Back to: Table of Contents | Chapter 7. A Time for Rebuilding
After a summer amphitheatre production of “The Wizard of Oz,” directed by Marlene Hart, the new technical director, the 1977-78 regular season opened September 30 with the Frank Loesser musical “Guys and Dolls.” Director Newell Tarrant cast Dave McCormick, Bobbie Armstrong and Suzanne Ishee in leading roles. “Picks up speed and thunders home a winner,” said The Raleigh Times reviewer.
“I Remember Mama” (opening December 2, 1977) featured Ann Dearing Lincoln as Mama. Bill Morrison said her performance “sets it apart from the ordinary.”
“A Man for All Seasons” (opening January 27, 1978) was “a beautiful but bloody bore,” said Morrison in The N&Q although “Joan Taylor Munger’s performance as More’s devoted wife, Alice, was a thing of beauty,” and Allan Osborne turned in “a fine performance … skillfully sporting various guises as ‘the common man.'”
“Prisoner of Second Avenue” (opening March 10, 1978) had Roland Lashley stepping into the title role at the last minute “like a pinch-hitter who clouts a game winning home run in the last of the ninth,” said Robert McDowell in The Times.
“Fiddler on the Roof” (opening May 5, 1978) was “a rousing rendition” (The Times), “magnificently performed” (The N&O) to close the season. Director Tarrant and musical director Milton Bliss drew special praise. Leading roles were played by Mark Kath, Mary Lyman, Bill Miller, Lena Nail and Anna Heins.
Looking back on the first year of his second stay at RLT, director Tarrant told an N&O reporter that times had changed since he first directed the Raleigh Little Theatre in 1945: “It was then a society plaything, run by people whose approach to theatre was having a good time. And the good time didn’t always mean quality. Now I think the approach of about 90 per cent of the people involved here is that the only good time is one of which you’re proud. This is the real satisfaction.”
The dedication to excellence of which Tarrant spoke certainly applied to Glenn Amos Miller, who died September 1, 1978, at the age of 54. A speech and theatre graduate of the University of Maryland, he had been one of RLT’s most active workers for 13 years. An IBM and Telex Communications engineer, Miller was associated, in either an on-stage or off-stage capacity, with about 85 Little Theatre shows, every production since he moved to Raleigh. Sometimes caustically funny in his never-ending drive for perfection, Glenn Miller won every award given by the theatre, from best actor to community service. He was a true expert in the technical side of theatre and often volunteered his help to university and school theatres and to professional performers appearing in the Raleigh area. An RLT award named for him, the Glenn Miller Technical Service Award, is presented annually.
The regular 1978-79 season opened October 13, 1978, with the Stephen Schwartz musical “Pippin.” It marked the debut of John H. Hodges Jr. as technical director. Leading roles were played by Juanda Holley, David Rock, Mark Kath, Margaret Webb and D.A. Watson. “Style … provides the saving grace,” said Morrison of The N&O, after commenting on “the hardly memorable score.”
“How the Other Half Loves” (opening December 1, 1978) starred Dennis Rogers, Judith Hitchcock, Jim Knapton, Gloria King, Bob Dean and Elaine Hackett. “One of the funniest productions to hit the Raleigh Little Theatre stage in a decade,” said The N&O.
“Twelfth Night” (opening January 26, 1979) had Dave Durham, Shannon Bailey, John T. Hall, J. Kelly Gay III, Mike Shankle, Bridget Munger, Ron Jones, and Doug Richmond in leading roles. “A mad and merry romp,” said Robert McDowell in The Raleigh Times.
“The Gingerbread Lady” (opening March 9, 1979) featured Ann Dearing Lincoln, Lorena Goodwin, John Melhop, Lucy Ann Procter, Roger Jones and Mick Godwin. “Not exactly a laugh riot,” said Morrison in The N&O, but “Ann Dearing Lincoln (is) a marvelous actress vainly trying to create a silk purse out of a sows ear.”
