Monday, November 29, 2010

John & Lena O'Toole receive Lifetime Standing O's

While attending Wilmington Drama League's “Chicago” two weeks ago, John and Lena O'Toole, co-founders of Arden's Candlelight Dinner Theatre walked in. Son Grant and I walked over to say hello.

“Oh, you're reviewing tonight, Greer?” asked Lena.

John smiled and lamented...“too bad I never had a chance to play Billy Flynn (Richard Gere in the movie). I would have been perfect.

“Oh, John”, replied Lena, “you won't be getting reviewed again.”

That comment was my cue for this ode to the O'Toole's. Neither John nor Lena had ever been reviewed for the profound impact their life's work had on community theatre in Delaware and, equally important, the lives of the hundreds of actors they touched.

John O'Toole and Julian Borris had attended high school together in Wilmington. In early 1969 they came up with the idea to renovate the Robin Hood Dell and transform it into the state's first dinner theatre. They did not share the secret with wives Lena and Annabelle until the day they opened the creaky doors of that Arden landmark.

“The place was a complete disaster,” recalls Lena. “Dust and cob webs everywhere, peeling paint, ivy growing through the walls, muck on the floors and 200 seats in complete disrepair that were bolted to the floor. It had been a barn before Robin Hood Dell and aside from the absence of farm animals, looked that way that day.”

Julian was to be artistic director; Lena was given bookkeeping; John was to be production manager, press aid and a very literal chief cook and bottle washer. Annabelle Borris was assigned to be Annabelle.

The bank account opened with $7.20. The partners came up with the idea of selling $50 shares. That accumulated roughly $10,000; not a lot to begin a business. John was in real estate and Julian was in radio sales. Each family had 4 kids. There was no way they could quit their full-time jobs.

But eventually word got out in the community about this new dinner theatre. Lena recalls that people came by to say they loved the idea and wanted to volunteer.

“Cathy, our daughter brought several girls from Ursuline Academy to help paint,” she said.

John gives credit to Julian for the idea of the first show, “Forum."

“I had never heard of the show," he said. "It was the first time it would be performed in the state.”

Opening was to be September of 1969. Due to an ever increasing number of problems, however, the date was pushed back to Thanksgiving.

“A very, very cold Thanksgiving,” chimes in John. “We had no heat backstage. If you know 'Forum,' the girls (courtesans) run around with hardly anything on. They would dash offstage and crowd in front of a commercial construction heater we borrowed, reduce their goose bumps for a split second and prance back on stage.”

The ticket price for dinner and theatre that night was $7.50. (Liquor was BYO and was to remain that way until 1981.) 'Forum' was a boffo success. Many cast members became stalwarts for years at Candlelight. One in particular, Don Parkhill, played Senex, the discombobulated father searching for his son and instructed by Pseudolis (Borris) to walk seven times around Rome. Parkhill's hilarity became a mainstay for the next decade. I personally saw the show about eight times and still chuckle to this day.

Through Facebook I reached out to many actors over the 31 years of John and Lena's grand experiment. Overwhelmingly, the comment was “family." Julian was a mite intimidating. The O'Tooles created a loving, nurturing environment where everyone was respected. For many, it was their initial foray into the magical world of live theatre.

From Claudia Carlson (Aisle Say states one of the most beautiful voices ever to grace the stage): My husband Joe and I were just talking wistfully about our Saturday nights at Candlelight. John would set out bread and cold cuts and potato salad for the cast. He always spoiled Joe with extra pickles and Joe's favorite cheese. Such a simple pleasure but it brought such joy to us all. Those touches made us feel a part of the family. That doesn't happen anywhere else.

On the acting front, John and Lena were always my biggest fans and gave me the courage to take risks. I knew I was doing a good job if I got a glimpse of Lena at the office door. She would always stop what she was doing to catch her favorite parts of the show. She told me she never missed me singing "Rose's Turn." "Gypsy" was my final show with John and Lena. They will always have a special spot in this Mama's heart.

