The “barn theater” group existed for only a handful of years during the 1960s. But, memories have lingered. And they will be remembered by many of the actors and stage workers who are gathering this week in Stark County
Words in a program for “Plain and Fancy” introduced the “barn theater” group more than half a century ago.
“Welcome to our first production of summer musicals,” the program for the Aug. 25-28, 1960, production said. “With much pride do we present to you, first of all, a great musical play, and secondly, some of the best college an high school talent this community has to offer.
“This new organization which is represented by over 50 members from Canton, North Canton, Massillon, Wooster, and Navarre is active during the summer months and is open to anyone from the ages of 14 to 22.”
The theater group existed for only a handful of years. But, memories have lingered. And they will be remembered by many of the actors and stage workers who are gathering soon in Stark County — Friday for a dinner at 356th Fighter Group restaurant and Saturday for a reunion picnic at the barn in which they answered that age-old dramatic challenge, “Let’s put on a play!”
Although the amateur theater is fondly remembered as the “barn theater,” the theater group first officially was called the Music Theater and later the Showcase Theater.
“They can sing and act. They apply makeup and design and build sets. They man the lights, park the car, sell the tickets. Between acts, they pitch in to move furniture and set up scenery,” said an article by Judy Small published in The Canton Repository in July 1963. “While the Showcase does not have a resident company, the audience comes to recognize the familiar faces or ‘regulars’ who rotate from the lead in one show to the chorus of the next.”
The theater for the troupe was a red barn at 5100 Revere Ave. NW in Jackson Township near Massillon. It was on the farm of Coleman Sanders near High Mill Park
In the four years that the theater existed, more than 15,000 people saw performances which began in that 1960 production of “Plain and Fancy.”
The theater group was launched by a core quartet of four thespians from Central Catholic High School, including J. Charles “Jack” Barnhart, who had worked on a traveling variety show. Barnhart, who became director and producer, conceived the idea after working as a groundskeeper for summer theater in Canal Fulton.
“It fascinated me that we could put on productions, locally, using mostly kids right out of high school and college,” remembered Barnhart, who late in the 1950s began scouting the area for a barn.
The barn he located was just being used for storage. It became a rented theater for two years, before it and the surrounding two acres was purchased by the theater group.
“We spent the entire first summer cleaning it up,” said Barnhart.
Page 2 of 3 - Lights were raised. Stage curtains were hung. A piano was imported.
“We had no risers the first seasons,” recalled Barnhart. “The second season we built risers and refinished the oak floor. We also went out to an Amish community and, would you believe it, the Amish were selling theater chairs, which we bought. Those chairs stayed with the theater the entire time.”
GETTING ON STAGE
At first, for lighting effects, the technical director, Art Keffler, employed a “salt water dimmer” to control red, green and blue mushroom lights.
“It was five-gallon crocks, about six or eight of them, with metal plates in the bottom of them,” explained Barnhart. “As you lowered another plate into the water, the closer you got to the submerged plate the more current that would be generated and the brighter the lights would be. That would be how you brightened and dimmed the lights on stage.”
The cast and crew included Barnhart as director, Phillis Duberstem as president, Dianne Brown as choreographer, and Larry Kolp as music director. According to captions in a pictorial in The Repository published in promotion for “Plain and Fancy,” others in the volunteer group its first year included Bill Moses (the youngest member), Vicki Scott, Mandell Sperling, Mary Ann Rose, John Weaver, Ginny Leahy, Toni Pizzino, Tom Sweterlitsch, Ted Sanders, Tom Kessler, Diann Lombardi, Ruth Felman, Alice Kiefer, Eileen Leahy, Stephanie Brown, Dick Reifsnyder and Diane DeMont.
The 1963 article identifies such other area cast members as Dick Palmer, Cathy Luker, Dick Elder, Ruth Sichel, Dawn Daniel, and Betsy Lottman. Others attending the reunion include Tim DeBord and Mary Morgan.
“Some of us have gone on to pretty neat stuff (in theater),” said Barnhart, who later taught and directed theater at a college in Chicago. He now is retired, living in Iowa.
Moses, who acted in seven productions at the barn, was part of the theater faculty of several universities. For 32 years he wrote, directed and designed sets as chairman of the Theatre Arts Department of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
After his second season at the barn, the group’s music director, Kolp, studied organ, piano, and voice at Oberlin College, and “did a lot of theater.” Later in life “non-profit management paid the rent, but soul-food is still music and theater. I’m chorus president of the Choral Arts Society of Washington.”
Diane DeMont, who had a lead in “Plain and Fancy,” “Fanny,” and “Student Prince” at the barn, made a career of singing before returning to Stark County to direct a 50-member folk group at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Massillon. She now lives in Nokomis, Fla., where she sings professionally with a chamber music group.
Choreographer Brown, now Dianne Brown Woodruff, got a doctorate in dance and joined the faculty of a university in Canada. Tech director Keffler later became an engineer and worked on the Washington, D.C., subway system.
Page 3 of 3 - BARN REMAINS
Vestiges remain of the era in which dozens of young area theater types put on quality productions on a shoestring budget. Indeed, going beyond that formula helped cause the demise of the theater, Barnhart now says.
“We couldn’t compete with Canal Fulton,” Barnhart recalled, “especially during the fifth season when I naively tried to go professional and pay the cast.”
The barn that was the home of the Music Theater and Showcase Theater, however, still stands. It will serve as the site of the theater’s reunion picnic — rain or shine.
“There’s a picnic table out back,” said Barnhart. “The barn is just used for storage again. But, the wagon-wheel house lights we put together still are hanging and the piano still is hanging at the side of one of the walls.
“This is all going to be so nostalgic because we all lived at that barn for four years.”