Back to Previous Page

History Lives Here Text

REMEMBERANCES OF THE RED BARN
or "Will There Be Anything Else, Madame?"

by Mary Ann Curtis
May 1992

Mostly I played a maid at the Red Barn Theatre. At least,that's what I remember the most.

More than 40 years ago, after a shaky acting start, completewith wobbling knees and dry mouth - I was a mere housewife with three youngchildren at the time - I finally could say, "Yes, madam. No, madam. Willthere be anything else, madam?" with or without cockney accent and at thedrop of a hat (or drop of a line, as was more often the case).

My sister-in-law, Ann Curbs, talked me into trying out farthat first part. she was doing props for the show and knew I would adore beingon the stage. She was right.

Jim Webster began a summer community theater in 198 at theSaugatuck High School after World War II, but by my debut he had created hisown theater building in Douglas. It was a long and narrow barn, just below whatused to be Gray Gables (later Petter Gallery) and audiences sat on church pews.The stage was apposite the front door and both were on the longest sides of thebuilding, with audiences spread out in-between. The entrance was so close tothe stage that when the box office telephone rang, attars were inclined to pickup the stage prop phone thinking it was part of their scene. And one had toignore the ludicrousness of performing in a serious, moody, period drama, whilethe phone could clearly be heard ringing nearby.

In the fall of 1953, Jim Webster purchased a barn on theBelvedere estate northeast of Saugatuck and converted it into a theater - stillthe site of the Red Barn today. It was a regular working barn when Jim boughtit, half the size we see today. Turning it into a theater was a formidable job,but he had a special talent and eye for detail. Major improvements - someexpensive and dramatic - were made by each successive owned but the seed wasplanted by that first Jim, and a host of community volunteers and performers.

The dressing room was one big space separated by bedsheetcurtains in what had been cow stalls. Men and women put on their makeup side byside, and if you were lucky, the toilets worked. The people in the house nextdoor controlled the water flow and one never knew when they might or might notturn the water off altogether - usually during a performance. The tinylavatories were exotically painted places of questionable atmosphere and charm,decorated with colander lamp shades and flower-bedecked plungers. Even when thewater was running, the plumbing often was not.

Jim made himself living quarters in the silo - afascinating, if inconvenient idea. One little round room above another, eachwith a narrow ladder for ascending and descending, calling for modesty fromcurious women who clutched their skirts around their legs in order to climb theheights and check the decor.

On the stage al1 was wonderful bedlam. Why is it when wereminisce about little theatre, we always remember the disastrous moments moreeasily than the triumphs? Certain, there were great achievements, but thestruggles came more quickly to mind; the laughs to cover the chagrin; thecamaraderie of pulling through. There is an untrue, but oft repeated statementthat says, "The audience will never notice." In fact, the audiencenever misses a thing!

Those were the days when opening nights were a trueexperience, as audiences and performers alike never knew quite what to expect.They always hoped for the best, but delighted in the worst, if that's what theygot. Jim put on a different show each week, playing one at night whilerehearsing the next during the day, a not unusual situation in professionalcircles, but a major achievement for this small community where summer theaterwas a relatively new concept. He would find friends to perform from CivicPlayers in Kalamazoo,and sometimes he'd discover out-of-work actors or actresses vacationing withparents in the area, home for a few good meals. Once he was so desperate tofind a young male for a play already well into rehearsal, he actually got theboy who ferried him across Lake Kalamazoo from one side of Saugatuck to theother to accompany him back to the theatre.

As I recall, Don Bonevich came with his puppets and suddenlyfound himself filling in on the stage - a natural actor on his way to lastingRed Barn stardom. One leading actress from the Benton Harborarea was driven to rehearsals by her husband, who was promptly lured onto thestage for the first time. She had a chiffon handkerchief to match every outfitand like to fling the colorful things about during other people's speeches,which made her cause for much backstage talk. Her husband, on the other hand,turned out to be totally relaxed and at home on the stage, where he remained astar for some years.

We locals suspected some of these individuals were beingcajoled with money, but we didn't know for sure. Certainly most of theperformers came from the community in those days and gave their all becausethey loved it.

Jim Webster would begin each new season with bright eyes andclear shin, but as the summer and the stress progressed, his arms beganbreaking out in "sympathetic" sores that grew and spread in directrelationship to rising moments of panic. You could tell it was August bychecking out his skin.