From Tom Marshall, presently directing all Concord High shows: I'll never forget working with Julian on "Mame." He never knew his lines and would make them up on stage. You never knew what was going to come out and he got mad at you if you looked like a deer in headlights. After a tirade from Julian, John and Lena were always there to boost you up. It became a second home to me and it was because of the two of them.

From Sue Hornung, lead in several shows through the decades: John and Lena created a theatre family at Candlelight...a family that provided training for future professionals such as Sue Stroman (whose had a so-so career on Broadway...Ha!). Some of the best Delaware actors were part of Candlelight – Jean Bovard, Luanne Sereduke, Terry Johnson, to name a few.

My best friend Ted Meyermann was playing the Paul Lynde (father) role in "Bye Bye Birdie" in 1998. The kid playing the son, Randolph, dropped out two weeks before opening. Ted made a bee line to my house to ask if then 10-year-old Grant could do the role. It was a no-brainer for me, but convincing his mother was another issue. Ted launched into a passionate argument. After ten minutes Grant's Mom relented.

“Okay, okay, Ted. Please stop crying!”

As they did Saturday evenings after every show for 31 years, John and Lena laid out sandwiches and cokes for the cast. The first couple of Saturdays I would come right after the show to schmooze with everyone. This infuriated Grant.

“These are my friends. This is my cast. You are not allowed to come pick me up until midnight!" he implored. "And another thing. Don't come in. Stay in the car!”

I was stunned by the emotion of this normally sweet and mild mannered kid. Then, aha!. Grant, like all the kids who ever performed at Candlelight, felt territorial of these new friends and this new found world of off-center "theatre people."

Oddball remembrances from Aisle Say:


John's handwritten programs in the '70s. (Many times he would misspell an actor's name from one show to the next. If you were Polish, good luck on getting your name correct!)

The bathrooms through the '70s! Oh, boy!

Waiting tables for tips

John and Julian's "Abbott and Costello" act during intermission

The rubber chicken that had to make an appearance in every show

In each role John played, there was a touch of his favorite character Luther Billis from "South Pacific." (I say that with great affection.) As Billis, though, no one ever wore his coconut breastplates with greater pride.

Well, Lena, so you were wrong. John was in fact reviewed once again...along with what is probably your first review. Aisle Say humbly speaks for all Candlelight alum over 31 years: The O'Tooles deserve a lifetime standing ovation.

The collective love for your "theatre family" is the grand legacy you leave. As La Merman (the woman who could hold a note longer than the Chase Manhattan bank) sang: “Who could ask for anything more!”

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Aisle Say - Dec 2009. I enjoyed writing this

“WHYY, How dare you leave our city”, (to the tune of O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree)

How dare you leave our city
Without an ounce of pity
You say you're not aband'ing us
And who are we to make a fuss!
How dare you leave our city

We put big money in you
Citizens are left to stew
You say your plans are misconstrued
But bottom line, we all got screwed
We put big money in you

Each month we get a call for cash
But now it all seems balderdash
Your anchor was a talking head
I tuned at 5 with fear and dread
Each month we get a call for cash

Next stop may be the FCC
Ted Kaufman's vote may be the key
You state your costs will not allow
But your GM makes 500 thou.
Next stop may be the FCC

The Dredging of the Delaware River
( to the tune of Deck the Halls With Boughs of Holly”)

Deck the shores with tons of sewage
Folly, folly, folly la la la la.
Underneath Memorial
Folly, folly, folly, la la la la
Trust Army Corps of Engineers?
Folly, folly, folly, la la la la
All we get are haughty sneers!
Folly, folly, folly, la la la la
See the wildlife dead before us,
Folly, folly, folly, la la la la.
Just say no and join the chorus,
Folly, folly, folly, la la la la.
Call Markell to voice displeasure,
Folly, folly, folly, la la la.
No corp'rate greed, no corp'rate treasure,
Folly, folly, folly, la la la la.

