jo Lynne Nugent

LET’S DO IT AGAIN!

We had closed up the Playhouse after Labor Day 1972, $1,256 in debt to Charles Beall, the owner of Robert Scott Lumber in Wellsburg.  I had admitted to Mr. Beall that we were flat broke, but I promised him that we would be back in the spring of 1973, and we would repay him.  Bill and I, John, and Judy then headed our separate ways for the winter, exhausted but satisfied with our first season of summer stock in our own theatre. 

Over the winter months, we excitedly prepared for the second season.  I transferred the names on our new mailing list (compiled by Norma Stone while running the box office) from a legal pad to index cards which could easily be filed alphabetically or sorted by zip codes.  Bill and I ordered some scripts, read them, then sent them on to John to read.  Before long we had decided on the eight shows we would produce in the second season.  (EIGHT SHOWS! What were we thinking?)

I wrote, duplicated, folded, addressed, stamped, and mailed out our first newsletter announcing our schedule of plays for the second summer and the sale of season coupons, “the perfect gift for any occasion.”  (Later that summer we would apply for and receive our bulk mailing permit.  In order for the permit to be cost-effective, however, we would have to grow our mailing list to 201 or more names.)

We also contacted the gang from that first season to see who would be returning for Season Two.  Fortunately, a few would be returning:  Tommie and Al Martin, Norma Stone, Rich Ferguson, Tom Cervone, Mary K. Hervey DeGarmo, Marlene Marston Bringarden, and Larry Crofford.  Stanley Harrison, our professor at West Liberty, and Dean Muriel Shennan of West Liberty would return to our stage.  Judy, who would be graduating from West Liberty in the spring, and Stanley did some recruiting at the college for us, promising room, board, a resume-building experience, and $5 or $10 a week for signing on to our crew.

Housing was going to be a problem.  Tommie and Al would once again stay in Aunt Alice and Uncle Bob Hamilton’s cottage at the Bellview Campgrounds, but we weren’t comfortable putting college kids in the Beall cottage without one of us being with them, and that wasn’t possible.  Someone suggested the dorms at Bethany College as a possibility.  We contacted Bethany and rented several rooms there for our staff for the next six or seven summers.

In mid-May 1973, Bill Harper and I moved back to Wellsburg from Mt. Vernon, Ohio where Bill had not succeeded in mounting a show about Mt. Vernon’s favorite son, Daniel Decatur Emmitt.  We moved into a garage apartment on the corner of 6th and Commerce Streets, diagonally across the street from DiCarlo’s Pizza!  The downstairs of the building had once housed a plumber’s shop.  Norma Stone, her dad, and brother were moving out of the upstairs apartment, and Bill and I were able to rent it.

Also in May, John Hennen returned from his acting job in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and Judy Porter (eventually Judy Porter Hennen) graduated from West Liberty. John and Judy rented a house in West Liberty. 

THEATRE IN THE WILD, PART 1

Bill, John, Judy, and I soon made a trip out to the Playhouse to see how it had survived the winter. As we drove up the driveway and saw that big barn again, I know we were anxious to get the second season underway. The exterior of the barn looked as weathered as always.  The lobby needed a good sweeping, and the restrooms needed a good cleaning as did the box office.  That was all to be expected.

When we opened the tool room doors, we were relieved to find everything was fine in the tool room and the dressing rooms. Then we headed upstairs.  Not so good!

Look how innocent this guy appears.  Do not be deceived!  A large flock of pigeons had discovered the barn, found a hole in the siding to enter and exit, and had taken up residence. The stage, the beams, the aisles, and the huge, plastic sheets protecting the seats (thank goodness they were there!) were covered in pigeon crap, and the pigeons were not happy to see non-feathered friends in their big birdhouse. It was disgusting, and we had a lot of work ahead of us.  First, however, we needed to get rid of the pigeons.