“Camelot” (opening May 11, 1979), the Lerner and Loewe musical, closed the season with a burst of melody. The musical director was Chris Hege and the choreographer was Lola M. Renfrow. Among the large cast were Ron Jones, Mike Shankle, Susan Wilkins, Ashby Adams, Gib Smith, Roy Dicks and Bobbie Armstrong.
The board of directors announced that it had renamed the annual RLT service award to honor the late Charles V. York Jr., who was active in the Little Theatre in the 1960s, serving on the board of directors and acting as treasurer. He himself had received the service award in 1964 for his work in renovating the RLT building.
The annual meeting of RLT also paid tribute to Fannie Williams, RLT’s housekeeper for 26 years, who died April 20, 1979.
The opening selection for the 1979-80 season was the Bob Randall comedy “6 Rms Riv Vu,” which opened September 7, 1979, with Susan Hutaff, Jim Schwankl, John Melhop, Ashby Adams, Ellen Smith, Annemarie Fenske, Rowell Gormon, B.J. Smith, Rebecca Palmer and Feli Noeller, “Succeeds despite a slim plot and a less than superior script,” said Raymond Lowery in The N&O.
“Shenandoah” (opening November 9, 1979) featured James Flynn as Charlie in a cast of 34. “Hacks out a chapter in American history with a dull ax,” said The N&O “Undistinguished,” said The Times.
“Dylan” (opening January 25, 1980) starred John T. Hall as Dylan with a supporting cast of 24. Said The Times: “Hall’s eloquent, earthy performance as the charming yet childishly self-indulgent literary rogue (Dylan Thomas) enlivens Raleigh Little Theatre’s production.” The N&O praised both Hall and Gloria King, playing Dylan’s wife.
“Life With Father” (opening March 14, 1980) starred Mike Shankle as Father and Susan Wilkins as Vinnie in a revival of the popular Lindsay and Crouse comedy, As for the critics, once again they didn’t quite see eye to eye. Raymond Lowery in The N&O: “A joyous production.” Robert McDowell in The Times: “Lackluster revival.”
“Mame” (opening May 16, 1980), with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, featured Phyllis Thompson and Juanda Holley in a cast of 48. Musical direction was by Alan Neilson and choreography by Kathleen Tart. Raymond Lowery of The News and Observer said: “The winsome show closes out the Pogue Street theater’s current season with a blast-on a borrowed bugle.”
The Raleigh Little Theatre Amphitheatre then became a magical Scottish village for “Brigadoon,” the melodic Lerner and Loewe show which opened August 1, 1980. Leading roles were played by Michael Daughtry, Dan Mason, Margaret Webb, Guy Munger, Jim Burnette, Rowell Gormon and Becky Johnston. “Newell Tarrant’s staging captures the pageantry, the fluid grace, the humor and the whimsey,” said Morrison in The N&O.
The regular 1980-81 RLT season opened with “Bedroom Farce” on September 12 featuring Dave McCormick, Jeannette Webb, Becky Johnston, Mary Margaret Melero, Judith C. Hitchcock, Richard B. Conley, Mike Shankle, Jonathan T Lowry and Barbara Mitchell filling in, at the last moment, for the ailing Becky Johnston. “Highly entertaining,” said The Raleigh Times reviewer.
“Li’l Abner” (opening November 21, 1980) brought “Dogpatch, USA.” to the Little Theatre stage. Featured were Rowell Gorman, Serena Ebhardt (just 14 and playing Mammy Yokum!), LuLane Coates, Joe Baker and Timothy Carnes in the title role. “Has its moments, but they don’t come in bunches,” said The N&O’s reviewer.
“The Caucasian Chalk Circle” (opening January 23, 1981) was a stunning production of Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece featuring Shannon Bailey, Jo Brown, Doug Richmond and Chuck Galle. “An admirable piece of stagecraft … visually stunning,” said The N&O.
