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Apple Hill Playhouse celebrates 50th season

| Friday, June 23, 2006

Wandering through the Apple Hill Playhouse in Delmont, watching scenery being painted and costumes being ironed, one feels a bit like a hopeful performer, blinking into the stage lights, waiting to audition.

Here there is no pretentious director in the audience, bullhorn at the ready, dashing thespian dreams.

There are, instead, longtime theater owner and executive producer Pat Beyer and former apprentice, now artistic director, Brad Dell.

Beyer has been summoned from the property's garden, where she sometimes retreats to the birdcages and benches, her stashes of seeds.

It's her therapy, she says.

"Martha (Stewart) got to me," Beyer said, not entirely joking. "I saw you could make pretty, so I did."

Beyer is a woman of many interests, but theater is her big love.

In her younger years (asked her age, she quips that she now collects Social Security), Beyer was involved with many community theater groups, from the Valley Players of Ligonier to the Greensburg Civic Theater. She did a lot of acting then.

After she married, her acting career slowed down, she said, while her golfing career sped up.

But her eyes still sparkle when she recalls performing theater in the round at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, and she laughs at the memory of changing behind a screen in the atrium of the former Sheraton (now Four Points) Hotel in Hempfield Township.

Eventually, she was asked to help with a children's production at Apple Hill. At the time, the borough of Delmont was less developed. Summer stock players came and stayed for the season.

Children's plays, now produced by the Johnny Appleseed Children's Theatre, were performed in the orchard.

But then the area started to develop. Lawnmowers sometimes drowned out performances. Scenery sometimes blew away. The theater was moved indoors.

Then-owners Cathy and Linda Walko, Bruce Robinson, Don Painter and Michael O'Halloran asked Beyer if she was interested in taking over the playhouse. In 1981, she said, an offer was made that she couldn't refuse. Her new career was launched, and the Orchard Performing Arts Company was born.

This year, the Apple Hill Playhouse celebrates its 50th season, and Beyer's 25th, of live entertainment, from dramas to musicals to comedies.

Her husband, Barney Beyer, a physician, found the whole idea of her running the playhouse "very glamorous," Beyer recalled.

Family members helped out.

"We all had the same goal," she said, "to make a success out of something that was creeping along."

That first year, she put on an addition and remodeled the bathrooms.

After the first summer, air conditioning was installed.

"It was 105 degrees," Beyer recalled. "We wore these wonderful period costumes. You would go to change and your clothes were stuck to you."

"You've done nothing but upgrade for 25 years," Dell said.

Beyer laughed and nodded.

"It's not and never will be financially rewarding," she said. "The rewards come in other ways."

She's enjoyed watching young performers and crew members pass through the theater, sometimes on their way to bigger and better things.

The theater relies largely on ticket sales and the 50/50 raffles held during most performances to stay in business.

A stable of longtime volunteers, and a willingness to beg, Beyer joked, have helped keep the theater afloat. Recycling props, many donated from department store displays, is standard practice.

"Our longevity is remarkable for community theater," she said.

And despite the work involved, the Unity Township resident, who is also her husband's caregiver, said the theater "is also my social life."

Longtime volunteers and a small paid staff are considered friends. Neighbors of the property help with lawn and gardening chores.

The theater, Beyer said, "is darn near year-round. There is so much planning to do. It would be problematic to do plays in January and February, with the (heating) costs. It's still a barn."

Summer is the busiest time. Area students are free to both participate in and attend performances.

The talent pool she and Dell can draw from is a good one, both said.

"They do it for love, and to put it on their resumes," Beyer said. "They have to get their start someplace. This is a good training ground."

Some of her former performers have gone on to artistic success, obtaining voiceover and commercial work in television and theater.

Others stick around for years.

"We've had quite a few marriages, and probably an equal amount of divorces," she said, laughing. "We called it 'the love barn.'"

Last fall, Dell, 25, who teaches musical theater and directing at Iowa State University, came home to Greensburg and paid Beyer a visit. He got his start at the theater 10 years ago, beginning as an apprentice. He performed in a few children's shows, then began directing.

"We talked about 'Cat On a Hot Tin Roof,'" he said, "and discussed the 50th anniversary."

Before he left he had agreed to serve as the theater's artistic director.

The two e-mailed and talked every day. Dell cast "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof" over spring break.

"It's been hard," he said, "but it's been a blast."

"We look at what we like," Beyer said, when considering an upcoming season. "We try to think of what we can sell, look at who we have in our talent pool. When choosing a musical, we have to know the talent is there."

"We're already in the major planning stages for next season," Dell said.

There is a lot of young blood pumping through the theater's staff at present.

Meghan O'Halloran, 21, is directing plays for the Johnny Appleseed Children's Theatre.

Ryan Park, a Carnegie Mellon University theater major, is working in the costume department for the summer.

"The way he puts things together is amazing," Dell said.

And the theater's education program for young people continues to grow.

The OPAC offers theater education classes for children and teens ages 4-18, featuring singing, dancing and role playing for youngsters and advancing to creating and performing a musical from start to finish.

And established for high school students in Westmoreland County, the Marietta Adams Memorial Scholarship, in honor of an original member of the board of directors, offers a $1,000 annual award to a student planning an education in fine, applied or performing arts. The successful candidate must have provided significant service to the playhouse, from performing to crewing to ushering.

Inside the renovated barn, which dates to pre-Civil War days, approximately 200 people can be seated, more with folding chairs, Dell said.

Backstage, a dressing area is stacked with boxes labeled neckties, skirts, gloves, belts, a child's Santa suit.

One box reads "Wigs for dead people."

Downstairs is a concession area, and the theater's offices. Black and white photos show Beyer and castmates from plays performed decades ago.

Although no longer in the spotlight, Beyer has no intention of exiting the stage.

"I'm not out of the picture," she said, smiling at Dell. "They can't do this without me."

Wrapping an arm around her shoulders, Dell agreed.

"There's no way," he said.

Additional Information:


The 50th anniversary season's upcoming performances include:

&#149 'You Can't Take It With You,' through July 1.

&#149 'Jekyll and Hyde,' July 13-29.

&#149 'Cat On a Hot Tin Roof,' Aug. 10-26.

&#149 'Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,' Aug. 31-Sept. 16.

&#149 'Lend Me a Tenor,' Sept. 28-Oct. 14.

&#149 'Boys Next Door,' Oct. 26-Nov. 10.

The Johnny Appleseed Children's Theatre season includes:

&#149 'Charlotte's Web,' June 27-July 7.

&#149 'Straw Into Gold: The Classic Tale of Rumpelstiltskin,' July 11-21.

&#149 'The Three Prince Charmings,' July 25-Aug. 4.

&#149 'The Frog Princess,' Aug. 8-18.

Call 724-468-5050 for tickets and information.

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