Later that afternoon, Bill talked to an exterminator and learned that professional “de-pigeoning” was going to cost a fortune, which we definitely did not have.  The licensed exterminators would put some kind of a gel down on every horizontal surface where the birds could roost.  Apparently, the gel would burn their little feet and discourage them from staying in the barn. Once the birds were gone, the company would return and put down strips with spikes on all the beams to keep the birds off them should the birds come back.

This method was just not feasible. The whole barn was going to smell like the noxious gel, and it would be on all those cross braces along the barn walls near where the audience walked.  Additionally, we often climbed on the overhead beams to focus lights or hang a banner or prop.  Gel wouldn’t work for us.

The exterminator did suggest a cheaper option. He said if we could kill the pigeon leader, all the rest would leave. Sadly (unless you are in the pigeons-are-flying-rats camp), there was no way to identify the leader, so the next day, John and Bill bought a couple of six-packs of beer and borrowed a couple of B-B or pellet guns. 

That night, after everyone else had gone home, the two of them sat out in the audience and started shooting pigeons, being careful not to shoot up at the roof!  Apparently, at some time in the night, they got the leader because when the crew arrived the next morning, the dirty birds were gone, AND they never returned.

We started cleaning up the mess wearing masks and goggles.  The massive sheets of plastic were carefully folded up with their load of crap inside and taken downstairs and out into the yard.  They were hosed and scrubbed and yes, it was disgusting.  Back upstairs the aisles, the stage, and the beams, both overhead and along the side walls, had to be cleaned and mopped as well.  All that glitter, glory, and glamour of theatre is pretty remote when you are mopping up pigeon guano!

MARLENE REMEMBERS. OOPS!

Our second season, 1973, was pretty ambitious with 8 shows produced. We opened with that lovely comedy Butterflies Are Free. Staff member Bob Afflerbach played the blind lead. Judy Porter Hennen played his overly protective mother, and Marlene Marston Bringarden played his first girlfriend, much to the delight of Bob’s character and much to the horror of the character’s mother.  John Newton of Wellsburg rounded out the cast.

Once again, we would not be using stage flats for scenery (still too expensive for us), but 1”x3” boards painted and cobbled together to outline walls and covered with black burlap.  (See the photo introducing this section.)

In one scene Judy arrives at her son’s apartment and barges in, finding Bob and Marlene, scantily clad, in the top bunk bed.  Bob hightails it to the bathroom leaving Marlene onstage with the unhappy mother.

Marlene was blocked to hop down from the bunk bed, embarrassed as she pulled on her jeans and put on her blouse, which buttoned up the back.

One evening Marlene put on the jeans and blouse and then turned around to have Judy button her up. Unfortunately, Marlene had put the blouse on backward, and Judy had nothing to button! Without missing a beat, Marlene remembers Judy just turned Marlene around and buttoned the blouse up the front.  This was obviously something that Marlene could have done herself, but then the rhythm and timing would have been thrown off. They both kept their cool, icily staring at each other, and got through the scene without a crack up on stage.

Cast of Butterflies Are Free:  John Newton, Bob Afflerbach,
Marlene Marston Bringarden, Judy Porter Hennen

THREE MORE TALENTED ACTRESSES ARRIVE

Following that first incredible season, even more talented people started to get involved at the Playhouse. Linda Huggins, Beverly DeBord, and JoLynne Nugent (coming in Part 11B)showed up that second summer for auditions, and what an impact they made! They didn’t just show up!  They returned year after year—JoLynne—3 seasons, Beverly—6 seasons, and Linda—27 seasons!

Linda, a Wellsburg native, and I had been in a play together at Wellsburg High School called Two Thieves and a Lady in 1965. Linda was the lady. I was one of the thieves!

Linda’s family had always told her that she should be a cowgirl or an actress, “but there weren’t many cowgirls in West Virginia,” she said, so she auditioned at the Playhouse in 1973. She earned a small part in Mary, Mary, and the Playhouse got another fine actress. Linda soon became an annual staple on our stage, and our audiences loved her.