“Mousetrap” (opening March 13, 1981) was RLT’s version of the Agatha Christie play that has run more than three decades in London. John T. Hall was guest director and the cast included Roy Dicks, Mark Utermohlen, Anthony Dingman (former RLT director), Mary Lyman, Rowell Gorman and Lois Hamlyn.
The season closed with a record-breaking revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma!” (opening May 15, 1981). The cast of 45 included Melody Begley-Brown, Steve Teague, Cameron West, Michael Daughtry, Terry Shippee, J. Kelly Gay III and Sue Tucker Briggs. Bill Morrison reviewed for The N&O and said the “production is jam-packed with melody, dance, humor, goodwill.”
During the year, renovations were completed in the lobby and started in other parts of the RLT building.
The help of movie star Ava Gardner was secured to act as honorary membership chairman for the ’80-’81 season. Miss Gardner recorded commercials promoting the theatre.
The 1981-82 season opened September 18 with a production of the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical “I Do! I Do!” The show was double cast with Roy Dicks and Elizabeth Ann Weatherspoon alternating with Jim Flynn and Becky Johnston. The N&O said: “Both casts are top quality. … It’s slick as glass…. Musical director Alan Neilson should patent the orchestration he’s using: piano, bass, drums, flute and bassoon. It’s a chamber sound-intimate, supportive and fresh, a near-perfect blend.”
“The Diary of Anne Frank” (opening November 20, 1981) featured Anne B. Smallwood in the title role with Harvey Bumgardner as her father and Julia Eller as her mother. “Effectively conveys the tragedy and triumph of this remarkable young Jewish girl who perished in Belsen,” said The Times.
“You Can’t Take It With You” (opening January 29, 1982) was another revival of a classic comedy. Local critics were lukewarm. “A number of inadequately developed characterizations sabotage director L. Newell Tarrant’s snappy staging,” said The Times.
“Angel Street” (opening April 4, 1982) featured J. Kelly Gay III, Shannon Bailey and John T. Hall. The Times said the production “lacks an aura of menace.” Said The N&O: “Not a surprise package, but a very pretty package from another age.”
“Gypsy” (opening May 28, 1982), the musical of burlesque life with music by Jules Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, closed the 1981-82 season. Featured were Ruthie Martinez in the title role and Phyllis T Busby as Mama Rose. “Moves like a tired old stripper,” said Morrison in The N&O. But he praised Miss Martinez, “a stunning performer,” and the three strippers, Becky Johnston, Gina Massel-Castater and N. Caroline Banks.
“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the Sondheim musical, brightened the dog days of summer with a series of performances opening July 30, 1982, in the amphitheatre. Ron Campbell starred as Pseudolus and the cast included Jim Stowe, Robin McWilliams, Joan Taylor Munger, Dennis Rogers, Rowell Gormon, and Denise Dunklin. “The Raleigh theatre does justice to the show’s merriment and lunacy,” said Wayne Stengel, reviewing for The N&O.
“Sherlock Holmes” opened the regular season September 24, 1982, with James Garner in the title role. Other cast members included Rowell Gormon, John T. Hall, and Shannon Bailey Roy Dicks, reviewing for The Spectator, said the production was “larger than life but not melodramatic.” Steve Currie, in his second year as RLT’s technical director, was singled out for special praise for his fast-changing set designs.
“Grease” (opening November 26, 1982) brought the musical ’50s to the RLT stage, with a cast that included Gary Rzasa, Tom Dawson, Serena Ebhardt, Jennifer Motto, Karen Mangum and Denise Penven. “Transcends its serious flaws through sheer force of good will,” said Rod Cockshutt in The N&O.
“The Crucible” (opening February 4, 1983), Arthur Miller’s drama based on the Salem witchcraft trials, featured William B. Bailey, Sheryl Moore, Annemarie Fenske, Charles Barrett and Sara Lynn Moore. “Well-intentioned but woefully laborious,” said Rod Cockshutt in The N&O.
