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!”