Although Linda graduated from West Liberty, she was not a drama major.  She earned her degree in social work, but she also worked for her father at his accounting firm, entering data for him. Before long, Linda was taking accounting courses, and she eventually took over the firm, proving once again, that there are tons of talented people working all around us.  Fortunately for us, some can really act, and the Playhouse is there to showcase their talents.

Linda Huggins with Rich Ferguson in Mary, Mary, Linda’s first show on the Playhouse stage, 1973

Linda fondly remembers, “My mom and dad totally enjoyed and appreciated the Playhouse. On many occasions, they watched my son Travis in the evenings during the weeks of rehearsal and weekends of the performances. I loved bringing cookies and the like for the casts and crews, and I can finally admit that my mother was the baker. She baked the goods, and I took the credit! I always let her know what I was doing, and we had some good laughs over my deception!  

“I so looked forward to summertime and the Playhouse. I met so many equally quirky people. When I say quirky, I include myself. Almost everyone who came to the Playhouse felt the Magic. For once I felt as though I ‘fit in’ somewhere. 

“It was such a blessing to meet and work with Al Martin.  I told him numerous times how his encouragement changed my life–not for the better–for the best!

Rich Ferguson and Linda Huggins in
The Marriage-Go-Round, 1976

“The Playhouse is also where Paula Welch and I developed an absolutely wonderful friendship,” said Linda, “and when she came to work at Huggins, Inc., we were a force to reckon with. The Brooke County Arts Council was blessed with her hang-in-there attitude. I was blessed with her friendship. 

“Eventually, I traveled down memory lane and wrote a truly lovely memoir (I thought so anyhow) of my time at the Playhouse.  I lost it when my computer crashed, and I just didn’t have the heart to begin again.”

In the fall of 1981, when Bill Harper and I divorced, and he left the Playhouse, I took over the Playhouse management. I was absolutely clueless about the Playhouse finances (which were pretty much non-existent), and I certainly didn’t know anything about how to make out a payroll, make deductions, or do the taxes. Linda stepped up and took on the job of treasurer of the newly-formed Brooke County Arts Council, the non-profit that replaced the original Brooke Hills Playhouse, a for-profit corporation. Thank goodness!

After acting at the Playhouse for 27 seasons, Linda retired from acting. She eventually sold the accounting business that she had carried on after the retirement of her father. She moved to Florida in 2005. Her son Travis, a true child of the Playhouse by virtue of attending hundreds of Playhouse rehearsals and shows from the age of one, lives in Roanoke, Virginia. Linda still loves the theatre and often attends plays with her sister Donna.

“There are days I REALLY miss the West Virginia hills and the West Virginia folks, and I will always be a Mountaineer,” Linda wrote, “but Florida is my home for now, and I look forward to going to the theatre here in Florida with my sister Donna.

“To this day, Shari, I thank heavens for you and your ‘gang’ for having the drive to create Brooke Hills Playhouse,” she continued. “You may never know the true value of what you did for me that summer of 1972 when the Magic began. My Magic began a year later.  Thank you!”

We have reviews from several of the early shows thanks to Matz Malone, a Wellsburg friend and neighbor, who is retired from the Steubenville Herald Star.  Matz started out as a photographer and eventually became a writer for the newspaper.  When I started this project, I called Matz and asked if he had any of the reviews he had written of our shows.  He didn’t, but he “volunteered” to do some research, and he found some of the reviews of early shows written by others and some reviews he wrote in later years.  I’ll include as many as possible.

THE SEASON RUSHES ON!

The third show of the season, The Owl and the Pussycat, a delightful 2-character comedy, featured John Hennen and Judy Porter.  (Excuse me while I rant.  This delightful play was made into a movie in 1970 starring Barbra Streisand and George Segal.  For some reason, the movie producers took a nice, clean play with a little innuendo but no profanity and added totally unnecessary cursing. The producers of the movie On Golden Pond did the same thing.  The play’s worst language is when the wife calls her husband “an old poop.” In the movie, the elderly couple drops f-bombs!  I’m no prude, but irks me no end when this happens!)