“Move Over, Mrs. Markham” (opening March 18, 1983) had Robin McWilliams, J. Kelly Gay III, and Lorena Goodwin in featured roles, and marked the debut as technical director of G. Sandor Biro, a native of Hungary, succeeding Steve Currie, who resigned.
“South Pacific” (opening May 20, 1983), a blockbuster revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit musical, had a large cast that included Becky Johnston, Don Johnston, Lydia Aldridge, Victor Mangum, Jim Partin, Becky Myer, Banks A. Hunter, Ron Campbell, and Bubba Dorsett. “A wonderful, bountiful entertainment,” said Nell Joslin Styron, reviewing for The News and Observer.
“South Pacific” was the last production directed by Newell Tarrant, who had announced his resignation in December, effective at the end of the season.
The board of directors decided that the management of the theatre should be reorganized with a managing director, artistic director, and scenic designer/technical director, replacing the former executive director-business manager arrangement.
Linda S. Bamford, who had been business manager, was named managing director. Before joining the RLT staff in 1975, Mrs. Bamford had taught drama and speech at Meredith College, drama at N.C. State University, and children’s theatre at Briarcliff Elementary School in Cary. She is a graduate of St. Mary of the Woods College in Indiana and has a master’s degree in dramatic art from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
At the annual meeting, Newell Tarrant was named director emeritus and made a life member of RLT. He also was presented a special Cantey Award for his work.
Haskell Fitz-Simons, 34, was appointed to the new post of artistic director of the Raleigh Little Theatre. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master of fine arts degree in theatre, Fitz-Simons had worked with the Alley Theatre in Houston and the Light Opera of Manhattan in New York, taught at the University of Wisconsin at Superior and been visiting artist at Vance-Granville Community College in Henderson.
The 1983-84 season began with an announcement by managing director Linda Bamford that the membership drive had grossed more than $100,000 with 3,774 subscriptions.
Highlighting the summer months was a well-received production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Trial By Jury” under the direction of Mark Thomas and Jo Brown in the air-conditioned comfort of the main theatre.
The regular season opened with the Charles Strouse musical “Annie” with the first performance on September 16, 1983, featuring Andrea Schulz in the title role and a cast that included David Ring, Dottie Lindner, Lisa Squires, Brent Wilson, Collyn Gaffney and Juanda Holley. Rod Cockshutt reviewing for The N&O, said the production “is fairly dripping with adorable children” but “has an oddly perfunctory aura about it.” Playing the adorable children were Sallie Permar, Anna Gunn Bowen, Bess Andrews, Stacey Harris, Natalie Gaskins, Meredith Nicholson, Heather Butler, and Heather Lynch.
“Same Time, Next Year” (opening November 14, 1983) starred Joseph Holleman and Sandra Lind. Cockshutt in The N&O: “Like watching a bowl of Jell-O congeal: The process is predictable, slow and not very interesting.”
“Pinocchio” (opening December 15) was a musical version of the children’s classic. Yolanda Rogers played the title role with support from Rowell Gorman, Bunny Safron, Julia Eller, Tom Dawson, Jim Maney, Caroline Banks and Becky Johnston. “A zesty, zany rendition,” said The Times’ reviewer.
Following the success of “Pinocchio,” RLT entered an agreement with the cast of “Frog Hollow,” the popular WRAL-TV show for children, to present four Saturday performances live at RLT. The response was so great the crowds lined the sidewalks waiting for tickets and RLT doubled the number of performances given.
“Saint Joan” (opening February 3, 1984) by George Bernard Shaw starred Beth Ann Dettman in the title role with J. Kelly Gay III, Robert H. Gault, David Ring, Peter Poor, and Mark Thomas in featured parts. “The production has no shape or focus,” said a Spectator review by Roy Dicks.
