Hilltowns Players celebrates 35 years of serious fun

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia
"Oklahoma!" in 2013 featured many Berne-Knox-Westerlo students including Adam Forti who said some of the moves, like do-si-dos, promenades, and circles reminded him of the contra dances he has attended locally.

BERNE — While far from being the oldest community theater group around  — that honor is claimed by the Footlight Club in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain (1877) — the Hilltowns Players have been a source of fun, entertainment, creative outlet, and instruction in theater arts for more than three decades now.

This year, the group will be celebrating the 35th anniversary of its founding in 1982, when Ronald Reagan was president;  “ET: The Extra Terrestrial” was the top-grossing movie, and many of today’s  most active and talented Hilltown players had yet to be born.

Mitch Haverly, who headed the Berne-Knox Westerlo music department at the time and retired from there in 2002, and Pat Favreau, who has continued to handle choreography over the years,  were among those who presided over the birth of the group, along with  Tim and Jill Norray and Joyce Abele. Other founding members, now deceased, included John Foster, Ann Whipple, and Arlene Lendrum.

Jeffrey Van Iderstine became the group’s president last  year. “Van got the theater bug in 2005 when he appeared in ‘Beulah-By-The-Sea’,” Haverly says. Though the group has seen many cast changes, those who get the bug tend to stick with it year after year. Haverly himself is still a member of the group.

Penny Shaw, who played Daisy Mae in “Li’l Abner”  in 1982 — the group’s inaugural production — most recently directed a revival of “Beulah-by-the-Sea”, an original Hilltowns Players musical for which she wrote both the music and the book. The romp through an old West town trying to loosen up was first staged back in 2005. Shaw has also penned a dramedy, a murder mystery, a children’s theater piece, and another musical, “Take It From the Top”, for the group.


Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff
In a 2015 "Babes in Toyland" production, director Penny Shaw, playing the part of a gypsy, center, reacts to a fortune told by Floretta, left, played by Alyssa Gaige. Behind her is her real-life father, Al Gaige. Reacting, to the rightt, are Tom the Piper's Son, in bowtie, played by Stav Lefkaditis, and Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater, played by Iain Smith.


“Li’l Abner”, based on the Al Capp comic strip, got the group off got to a foot-stomping, country-hoedown start. It was directed by Haverly who went on  to direct other musicals, including “The King and I,” “ Guys and Dolls,” “ Fiddler on the Roof,” and “Carousel.”

Every autumn , the Hilltowns Players mounts a musical or a play on the BKW stage, — a musical one year, a play the next year.

A strong start

Haverly remembers that, back in the early ‘80s, “I had had some success with shows at the high school” and had some of the most talented students he had ever had. “The idea of forming a community theater group,” he says, “ grew out of a desire to give parents the same kind of opportunity the kids had had, and to give the kids the opportunity to grow into bigger roles after graduation.

“I had a great bunch of kids then, with great parents,” he says

“I am sure we had to do some arm-twisting,” he says, “to recruit our first members. But, once we became successful, it grew and we had people coming out of the woodwork who had never been on a stage before.”

He says many Hilltowns Players alumni have remained active in community theater and musical life in the places where they now live. And, at least one young thespian from that early ‘8os stellar group of students went on to a professional career. Joe Burby, who played the king in an early Hilltowns Players production of  “The King and I”, is now an actor and director in New York City.

One of Haverly’s fondest memories is of the time when the group was casting for a production of “Carousel” in 1997. The role of Nellie Fowler had not been filled and Haverly suggested placing a call to his wife, Barbara, who had yet to appear in a major role. She sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” over the phone and got the part.

“That was a terrific moment,” he recalls. “She proved to be a very good actress and a grand singer.” His two sons, Andrew and David, have been Hilltowns Players members too.  It’s not unusual for entire families to get into the act.

BKW is home

The BKW auditorium — the main venue for the group other than local restaurants. churches,  and meeting places where the group’s “Dessert Theater”  stages one-act plays and light entertainments in the spring — has seen some improvements over the years since the Hilltowns Players first “trod the boards”  there. Haverly says the stage had a primitive lighting system then, controlled by “throwing a 2 x 4 at the circuit-breaker.” Better lighting was partly made possible by Hilltowns Players fundraising. The group also bought and donated the BKW auditorium piano.

“The group has always tried to have a symbiotic relationship with the high school,” Haverly says.

The group awards annual scholarships to graduating seniors, too: One in honor of the late Maryellen Hamilton, who  served as producer for many Hilltowns Players shows, and another for founding member Foster.  The Maryellen Hamilton Theatrical Awards  and the John D. Foster Drama Awards  are given annually to area graduating seniors.

Haverly says that alumni and alumnae of the group probably number more than a thousand now. The current membership of about 30 active members  is pretty typical, he says. But he also says that, as “society has become more transient,” community theater in general has a harder time enlisting long-term members.


Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Local actors in a range of ages — here playing Victorian paupers keeping warm around a street fire — took part in the Hilltowns Players' 2013 Christmas production of "Bah! Humbug!."


Anniversary plans

But the Hilltowns Players seem to be in good shape as they celebrate their 35th anniversary.

The group’s Druthers Committee — its name comes from a  “Li’l Abner” song, “If I Had My Druthers” — will meet soon to decide which of three musicals will be the group’s autumn production: “The Sound of Music,” “A Wonderful Life,” or “Miracle on 34th Street”.

One objective kept in mind  is to get the greatest number people involved as possible, says Haverly, not just on stage but behind the scenes, too: in costumes, scenery building, and all the technical aspects of a production.

“Sometimes we had to go out and beat the bushes to cast a part, “ says Haverly. But someone was always found.

Van Iderstine said the group has some anniversary plans, in addition to staging a musical in a year which normally would be a year for a non-musical.

The group’s annual summer picnic may be open to the community at large this year, and the group’s board will soon consider whether to offer a summer theater camp for children as well.

“We plan to do a lot more advertising,” Van Iderstine says, “and be more of a presence in various community events.”

The group is always looking for new members.  Interested? If you see someone wearing the group’s 35th anniversary pin, ask about joining. Or, you can contact the group through its Facebook page.

Corrected on Jan. 11, 2017: In the original version of this story, we misspelled the first names of two of the players: Tim Norray and Joe Burby. Also, we named the wrong production that gave Jeff Van Iderstine the theater bug — it was “Beulah-By-The-Sea” in 2005.

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