Ode to Mike Castle, “Biden's Son is Coming to Town” (to the tune of Santa Claus is Coming to Town”)

You better watch out
Don't sit, don't sigh
Better not flout
Joe's telling you why
Biden's son is coming to town
Beau's making a list
And checking it twice;
Goin' to DC to get some advice
Biden's son is coming to town
Beau sees you when you're polling
Beau knows that you're ahead
First state's... been historic'ly blue
Castle wants to make it red!
O! You better watch out!
You better look spry
Won't be a blow out...
Could make you mince pie
Biden's son is coming to town!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Characters are Footloosical in "Suessical, the Musical"

Quotes Dr. Suess, “So the writer who breeds more than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”
Therefore, says I, ...“the words I pen in my column Aisle Say... will be nifty and utmost thrifty. In fact, I'll cut by fifty-fifty!”
In this first ever production of “Suessical, the Musical” at New Candlelight, the actors, with an age range beginning at 6 and going skyward, are given the opportunity to which all thespians aspire; i.e. playing over-the-top, fantastical cartoon characters.
In the music and frivolity is both simple charm and moral lessons, perfect for your children and grandchildren. This is both an ideal bonding experience for the kids and you and also a memorable holiday treat. And, for only $5.00, you can treat your child to a very cool Dr. Suess hat!
At our preview night dining with my dear (and most assuredly non-grinch) sister Liz, perhaps 25% of the house were kids, squealing at the antics of the characters, the dazzling colors and originality of Timothy Lamont Cannon's costumes and the star light special effects of Director and Lighting Designer Chris Alberts.
Gentle readers, this is not some kiddified production. The excellent music is by Ahrens and Flaherty, the duo who gave you the Broadway blockbuster “Ragtime.” Standing out is a lilting and inspirational ballad 'Solia Sollew' that is hypnotically harmonized by the ensemble. You have never heard it for it cannot be extrapolated from the show. It has character references and too integrated in the rather non-nonsensical plot. (This IS Dr. Suess, remember. And the show was co-conceived by Monty Python Eric Idle...enough said!)
The Master of Ceremonies/Ringmaster is The Cat in the Hat (Paul Goodman). A new father himself, this role has given the veteran actor even more a sensitivity of the joy and innocence of childhood and he plays the part with a sparkle in his eye, urging the young JoJo (Zachary Pennington) “On the Thinks You Can Think.” Pennington is an eighth grader at Springer. Many of the kids attend Cab Calloway School for the Arts.
Horton (David Snyder) is making his NCT debut as an elephant. He has a sweet and endearing voice, this loyal character to his friends, “...I meant what I say and I say what I meant. An elephant's faithful, one hundred per cent.”
Gertrude McFuzz (Erica Scanlon Harr) is a delight to watch in her ever expanding and contracting bird costume (yet another bravo to Costumer Cannon). We have heard her clear soprano as Dorothy in “Oz” and Laurey in “Oklahoma”. Harr exemplifies, along with Mrs. Mayor (Lindsay Mauck), Sour Kangaroo (Erienne Poole) and Mayzie (Kaylan Wetzel), the talented core of performers that Chris Alberts has assembled over the past two years or so. Aisle Say is waiting for “Dreamgirls” for Poole and “Guys and Dolls' for Wetzel, two shows perfect for their rich voices.
For the half dozen or so kid performers, they will remember this adventure with Dr. Suess the remainder of their lives. Zoe McLane (age 6?), playing 'ill Roo (think Mini Me), to Sour Kangaroo. Zoe started at NCT Summer Camp and now has progressed to a main stage production. In her credits she writes, “I want to thank my Mom and Dad for listening to me rehearse and rehearse over and over and over again.! OKAY! FINE, and to Zach, my brother – there I said his name!
Due to money, NCT is no longer has an Equity relationship. However, under Alberts' tutelage, they have regressed nary a scintilla in production quality. It has been and remains the best value in live entertainment – dinner AND theatre for the price of a theatre ticket.
Will Candlelight succeed? Yes indeed. Yes indeed. 98 and three quarters per cent guaranteed!
Through December 22. 302.475.2313

