Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pajama Game, Carousel, and Trashing Chandler: A Reader Remembers

John Jackson's second post about the renaissance of Randolph's music hall brought forth an email from Paul Bouchey, a theater professional who was lured to Randolph in 1972 by the goings-on at Chandler and became instrumental in its revival. "The years have indeed passed quickly," Paul wrote in his email, "but the memories of the project and the people remain strong and vivid. Your blog project is a great way for folks of all ages to reflect upon and share their lives with others. 'What is past is prologue.' "

Paul's email was a reminder of how many people have been brought together by this one institution. "The enthusiasm and dedication of people of every age and status in life in this small New England town were impressive indeed—and contagious," he recalled in a 2007 letter—copied in the email—to Herald editor M. Dickey Drysdale, then at work on a Chandler history (Not a Bad Seat in the House: Albert B. Chandler and His Marvelous Music Hall). "All of the activity surrounding Chandler became a cause celebre. If you said to anyone, 'I'll meet you at the hall,' there was no question as to which location you were referring. It was fast becoming a center for community focus and special attention. Furthermore, most everyone has a bit of the ham in them and an attraction to show biz. I met many wonderful and interesting people, from natives going back years to those who moved to Vermont to find a different, quieter, more traditional way of life. There were high school kids and farmers: salesmen and college professors; hippies and bankers; contractors and housewives; businessmen and teachers. I was invited to their homes for dinner, drew portraits of some, learned about sugarin', became enamoured of the Vermont accent (what accent?), experienced something of local politics—both public and personal—and basked in the aroma of old farmhouses being heated exclusively by woodburning stoves and fireplaces."

For the rest of Paul's letter to M. Dickey (including an account of the time he and others trashed the newly restored hall for an Oxydol commercial), click on "Read more," below.
In early spring of 1972 a good friend and professional theater colleague, Dick Emerson, asked me to paint scenery for a local musical production of Pajama Game in an old theater in Vermont. We had first met two years earlier when I wandered into the Lake George Opera Festival one summer day and was hired to paint sets and act as property master for the company. The following fall and winter, while completing my senior year at Pratt Institute, I worked on a number of off-Broadway productions in New York with Dick at the American Place Theater and other venues. I'd been in the central Vermont area the previous summer to visit with him and his sister and brother-in-law—Ariel and Bob Miner—who were building a home in the woods in Chelsea.

I've always loved old buildings and the history they represent, especially venerable old theaters like Chandler Music Hall. I wasn't sure how I'd take to living in a small town for a few months, but I was game and was familiar with the musical being produced. The building was a bit rough around the edges, though structurally as solid as a rock (as in massive walls of poured concrete). It was rarely utilized except for town meetings and an occasional concert. It was in need of some tender loving care and substantial technical updates to make it a more viable performing space.

John Jackson, a professor at Vermont Technical College where Bob also taught, was directing the show and encouraging Dick to assist in upgrading the facility, as well as acting as technical director and stage manager for the show. It was being presented by the Randolph Singers—the local community theater group, which had mostly performed light operettas in the past in the high school.

With the use of scaffolding provided by Ken Manning, our first order of business was to install a steel grid on the ceiling of the stage house 40+ feet above the floor. This structure would provide strong points of attachment for a new "fly" system—by which scenery and lighting equipment is hung from iron pipes, which are in turn raised and lowered on stage with a series of pulleys and hemp ropes tied off to a "pin" rail. Sometimes sandbags were employed as primitive but fairly effective counterweights. It was an old-fashioned solution but perfectly appropriate for Chandler. We were simply reinforcing the existing system. (The music hall was a "hemp house" as opposed to one with a more modern counter-balanced fly system utilizing steel cables and iron or lead weights.)

Through his contacts in New York, Dick secured a set of beautiful velour stage drapes as well. During the same period, he rebuilt the railing surrounding the theater's small but useful orchestra pit which had been covered over for many years. (Shortly after he completed that work, the missing parts of the railing he'd just fabricated were found stored beneath the the balcony seats. It was okay, though—it had kept him off the streets for a few weeks and honed his already considerable carpentry skills). Chandler was beginning to look like a real theater again! With the installation of increased electrical capacity and borrowed professional lighting equipment from the L.G. Opera, VTC, and elsewhere, we were ready to put on a show!

The Pajama Game had been a popular Broadway hit from the '50s, was fairly easy to produce, and had familiar songs. Bob Brady, another VTC prof, designed the sets; Emerson built them, and I painted them. Bob Miner, a man of many talents, would be the musical director. There was to be a real orchestra of local musicians and students, not just a couple of pianos. And it seemed that almost everyone in town was either in the show, worked backstage, or made some contribution—large and small—to the project. . . . 

The Randolph Singers' production of The Pajama Game was a great success. Most of those folks were damned talented. With the establishment of the Friends of Chandler, much more was to follow. Together with John and Cynthia Jackson and numerous others like Red Hartigan and the Angells, etc., Martha Ostlund—a small, very determined woman—became a local legend in her efforts on behalf of Chandler. The hall began booking all kinds of events—films, children's shows, plays, classical musical performamces, popular concerts—even Shakespeare. All this within a matter of two years!