Off and on, I would have yet another maid's role, eachprogressively bigger and more fun. There was Ida the maid in See How TheyRun, the only play that had three separate Saugatuck productions beginningwhen Barbara Kent played Ida at the high school, one under Jim Dyas in 1961. Asmy husband, Jim, was a priest at 'All Saints' Episcopal Church in Saugatuck, wewere able to help with costumes for this comedy about a bunch of Anglicanclergymen running around the rectory. The production I was in had such peopleas Dick Banks (summering in Macatawa?) and Helen lift of Kalamazoo as the funny organist or altarguild lady with a crush on the vicar. At the cast party after the final show, Iremember being totally surprised to see someone running madly through the yardpushing a wheelbarrow with the "staid and quiet" Helen's long legsfolded around it.

In the sinister drama Night Must Fall, John Corkill(I think it was him) kept walking around with a head hidden in a hatbox,and I, of course, was the cockney maid. Unfortunately the rehearsals had notgone well, and the leads only knew their lines in Act I. During Act II, theykept changing the blocking as each star jockeyed into position next to the"window" behind which sat a busy prompter with flashlight and eyespointed at the script. On opening night the audience heard every line of Act IItwice - first by the prompter and then the stars - but the acting was so goodno one seemed to mind. There was a kind of sick fascination in watching themale or female lead holding his or her stance with dramatic poise as theydesperately listened for cues ... and then repeated with great aplomb what they- and the audience - had just heard. Finally, when one star had hovered by thewindow as long as discretion allowed, he or she reluctantly moved away and theother quickly moved into the vacated position. At one point I was required togo to the window and look out. The lights were dim and my old-fashioned hightopshoes were so big for me that the toes hit the wall before I arrived,practically throwing me through the window onto the lap of the startledprompter, who was already by far the busiest person in the production, ofcourse, the audience never noticed.

Once Nancy Ranson, a very talented local star, was called infrom her boating to don a severe woman's suit and take on the part of abusinessman, her lines rewritten onto a small notebook she held in her hand atall times. On another opening night, the newly painted floor was still wet asthe curtain went up and the actors proceeded to get paint all over the bottomsof their shoes.

In 1957 Jim Webster became ill and was told he had just somany months to live, so he left the Red Barn, sold everything he owned, boughta white convertible and went to Florida.When his money ran out and he was still alive, he came back to the area andenjoyed life for much longer than anyone could have predicted. but his days atthe Red Barn were over.

James Dyas followed Jim Webster at the Red Barn asproducer-director for William John Upjohn of Kalamazoo from 1958 to 1975. Under thiscombination of money and talent things became very professional, with enlargedfacilities and an equity cast of performers supported by locals only as needed.

Over the years I was not always the maid. One play was thecomedy Third Best Sport starring Dorothy Lee Tompkins wife of Jim Dyas)Bruce Hall, John LeGrande and Don Bonevich among others. I was cast as anuppity society matron. Early in the morning following our dress rehearsal Iwoke up screaming in pain, unable to open my tortured eyes. My husband led meto a specialist who found my eyes had been badly burned by the stage lights, mycontact lenses apparently acting as magnifiers. That night I opened in darkglasses with my eyes barely at half mast,

In 1961, I also had a small part in Sweet Bird of Youth withall of the above-mentioned people, along with William Cain and Leta Anderson,Youngsters Bill Olendorf and Jim-Billy Dyas were also in this show.

During Mary Olendorf's exciting productions 1966-1986, Iplayed in the original musical Fear of filing and for my efforts won thedubious honor of a devastating one-line review from a respected midwest critic.As he did not mention my name - fortunately - neither will I mention his.

My most recent Red Barn performance was in 1989 as a tap dancerin Stepping Out starring Linda Kinnaman. It was directed for the littletheater downstairs by Steve Hauck and produced by Paul Stuart Graham, who wasin charge 1986 to 1991.

There is a theatrical spirit in this community, being kepthealthy by a combination of new and old blood. These are people who believethat the legacy of comedy, drama and musicals should continued in our communityfor future generations.

And, as for this old actress? Could there be anything betterthan having a good part again at the Red Barn? Wouldn't it be nice, if I wasemoting from my rocker, and suddenly a young lady in the role of a maidapproached and said directly to me with trembling voice those well-rememberedwords, "Mill there be anything else madam?"