VPR Backstage: “The Mikado” at Hyde Park Opera House

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(Host) One of the oldest community theater companies in Vermont celebrates an anniversary this week.

The Lamoille County Players have presented dozens of shows and over a thousand performances over the last fifty years. Now the volunteer theatre group is restaging the show it began with in 1952.

VPR’s Steve Zind goes back stage to report on how an idea for a church fundraiser grew into a community tradition.

(Sound of chorus warming up)

(Zind) Shortly before a matinee performance on a warm Sunday afternoon, the chorus for the Lamoille County Players production of “The Mikado” warms up on stage at the Hyde Park Opera House.

There’s nothing fancy about the hall. It has a tiny lobby, plain white walls and simple d cor. The most striking feature is its size. Barely 300 seats descend to the proscenium stage. Yet this opera house has inspired the dedication of scores of area residents for half a century.

The Lamoille County Players started almost by accident. In 1952, the Congregational Church across the street needed a new heating system. To raise the money, the Reverend John Knight drew on his love of theater. He organized two performances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical comedy. Knight pressed into service members of local church choirs. His wife, Jean, says there was no theater in the area. Her husband had to search for people.

(Knight) “So he went all around. He found Poo Bah in Hardwick. He found a man who had done lighting on Broadway and he came and brought his equipment.”

(Zind) Knight decided to clean up and reopen the long abandoned Hyde Park Opera House. The shows sold out. It was clear Hyde Park wanted to support local theater. The Lamoille County Players were born. The opera house became the group’s home and perennial fix-up project. Today, the players are staging “The Mikado” once again. Unlike the single accompanist in the old days, Lamoille County Players now have their own small orchestra.

(Orchestra plays)

(Zind) A quarter century ago Roger Marcoux’s entire family, including six siblings, worked on one of the players productions. Marcoux has remained a part of the group ever since. He’s not alone in his dedication.

(Marcoux) “We have people here that just come to work on the opera house. They come in on their own time. They sometimes come to shows, but they don’t want to be listed anywhere, they just come to work.”

(Zind) In the matinee crowd are young men in baseball caps and Nascar tee shirts. There are families, and well dressed elderly couples. Board President John Dunn says the same diversity is reflected in the company of players.

(Dunn) “It ties the community together in a lot of ways. One way is that it brings people from all different walks of life together. Not only from different social groups, but also different ages.”

(Sound of singing) If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan…

(Zind) Doug McGowan plays one of the leads in “The Mikado.” McGowan says local theater may not be as critical as fire or police protection, but the community is richer for it.

(McGowan) “It’s just a magical service, it’s a wonderful thing to have. And the education of young actors…that’ll affect them all their life.”

(Zind) In the 1952 production, McGowan’s part was played by the Reverend John Knight. This year’s performances are dedicated to Knight. On Sunday afternoon, Jean Knight joined several other cast members from the original production to help celebrate the anniversary of the group her late husband helped start. An idea born fifty years ago from the need for a church furnace, and a love of community theater.

(Knight) “It’s kind of a bittersweet afternoon for me. But it’s been a wonderful adventure.”

(Zind) For VPR Backstage, I’m Steve Zind at the Hyde Park Opera House.

(Host) “The Mikado” runs this week Thursday through Sunday at 7pm at the Hyde Park Opera House. VPR Backstage is a production of Vermont Public Radio. The production engineer is Chris Albertine.

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