“Deathtrap” (opening March 23, 1984) starred John T. Hall, Bill Vann, Peter Poor, Lynne Anchors-Hurder, and Marion Fitz-Simons (mother of the director) in the Ira Levin thriller. “Shows what community theatre can achieve when all the myriad pieces fall precisely into place,” said The N&O review.
The season closed with the Kander-Ebb musical “Cabaret” (opening May 18, 1984). Featured players were Becky Johnston, Roy Dicks, David Ring, Becky Myer, Dan Mason and J. Kelly Gay III.
The 1983-84 season was saddened by the death of Cantey Venable Sutton, the First Lady of the Raleigh Little Theatre. Managing director Linda Bamford summed up the feeling of RLT members: “I am certain Raleigh Little Theatre would not exist had it not been for Cantey Sutton.”
Born in Chapel Hill, Mrs. Sutton was the daughter of Dr. Francis Venable, scientist and president of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1900 to 1914.
She was a singer, actor, writer, and painter. She wrote one book, “Art in Mississippi,” as well as many plays and short stories. In 1967, a one-woman show of her paintings appeared at the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill.
In August 1984, RLT returned to the amphitheatre for a production of “Finian’s Rainbow,” the musical by Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg. The cast included Cordelya Haynes, Barbette Hunter, Juanda Holley, Jennifer Motto, Terry Shippee, Nick Combs, Judy Merryman, Joe Chrietzberg, Rowell Gormon, Dennis Rogers, Steve Jones, Nichole Jervay and Jim Burnette. Bill Morrison of The N&O liked the players, but was lukewarm to the play: “Raleigh Little Theatre has given its best shot in the production… The production is nothing if not zestful. But the truth is that one doesn’t so much revive this show as exhume it.”
Also during the summer, G. Sandor Biro announced his resignation as technical director/scenic designer to become scenic designer at St. Mary’s College in St. Mary’s City, Maryland. Named to succeed him was William C. Rodgers, a Concord native and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a master of fine arts degree in theatre design and technology. He had been technical director and lecturer at Queens College, Charlotte.
The 1984-85 season opened to sell-out crowds in September with the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Among those in the cast were Brent Wilson, Don Johnston, Martha A. Lamb, Bill Vann, Nicholas Combs, Denise Penven and Karen Mangum-Wright. Director Haskell Fitz-Simons appeared as Potiphar. Nell Joslin Styron, reviewing for The N&Q called Fitz-Simons, “gartered and in Egyptian headdress, baring his knees in a kiltlike costume … a comic standout,” then reported happily, “There is a great deal more beefcake than cheesecake.”
The Second Stage season in the newly renovated-for-theatre Greenroom opened in October with a performance of “Table Manners,” directed by Peter Poor.
As part of the regular season, “California Suite” (opening November 5, 1984) starred Bob Dean, Mary Pickering, K.C. Crowe, Jerry Folden, Barbara Mitchell, Tony Dingman and Dennis Rogers. The N&O’s Rod Cockshutt said of the Neil Simon comedy: “Director Haskell Fitz-Simons has effected a theatrical Heimlich maneuver on Simon’s clever but by now gasping and over-performed comedy… Almost without exception, Fitz-Simons’ experienced cast is flawlessly prepared.”
The holiday season brought a critically acclaimed musical production of the beloved children’s classic, “Cinderella.” Playing leading roles in the show were Maggie Bunce, Rowell Gormon, Lisa Gormon, Jo Brown, David Cash, Aaron Agurs and Michael Barham. With daring and uproarious success, director Fitz-Simons cast Dan Mason and Terry Shippee as the ugly stepsisters. Following each performance, costumed cast members met with hundreds of eager children.
The February 1985 offering was the Tennessee Williams classic “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Featured in the cast were Shannon Bailey, Sara Wood, Jason M. Weeks, Joseph Holleman, Joseph Butler Chrietzberg and Bunny Safron. Nell Joslin Styron’s review in The News and Observer was a rave: “Raleigh Little Theatre’s production of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ comes hurtling down the Pogue Street tracks on two wheels, with sparks flying and bells clanging, offering all those lucky enough to be on board the theatrical ride of a lifetime.”