John and Judy were wonderful on stage together.  They made you believe you were visiting with them not watching them repeat lines written by someone else.  However, Judy tells this story from the other side of the footlights. (Just an expression.  We never had footlights!)

Judy and John in The Owl and the Pussycat, 1973

From Judy:  What you may not remember is that John inherited the part in The Owl and the Pussycat because someone dropped out. John had less than 4 days to remember all those lines before opening. John’s stomach hurt him every day from worry.  Remember this was a 2-character show, so lots of lines for both of us!  

An actor’s job is to say lines (and John always added “and not bump into the furniture”), but actors also have to listen to the other actor or actors.  Back then I could easily memorize lines, so I pretty much knew all the lines, at least most of the lines, and the cues of this 2-character show.

One night John “went up,” our term for forgetting lines, and he skipped about a page and a half or maybe two. He looked at me wide-eyed and blank. This was serious because the audience needed the information in those pages to set things up for later in the show. 

We were blank for seconds, but it seemed like ages.  John looked at me intently, and I at him. I gave John a cue that took us to another part, further into the script!  John listened more intently and picked up there.  (I could not make this up!)  We exchanged a few lines there, and then I gave John the cue that brought us back to the important information in the part we’d skipped over!  We had gotten it in, but we would soon reach the part that we had already covered!  I was listening. I was talking.  And my mind was racing back and forth through that script in my head! We reached the part we already had covered, and I cued John. He picked up the cue and voila! We skipped the lines we had already covered, and we went on with the rest of the act with all lines in.

When we went downstairs at intermission, John threw himself down on the floor in the dressing room and said “Oh my God!  What did you do? What did you do!!?? Are we ok?”  He was undone, but of course, we finished the play, and all was well. He told that story about himself and me for years.

Judy and John in The Owl and the Pussycat, 1973

CLASSIC COMEDY UP NEXT

“A very warm human comedy” is how an anonymous reviewer described our fourth show, Bus Stop.  Jo Lynne Nugent made her second appearance of four shows she would do in this second summer, and Beverly DeBord would make her Playhouse debut.  Beverly was listed as being from Charleston, W. Va. in the review, but she was teaching at Wellsburg Middle School, and her husband Charlie was a lawyer in a Wellsburg firm.

Beverly did a number of shows on the Playhouse stage, but it wasn’t until the 1977 season, when we did Fiddler on the Roof and got serious about doing musicals, that we discovered what a wonderful singing voice she had to go with her acting chops.   The following year, 1978, she played Maria in The Sound of Music (or “The Sound of Money,” as we liked to call it).

Following the 1978 season, Beverly was widowed, and she and her infant son moved back to Charleston to be near her family.  Eventually, Beverly returned to school for her Ph. D. and sometime thereafter she entered the ministry, pastoring a church in Ohio before retiring to St. Louis where she lives near her son and his family. 

From left to right, Beverly DeBord, Lee Smedley, Jo Lynne Nugent,
John Williams, Thelma Hopwood in Bus Stop.

The 1973 season will continue in Part 11B of this memoir.

More photos from the first four shows can be viewed here:

Butterflies Are Free, 1973 https://share.photomyne.com/share?u=9DEA9372-643E-4BF9-BFC9-1CF7842C325F&s=b87fa43b-e02d-426a-951d-55ea721dacbd&source=Mail

The Owl and The Pussycat, 1973 (First 8 photos) and Mary, Mary, 1973 (Last 32 photos)— https://share.photomyne.com/share?u=9DEA9372-643E-4BF9-BFC9-1CF7842C325F&s=57996426-b9d1-4dcc-a6ca-f91e1c1035b5&source=Mail

Bus Stop, 1973–  https://share.photomyne.com/share?u=9DEA9372-643E-4BF9-BFC9-1CF7842C325F&s=96ba4645-de8b-419a-b750-05a4783e21d1&source=Mail

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