Reid Leonard looks back on 25 years with PPT

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 17, 2012

By Reid Leonard
For The Salisbury Post
As I write this, a production of “Cyrano de Bergerac” is playing in the Meroney Theater and “Honk, Jr” opens Friday night in the Norvell Theater and auditions are in two weeks for the musical “Company.”
Theater is all about the next performance and the next show — not for looking back. However, March 3, Piedmont Players celebrates its 50th anniversary and since I have been involved here 25 of the 50 years I was asked to write a few thoughts on my time with Piedmont Players.
I got to be the Piedmont Players Theater director by chance.
In 1986, the first production of the Piedmont Players’ season was to be the musical “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” Two weeks before auditions, the director got a full time job in Rocky Mount and withdrew from the show.
Several Piedmont Players board members knew I was teaching that summer in Winston-Salem at the North Carolina Governor’s School and called to see if I would come direct the show. I had been a student at Catawba in the 70s and had been on the Catawba College theater faculty for several years, so I knew Piedmont Players well.
I agreed to do the show. Eight people auditioned for a seven person show. But what seven people they turned out to be: Graham Carlton, Chris Jones, Phillip Cress, Scott Orr, Mike Wells, Debbie Hubbard and Debbie Caudle McCall. Mike is in Los Angeles. Debbie is in Virginia. Phillip is in Durham. But we all have fond memories of each other and of the show.
We rehearsed in the old Frank B. Johns school and did a warm-up performance at Autumn Jubilee before opening to an audience of 100 in Hedrick Little Theater. The second night we played to 100. By 10 o’clock the next morning there were no tickets left. Alma Brady stood in the lobby of Hedrick Little Theater and offered $250 a ticket. She had helped found Piedmont Players and wanted to see what this Pump Boys thing was. (She got in.)
Soon after, the Piedmont Players board offered me the full time job of resident director. Several board members didn’t think Piedmont Players could afford a full-time director. I knew Salisbury and knew there were some very talented people and a strong theater audience in the area and thought we could make a go of it. The Catawba theater department and Piedmont Players had had several periods of tense relationships, but I knew the Catawba faculty and how the two groups operated and knew we would get along fine. In fact, when I was a student at Catawba, Bonnie Royster, the Piedmont Players’ director, was almost an extra faculty member for the theater department.
Literally, as I got ready to sign the contract, Frank Montgomery told me there was a children’s show included in my duties. “It has almost no budget ($100), but we get a grant for it so it pays for itself. But be sure to cast Steve Antosek and you’ll be fine.”
So I started my first full season as resident director of Piedmont Players with the musical “Little Shop of Horrors.” We made the plants, and for the next six years the plants did shows all over the southeastern United States. In in that show, I met James Stout, who was the voice of the plant, and George Trueblood, his understudy. If you’ve enjoyed “Ain’t Misbehavin,” “The Wiz,” “Sophisticated Ladies,” “Smoky Joe’s Café,” “Hot Mikado,” “Hairspray,” or “Dreamgirls,” thank James and George. They were the seeds from which all those shows sprang.
And then there was “Diamond Studs”: the story of Jesse James with the Pump Boys and Dinettes cast as the James gang. This was one of the most pressure-packed shows I’ve done with Piedmont Players because it got billed as the sequel to the hit musical Pump Boys. It turned out to be another great experience because of the cast and especially because Sandy Hoffman (the musical director of Pump Boys) did all the arrangements for the show and made it fly.
Next came the no-budget children’s show “Story Theater.” One of the reasons I selected the show was I had gone to graduate school in Chicago, where the Story Theater techniques were developed, and I had a chance to learn many of them while I was there. That was about all I knew about children’s theater at the time. There was little to the set and there were to be simple costumes until Tiffany Burleson said she would not play a princess unless she looked like a princess.
We got a princess costume for her.
Oh, and I cast Steve Antosek, and he was good. Along with Dave Treme’s children Julianne and Robert. And Angie Payne, Beth Thisse, Shane Daniels, Trent Harrington, and the late Robbie Winecoff.
Then 3,000 people came to see it. We did performances for the schools. We did public performances for grandmothers and grandfathers. And I went back to the Piedmont Players board and asked if they knew how popular these student performances were…
About this time the peace and love between Piedmont Players and the Catawba College Theater department began to show signs of decay. I quickly realized that two theater groups in one complex was not a good thing. And when both groups were growing at the same time, it was a potentially lethal mix. The tension had nothing to do with personalities, but with time, scheduling and money. Many people in the community saw the College-Community Center as a community building. Catawba, given the mandate to operate it, saw it as part of the Catawba campus. Tension.
Six months later, the Towne Cinemas in downtown Salisbury announced they were closing.
In 1992, Piedmont Players Theater, on opening night of “Evita,” starring Scott Holmes, announced we had bought the Towne Cinemas. In October of 1996, the Meroney Theater opened with a performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
The children’s programs continued to grow until a production of “Tales of A Fourth Grade Nothing” had 114 people auditioning for 14 roles. We added an additional show and did two children’s productions a year for a few more years.
In the fall of 2006, Piedmont Players Theater purchased the Friendly Cue Pool Hall and in May of 2010 opened the Norvell Theater with a production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” with a cast of 65. The Norvell Theater now does five shows a year for the youth of Rowan County.
There are lots of shows and hundreds of people and thousands of audience members behind these stories. The 50th Anniversary Gala on March 3 is to take a night and think back and remember. John Hartledge. Billy Burke. Pat Heiss. Dick Messinger. Rita Weisler. The Bradys. The Norvells. The Smiths. The Hurleys. The Browns. The Beards. Millard McDonald. Bonnie Royster. Lou Murphy. Francis Cook. Becky McKinley. Phyllis Partee. Andrew Gracyzk. Caitlin Hughes. Rebecca Stinson. Tim Campbell. The Wilsons. Alexis Greer. Ketti Overcash. Kent Bernhardt. John Biggers. Jenny Carroll. David Hagy. Deidre Parker Smith. Becky Morris. The Mikkelsons. Kurt Corriher. Kevin Eddinger. Karl Hales. The van Wallendaels. Darryl and Tammi Casper. Darrell Brown. Matthew Weaver. Tom Harrell. Kelly and Amy Williams…the list goes on and on.
Reid Leonard is director of Piedmont Players Theatre.