March 1985 brought “Night Watch,” with a cast that included Mary Pickering, Bill Vann, Rowell Gormon, John T. Hall, Stan Lichtenstein, Jo Brown, Joseph J. Baker, and Chris Murray. The N&O’s Nell Styron praised designer William C. Rodgers’ set but had reservations about the play: “‘Night Watch’ plays on a set so opulent and elegant that it helps camouflage the thinness of the Lucille Fletcher thriller.”
Raleigh Little Theatre Second Stage in March 1985 offered “Stop the Presses!” – an original musical revue with music and lyrics by Guy Munger, directed by Roy Dicks. It was believed to be the first original revue presented at RLT and the second original musical, the first being “The Scandalous Mrs. Jack.” Double billed with “Stop The Presses” was “Silver Linings,” a revue of comic sketches under the direction of Tom Dawson.
Rounding off the 1984-85 Second Stage season in April were two contemporary one-act plays: “Snowangel” directed by Jo Brown and “An Evening For Merlin Finch” directed by David Ring.
For the younger set, RLT’s Second Stage also played host to “Nightwonders,” a puppet show by Carolyn S. Gabb, and “Kids On The Block,” a puppet show about handicaps presented by the Junior League of Raleigh.
The 1984-85 regular season closed with Sigmund Romberg’s “Student Prince,” featuring Dan Mason, Tricia Abbott, Don Johnston, Amy Kreiger, Peter Poor, John T. Hall, Joseph J. Baker, Annemarie Fenske, Susan Worthington-White and Jeffrey Payne Burcher.
Unlike at least one other reviewer who seemed totally unfamiliar with the operetta form, ancestor of today’s musical theatre, Nell Joslin Styron of The News and Observer appreciated the careful re-creation of a Valentine that, though perhaps faded, was still lovely: “If you find the pace slow, relax. Don’t blame director Fitz-Simons. That is the way it was in those golden days.”
Nell Styron’s reference to “golden days” was appropriate. Raleigh Little Theatre was looking ahead to its golden 50th season-certainly a time for golden oldies of the stage.
And for those inclined to do a little looking back, RLT could count some solid gains in recent years:
- The 1983-84 and 1984-85 seasons had been sold out-an RLT “First”-and the theatre was operating in the black with steady increases in revenues and number of members.
- In the period from 1979-80 to 1984-85, total membership had grown about one-third, from 3,051 to 4,037.
- Contributing memberships (Angels, Sponsors, Donors and Patrons) had risen at an even faster rate, 54.7 percent, from 470 to 727.
- Because of these gains and increases in membership prices, revenues from membership sales rose 76.1 percent, from $70,049 to $123,377.
- The theatre’s total revenues had gone up by almost one half, from $126,643 to $187,805.
- Attendance at subscription shows had increased from 15,875 to 18,726. But not all the improvements could be reported in terms of statistics. Programs had been added and changes made:
- The staff had been restructured and increased in size. The duties of the executive director’s job had been split. A full-time secretary and costumer and a part-time box-office person had been added.
- Special programs had been developed for children, classes in acting, creative dramatics, oral interpretation, technical internships.
- Adult classes had been offered in dance, stage combat, acting, and makeup, along with technical internships and workshops.
- Physical changes had been made allover the theatre building-more often than not under the leadership of Al Wolfheimer, a theatrical and electronic genius who had virtually adopted RLT as a special volunteer project. His efforts showed up in a remodeled Greenroom (complete with light booth), restroom facilities for the handicapped and numerous other improvements, many of them backstage.
As the Raleigh Little Theatre prepared to enter its fiftieth year, the future was filled with promise and challenge, the challenge of remaining a vibrant force in one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation, a community that had made the transition from small town to city and was starting the sometimes painful change to metropolis.