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Playhouse has offered 40 years of entertainment

May 28, 2011
By WARREN SCOTT - Staff writer , The Herald-Star

WELLSBURG - Whether onstage or behind the scenes, Brooke Hills Playhouse has been showcasing local talents of all ages for many years while offering patrons a mix of comedy, fantasy, mystery, music and overall fun.

The playhouse will open its 40th season with its production of "The Odd Couple," at 8 p.m. June 2-5 and 9-11; and 2 p.m. June 12.

Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students and $6 for children 12 and under. Members of groups of 20 or more will be charged $8 each.

For reservations, call (304) 737-3344 or visit the playhouse's website at

Julie Barnhart, president of the Brooke County Arts Council, which oversees the playhouse, said it offers people with a variety of creative talents, from acting, singing or dancing to building or painting sets, an opportunity to get involved.

And she hopes to involve the council in other events, such as art shows, concerts and poetry readings. She noted the council already has kicked off its season with a band bash spotlighting a variety of area bands.

"We are the Brooke County Arts Council, and it's time we helped promote other arts as well as the theater," said Barnhart, who became the council's president last fall after Rhonda Revels Brannon married and moved to the Pittsburgh area.

Barnhart said the theater also is promoting itself in new ways, such as the website, where visitors will find video teasers for each show created by playhouse supporter and actor Steve Fournier, blogs by Fournier and Barnhart and box office and other information.

Fournier also has headed the playhouse's Cloak and Dagger Company, a group that performs comic murder mysteries for various venues outside the playhouse. The actors assume the parts of various suspects, and much of the action depends on improvisations performed while interacting with audience members.

Fournier is interested in forming an improv comedy troupe also.

Barnhart said she became involved with the playhouse at an early age because her mother, Diana Mendel, performed and worked at the playhouse. She re-connected with it when her son appeared in its production of "The Wizard of Oz" several years ago.

The playhouse has involved many families over the years.

Playhouse veteran Russ Welch has directed and appeared in many shows, while his wife, Paula, has headed the arts council, worked the box office and painted backgrounds.

Paula prefers to work behind the scenes, while Russ has enjoyed playing a variety of roles, many with different dialects, though he also has assisted backstage.

He has designed the set for the playhouse's upcoming production of the "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which he will direct.

They said their two daughters, Terra and Niccole, grew up around the playhouse and later became involved themselves.

"Terra would say, 'What do people do in the summer if they don't have the playhouse?'" Paula recalled.

Russ said one of his favorite playhouse productions was "Meshuggan Nuns!," a "Nunsense" sequel, because he got to act and sing with Niccole.

Another was "Sgt. Fenshaw of the Mounties," a sendup of the silent film heroes and villains that also inspired the animated "Dudley Do-Right" that was written by Scott Martin, an early playhouse member.

The play and its sequel, "The Return of Sgt. Fenshaw," are among a handful of original plays that have been staged by the playhouse. For this season Mendel has written "bfF?" to spotlight aspiring young thespians.

The playhouse's tradition of staging a children's show featuring younger talent stems from the Parking Lot Players, a group of teens and youngsters who performed songs and skits outside the playhouse during intermission.

The group eventually gained its own production in the playhouse season and lost its name.

Playhouse veteran Terry Stuck said his wife, Karen; and two childeren, Taylor and Emily; also have worked together at the playhouse.

"It's a family atmosphere," he said.

Asked his favorite production, Stuck said he can't point to just one. What he has enjoyed most about the playhouse is the people behind it.

"With every show people work together. That's why the playhouse has gone so well," he said, adding, "I think the playhouse keeps existing because it gets in people's blood and it's in their hearts."

Stuck said it's not unusual for a playhouse volunteer to take some time off from it, then return and be accepted back as though no time had passed.

Russ Welch agreed, saying, "It (the playhouse) is like a big family because when people who have been involved come back for plays and see you, they run over and give you a big hug."

Charles Callabrese, veteran playhouse director, actor and publicity person, said, "It (the playhouse) is community theater with emphasis on community. The people there care about each other and about producing quality theater."

"The great thing about the playhouse is it offers great opportunities for people who love theater but have 9-to-5 jobs," he said, adding it offers a creative outlet for people with various talents.

"We all get a chance to do what we do best," he said.

Barnhart said the playhouse always needs volunteers, and she has plans to form an ushers club of middle school students who would not only guide patrons to their seats but oversee some playhouse activities.

The playhouse began with a group of then recent college graduates that included Shari Harper Coote, her first husband, the late Bill Harper; John Hennen and Judy Porter Hennen.

Inspired by their experience working at the White Barn, a community theater near Irwin, Pa., the group set out to establish their own at a pre-Civil War barn at Brooke Hills Park in 1972, Coote recalled.

The park was on land left to the county by the Gist family, and park board member Tom Boyd had begun renovating the barn as a hall for square dancing, she said.

With the support of Boyd and fellow park board members Ray Mester and the recently deceased Sam Kirchner and the Brooke County Commission, the group set about converting the barn into a playhouse, said Coote, who later became the arts council's first president.

She recalled that much of the work was done at their expense, but local businesses provided them with materials that often weren't paid for until the playhouse's second season.

Members of the Franklin Community Fire Department were among volunteer laborers for the project, which involved moving a stairway leading to the barn's upper level outside to make more room for the stage and installing seats from an East Liverpool theater.

Improvements have been made over the years through contributions from individuals and businesses and state grants. Then Governor Jay Rockefeller allocated funds for the handicap-accessible ramp, and state Del. Roy Givens and then state Sen. John Chernenko secured a $10,000 grant to replace the building's siding and roof in 1984.

Paula Welch said financial support of local businesses, acknowledged through ads in the plays' programs, has helped the playhouse to secure the rights to perform the various plays, which can be $2,000 or more for a musical.

This season is being sponsored by WTOV-TV and the Center of Music and Art, while show sponsors include the Wellsburg Kiwanis Club, Koppers Inc., Kwik King Food Stores, Main Street Bank and the Brooke County Rotary Club.

(Scott can be contacted at

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