I spent the following winter working in Florida. Early in 1973 I received a call from Dick asking if I'd be interested in coming back to Randolph for the Singers' next production, Carousel. As an added enticement I was offered the opportunity to design the scenery for the show. The pay would be the same as the previous spring: .00 a week (though I must confess that I was paid a stipend for designing and editing the programs). I'd become somewhat attached to the town and many of its residents and to the theater itself, so I headed north in early March—just in time for a few lingering snowstorms . . . and mud season. After lolling on the fine white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast for months, what could be better?

The dreary weather eventually turned into a gorgeous, magical spring. Helping to produce Carousel was even more fun and satisfying than the previous year. I reestablished contacts with old friends and made new ones. I even fell in love. The sets I designed were not exactly grand, but were more ambitious to create. The whole production was more demanding and, I believe, more successful. Those two guys, Rodgers and Hammerstein, wrote pretty good stuff.

That October, a television commercial was filmed at Chandler. I helped with the production. The irony was that after all the hard work to restore the theater to its former glory, we were now called upon to turn it into a set for the commercial of an old, dilapidated theater being restored by townfolk. So we temporarily trashed the place: We filled it with construction debris, paint cans, dropcloths, bits of scattered sets, and even lowered the chandeliers—an interesting process—which the actors, all local except for the announcer, dutifully dusted and cleaned while dressed in white coveralls which Oxydol detergent would then make sparkling clean. The company was scrupulous in documenting that the filthy garments used were the same pure white ones removed from the machine on camera at the end of the ad and had truly been washed with their product. Naturally, Martha managed to secure a nice contribution from the film company for the use of the hall and great fun was had by all. Somewhere in town there may yet exist a 16mm copy, if not a videotape, of the ad, which I've never seen. The original commercial was run in markets in other parts of the country.

In October 1977, Martha hired me to refinish the stage floor and begin tracings of the original stencils on the side walls of the theater. They'd been hidden under a coat of nondescript light blue paint for decades but had been hinted at in old interior photos of the building.

After Chandler, I assisted with the dramatic restoration of the Cohoes Music Hall (built 1874) near Troy, New York, my hometown. I also worked for the resident Equity theater company there. Troy itself has its own legendary music hall (1875), known worldwide for its superb acoustics. Some of the greatest musicians and singers have performed and recorded there.

I drove through Randolph in the early '90s and stopped by to say hello to Martha Ostlund. She brought me over to Chandler to show off all of the restoration work that had been done in the ensuing years. She was beaming with pride and smiled broadly. It was a remarkable transformation of both the theater and, to some degree, of Martha herself. Three years ago, by sheer chance, I learned of Martha Ostlund's death and wrote a letter to The Herald recalling her and the early efforts to bring Chandler back to life. Two months later, in early May I decided to take a drive to Randolph. It was an absolutely perfect spring day. My visit was brief, but I had a delightful reunion with John Jackson and his daughter Mindy Jefferys. I hadn't seen them in 25 years.

When I arrived in Randolph I went directly to Chandler. I was alone in the theater. The window curtains were drawn, the house lights were slightly dimmed. There was a warmth and richness that had been created there, as well as a discernable pride of place, made possible by the dreams and hard work of many hundreds of people—old and young—during the past thirty years. I could actually sense it. The simple but elegant interior had been reborn and is once more what it was always meant to be. I felt a rush of great satisfaction and nostalgia. Standing on that stage again and gazing into the house engendered a flood of memories and flashback images of three decades earlier. The names of individuals and whole families from those days came to mind—Jackson, Ostlund, Drysdale, Angell, Miner, Hartigan, Black, Henderson, Brigham, Mongomery, Soule, Anderson, Lamson, Merrill, Rydjeskey, Smith, Libby, Springer, Carter, Gray, Lindener . . . and many more. Chandler Music Hall is one of those special places that projects a particular ambience. It feels the way a theater should. It does so in a direct, purposeful, simple way. It knows what it is. Just like New Englanders. While the beautiful interior decor—from the restored painted surfaces to the maple woodwork—enhances the feeling, it is also imbued with the spirits of everyone who ever performed there; of every audience member who ever cheered or laughed or cried there; of every business and individual who ever contributed their support—financial or otherwise—to keep it there; even of old Albert Chandler himself, who wanted to give his hometown something worthwhile and lasting. In that he succeeded more than he could ever have ever imagined.

Many think of live performance as pure artifice—an imaginary, contrived event which, while entertaining, is not real. Not real life? I disagree. At their best, the performing arts bring us outside ourselves, however briefly, into a world of great passion, humor, inspring music, silly stories, profound thoughts, timeless themes, pure fantasy. Artificial, contrived? Perhaps. But not fake—it must never be fake. Live theater is capable of providing substantial insight into the human condition. Sometimes it just makes us feel good. Then, when the magic of it all works just right, we return inside ourselves, enriched by the experience, perhaps a little wiser or more thoughtful. Certainly a little happier. Maybe even inspired. What could be more real than that? What could be more valuable? Uncle Ritchie, we done good.

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