‘Town Hall Tonight’ story told against historic backdrop

October 24, 2016 GMT

Beaver Dam Area Community Theatre artists and set designers are completing a hand-painted backdrop that will give actors and audience a taste of theater as it was experienced long ago in the local town hall, or concert hall, as some called it.

The painting is an enlargement of a set design rendered by Roger VanHaren for BDACT’s upcoming production, “Town Hall Tonight – When Theater Came to Beaver Dam.” To plan his design, VanHaren studied an original 19th century vaudeville stage backdrop, displayed on the second floor at the Dodge County Historical Museum. The museum piece shows a typical “Bay of Naples” scene bordered by local advertising of the time. Further inspiration came from an antique Beaver Dam postcard with a “beavers-on-the-dam” illustration.

Staying true to VanHaren’s rendering, a team of artists, including Mary Colstad Miller, Devon Cournoyer, Laura Congdon, Mike Lemke, Eileen Goodman, Betty Braun, Sandy Braman and Sam Greshay transferred his design to a 12 by 15 foot canvas.

To further enhance historical theater references, set designer Patrick Lutz is creating side flats, typical of those seen in town halls across the country. Limited choices on the various stages required touring companies to adapt their shows to the available flats. Lutz is also constructing a one-dimensional replica of Beaver Dam’s own Town Hall.

The original venue, although no longer functional, still exists today above the office of Gergen, Gergen and Pretto on Front Street. Lutz’s stage version will house a small show band, directed by Rich Zeman, that will accompany act one and provide some instrumental solos.

The large painted canvas will set the stage for 26 songs and several comedy skits performed by about 50 people within two acts. The show is based upon a book by Harlowe Hoyt, a Beaver Dam native, who wrote an account of his childhood enjoyment of local theater groups and national touring companies. As the grandson of Dr. Joseph Babcock, owner and manager of Beaver Dam’s Town Hall, Harlowe had a front row seat to see big time, popular performers like Mark Twain, Tom Thumb, and William Jennings Bryant on that stage.

Mary Kahler, assisted by set coordinator Beth Jewell, is managing all production aspects of the show with special attention to historical detail.

“BDACT is doing this show to honor our community’s 175th anniversary, so we are relying on old photos, letters, stories and resources like historian Roger Noll and the Dodge County Historical Museum, to be as authentic as possible,” Kahler said.

Like the set team, the costume committee, chaired by Lois Levenhagen and Deanna Disch, and the prop committee, chaired by Beth Jewell, are particular about authenticity. For example, Roger Noll and Jack Bartholmai are building an old time buzz saw, a popular prop used to threaten the hero in melodramas.

To add to the background for act one, Noll, who plays Harlowe Hoyt, is also preparing a series of historical photo projections.

Annette Kamps, the show director who is assisted by Bonnie Franke, explained that the two acts come from two separate scripts.

“Act I is a lively rewrite of a script by Peter Cocuzzo, a college professor who, as Harlowe Hoyt, still takes his show on the road in the Midwest. Our version is filled with vocal, instrumental, and comedy acts,” Kamps said. “Then act two is a one-hour musical written by David Peterson, one of the originators of the Wisconsin Idea Theater and what is now known as the Northern Sky Theater of Door County. His show, produced by UW-Madison, premiered at Wayland Academy in 1969.”