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Razzle Dazzle with Wilm Drama League's CHICAGO

“Chicago” is the grandest community theatre production Aisle Say has witnessed in the past five years. Jody Anderson is unequivocally the most talented choreographer in the state. Anderson has taken a coterie of dedicated amateur hoofers and molded them into a razzling dazzling unit that pays homage to the singular talent of Broadway legend Bob Fosse; he of the thrusting pelvis, rounded shoulders and signature bowler hat.
Director Matt Casarino's exemplary cast includes wonderful singers, beginning with the leads Velma (Barbara Wright) and Roxie (Ashley Harris), extending to Mama Morton (Rebecca Gallatin) and then to the chorus. Christopher Tolomeo leads a great band excelling at the period music of the roaring '20's; all perched atop the set – always on stage but never intrusive to the progress of the plot.
Most of us have seen the movie. Aisle Say believes the stage show to be more endearing and certainly funnier. Son Grant accompanied me on opening night. He commented that he had to keep focused for so many exciting twists and turns were happening with such fluidity. That is a credit to both the director and the choreographer. He also commented on the quality that WDL produces, hearkening back to last season's “Rent”.
I loved the entire cast but Harris was most wonderfully perfect as Roxie, the doe-eyed murderess. How in the world could this harmless looking naif be so cold-blooded? “Chicago” is predominantly a woman-driven show with Velma and Roxie. Billy Flynn (Jeff Santoro) played the ultimate legal sleezeball hotdog with relish. He was having too much fun in the role. (Minor costume point. Would have loved to see him in a double breasted stripe suit with those '20's era black & white shoes).
Billy was appropriately condescending to Amos (Edward Elder), Roxie's long suffering husband. He continually referred to him as “Andy”, a running joke that was undoubtedly lost on those in the audience younger than 50. Amos, the poor schlub, had his moment, though. His “Mr. Cellophane” was a show stopper. The fellow can hold a note!
Fred Casely (Chris Turner) was very funny in the role of the deceased. He is the only one in the cast who did not seek out Anderson's help with choreography.
If you are seeing only one musical this year...this is the one!
Through November 13. 302.764.1172

RAIN: A Tribute to The Beatles
Aisle Say fervently believes The Beatles had more to do with the dissembling of the Berlin Wall than Ronald Reagan. The stone monolith demarcating Berlin was not high enough to block radio waves emanating from The West. Communist kids were just like the rest of us kids back then; “All You Need Is Love” was a global rallying cry.
Many of the tunes from the mightiest canon in popular music history will be performed four times at The DuPont Theatre on November 12-14.
One might entitle the show a Baby Boomer's delight. My compadres in Boomerism can count their watershed events on one hand. One of mine is Ed Sullivan and The Beatles on 9 February 1964. One can only guess the numbers of Americans tuning in that night. Oh, and those teenyboppers in the audience crying, you remember, the ones with the horned rimmed glasses.
RAIN: A Tribute to The Beatles, was born as a bar band in Southern California in the '70's Founder Mark Lewis had struck a nerve; surrounded himself with electrifying musicians and still here after 40 years. Lewis comments that they will be on Broadway after the first of the year.
The group has 200 tunes in their repertoire, spanning from Uncle Ed to Abbey Road, through psychedelia, to the rooftop: 'Hard Days Night', 'Revolver','Sgt Pepper', 'Magical Mystery Tour', 'The White Album'. My oh my, the passages of time, the memories.
“Rain” is a multi-media, multi-dimensional experience...a fusion of historical footage and hilarious television commercials from the 1960s lights up video screens and live cameras zoom in for close-ups.
The tunes are sung live and note for note. There is nothing pre-recorded.
The chefs at the Hotel du Pont are having some fun with the show as well. They are offering a Beatles themed dinner buffet during the run of the show. The buffet is $30.00. Some of the possibilities include:

“Strawberry Fields Forever” Cheese Cake
“Ain’t She Sweet” Crème Caramel

For tix; 302.656.4401, For dining: 302-594-3154 or 800-338-3404.