Wednesday, March 17, 2010

John Jackson: Chandler Music Hall

I was a Chandler brat—in fact, I'm pretty sure I was one of the kids whom John mentions below in part one of his memoir about the renaissance of Randolph's old music hall, in which he played a key role. I remember the years when the hall saw little use, other than as a stage for town meeting and the annual Halloween parade (I was a fairy princess one year, a Dutch girl with a winged cap another). John's memoir about the Jackson family's introduction to Randolph and their delight in their new neighborhood is a reminder of the vitality that newcomers bring to a community. Another newcomer of the period, Nat Frothingham, directed me and several of the Jacksons in a Chandler production of Twelfth Night in the summer of '72. That's him in the photograph next to Virginia Reidy. Todd Vandegriek appeared in the choice role of Feste; his picture is after the jump. Here's John:

Cynthia and I and our two children, Mindy aged 15 and John Christopher aged 12, arrived in Randolph in early August 1969. Our first impressions were very positive. Taped to our front door at One School Street was an invitation to dinner after the movers left. Within days, the leader of the young people’s group at Bethany Church stopped by with the names and addresses of children of appropriate ages who he thought would be compatible with our two. We had moved quite a few times over the years and we had never had such a warm welcome.

It was a very few days later that Christopher came home in a state of excitement with the news that there was a big theater across the street from Bethany Church. I found out many years later that one of his new friends had shown him an unlocked window in the basement of the music hall through which they could crawl in and look around. Phil Hall, the minister at the time, saw them and went over and gave them a guided tour. Phil was a remarkable man. It’s no wonder he was popular with the church young people. I soon got my own guided tour and was struck by the possibilities. At that time, the hall had gone almost completely out of use and was in pretty bad shape. Everyone in our family had an interest in theater. None of us had had a lot of experience, just bits and pieces here and there, but we all began to dream about doing something about Chandler.

Mindy was the first to take positive steps. The following summer, she and some of her new friends, decided it would be fun to do some theater during vacation. I found out that the hall was under the supervision of three older members of the community, on behalf of the Board of Selectmen of the town. I talked to them and they gave more or less grudging permission if it was all right with the janitor. The children got some paint and began to brighten up the dressing room area. There was nothing but trouble from the janitor. He had a very strong sense of responsibility toward the hall and didn’t want to deal with the young people and he had no interest spending any more time there than he had in the past, which was very, very little. He made life miserable enough that the energy soon went out of the summer theater group and Chandler settled back into its moribund state. That same summer, the Randolph Singers did their annual production, The Student Prince, at the high school auditorium.

Sometime during that first year, I joined the Randolph Singers. What with settling into the new house and getting used to a new job, I hadn’t gotten involved with The Student Prince. After the show, I was approached by members of the singers about a problem they had. Bill Whitney, the stage director of their summer shows, had just retired from teaching at Randolph Union High School. They knew of my interest in theater and they wanted to know if I would take on the job of stage director for their next show. We discussed the possibilities and I eventually said that I would if the new show would be Brigadoon and if they would agree to doing the show in Chandler Music Hall. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I really have no memory of how it happened but we decided to put the show on in February!

It would take a book to chronicle all the trials and tribulations of getting that show on the boards. For starters, there were only 60 amps of power available in the hall, including the house lights. The only technical lighting equipment was an ancient rheostat about a foot in diameter that dimmed the footlights. If one tried to use it, it tended to throw sparks and blow out the building fuse. The attic had numerous buckets scattered around to catch the drips from the leaking roof. The back wall of the stage had loosely fitting windows and structural cracks that did little to keep the weather outside. On at least one occasion we had to sweep snow off the stage before rehearsal.
And then, there was our ever present janitor. He seemed to be determined to make life as difficult as possible. He was the only one who knew the ins and outs of the heating and water systems. The normal winter regime was to have the heating system shut down and the plumbing drained. Getting heat and water for rehearsals was always a hassle. Often we had cold rehearsals with the hall getting warmed up about the time we were leaving. But, enough of the problems. There were many, many wonderful things about the production.

We had open rehearsals and it turned out that our two leads were from Montpelier. Paul Ohman became Tommy and Phyllis Andrews Fionna. They were singers of professional quality. All of the other speaking and solo parts came from the Randolph Singers. There was some grumbling about “out of towners” getting the big parts and, there was some justice to it, but I think the end justified the decision. I had gotten to know a man from South Royalton, Bill Lovering, who, with his wife, had a small advertising company there. I found out that he was an artist and had some interest in theater. I got him to agree to do the stage designs. He did a fantastic job. The comedy leads were Dr. Brewster Martin and Bunchie Angell, both long time Randolph Singers. They were superb. Organizing and managing rehearsals for a show with 25 scenes and scene changes was a challenge and the schedule of rehearsals was a sight to see. Fortunately, the music director did not retire until the next year. That was the beloved Mr. Alderfer, the music teacher from the high school. With his wife playing the piano, the music for the show was terrific. In the end, we had a good show with terrific audiences. Saturday night, we had a sell-out with every folding chair  we could find set up in the aisles.

After the show, the Randolph Singers voted to make a contribution to the music hall of $1,000.


Anonymous said...

I remember Chandler back in the thirties and forties when the schools were so crowded that many school events took place in Chandler. High school plays were performed there, and my graduation from high school took place there. Back in the thirties something called a Chatauqua was presented there, and in the fifties there was an occasional movie shown there. Chandler has a long history of service to the town. Idora Tucker

Anonymous said...

Oh I loved reading this! The memories played out in my head as I read each word!Those were fun days...the days of Brigadoon, Oklahoma, Finian's Rainbow, Carousel, and Oxydol commercials! Where, oh where is Gin Reidy now? Thanks for the trip down memory lane! And hello, Jackson family!
Catherine Edson (Cathy Henderson!)

march4mom said...

What a marvelous story! For all the years that Chandler has been a part of my family, I have never heard the beginnings of the renovation tales. Thank you John- and Sarah! More! More!