Patrons and volunteers, plus their family and friends, have submitted these memories in celebration of FSLT’s 75th Anniversary. We hope you enjoy reading their comments and will take a moment to submit a memory of your own.
In March 1992 the husband of a friend and coworker came to my office to ask me to audition for a play he was directing at FSLT. The character was an 80-year-old Jewish lady, who lived with her society daughter and son in law. I declined for 2 reasons. 1. Except for innumerable dance recitals I had never been on stage and 2. Although I was past ingénue age I didn’t see myself as early senile! He left me a script and just asked me to attend auditions. That evening I related the story to my husband. Due to the fact that I was in the throes of empty nest syndrome he not only encouraged me to audition but basically pushed me out the door. I auditioned, was cast, and started rehearsals. I knew nothing about blocking, stage directions, etc. These wonderful people took me under their wings and patiently taught me all I needed to know. I did well until opening night when I was standing in the wings, waiting for my cue, and suddenly realized someone had opened the doors and let people in. My heart began to pound, my hands were sweating and suddenly I couldn’t remember my name. But like a robot my cue came and off I went. The show was a hit and I cried when it was over. Because I didn’t know anyone at the theatre I didn’t feel anyone else would ever cast me. But these wonderful people not only accepted me but invited me into their circle. And here I am some 30 years later having performed in numerous shows, directed 8 productions, and served frequently on the Board of Directors.
Through the years I have met and become friends with so many of these people. They love me and I love them. They are there when I need someone. During the time of my mother’s final illness, I was in rehearsal for a play. They worked with me and even had an understudy so I could be with her. When my husband of 50 years passed away extremely unexpectedly my house was filled with these same people offering help or just “being there”.
I once had a patron ask me, “Do you realize how much joy you bring to people?” I had never thought about it in that manner. I only know how much joy and fulfillment you bring to me with your laughter and applause. I made a pretty good decision some 30 years ago becoming an 80-year-old Jewish lady named Sophie Greengrass.
I first entered the doors of FSLT at 3800 North “O” Street in the fall of 1975. At that time, I knew nothing about this organization. They were having try-outs for A Man For All Seasons directed by Bob Wanslow. This play revolved around King Henry the Eighth and as I was born in England, I believe my accent helped me be cast. Since that time, it has been like a second family. In those days finances at FSLT were sparse and we not only acted we also cleaned bathrooms, cleaned the theatre, and whatever else was needed.
In 1985 the theatre was able to move to our present location. It started off small but in the ensuing years has grown and I am so proud to have been involved in its contribution to Fort Smith.
The talent that walks through its doors still amazes me. I have no idea many plays I have acted in, directed, produced, done box office, wardrobe, props, and so many other things. This theatre is maned by all-volunteers. For me it was never a chore but always a joy.
Some of my favorite roles have been Lady Alice in A Man For All Seasons (your first play is always special), Royal Family in 1979 where I played the daughter and in 2003 where I played the mother, Most recently in 2018 I had the opportunity of being in my first musical, My Fair Lady. This show was really special to me as the cast and crew were outstanding.
The first show I directed was in 1997, Love, Sex, and the IRS. On the Wednesday night performance, the electricity went out and stayed off for the entire show. We first offered patrons their money back, but they would not accept it. As the show must go on, we found every candle in the theatre and put them everywhere we could. My daughter and a young man sat in the aisles and held the two largest flashlights we could find. In the light booth Mike Tickler would say “Ding Dong” or whatever was needed for sound. We served champagne at intermission and a pick-up truck drove as close to the lobby with its lights on enabling patrons to see.
It was an evening I will never forget, as well as never forgetting how much wax we had to clean up after the show.
The SWTR wrote an article about it and patrons said it was such a romantic evening.
Yes, I have many wonderful memories associated with FSLT and one thing I know is that none could have happened without the continuing support of our Patrons in and around this community.
This Old Lady says, “Thank you all.”
Mary Jane Whittaker was my mother, and she played the piano at FSLT for several years in the early 1960s, my grade school years. Since it was during the summer, my sister Carolyn and I were out of school and spent many nights there during rehearsals and performances. Our father was a doctor and could be on call, so we went with Mother a lot. I got to know every inch of that place. My favorite place was the loft area that controlled the lights. Mother played the piano for several melodramas as well as musicals such as Little Mary Sunshine. For some of the musicals there was a second piano player, a young man named Jay.
I got to know all the lines of dialog, all the words to the songs. During the breaks of the melodramas a man would come out to the center stage and lead the audience in a sing along. I can’t remember his name, but I got to know all of those songs, too.
From the start of his involvement in 1959 until his death in 2004, Ed Drimmel loved the Fort Smith Little Theatre. He served innumerable times on the Board of Directors (often as President) and as an actor, producer, director, and set designer. He was a world traveler who enjoyed art and culture. He could be persnickety, a perfectionist, and a curmudgeon; he was also the only man I have ever known who looked equally comfortable wearing an ascot, black leather slacks and vest, or a tool belt. Ed and his close friends – including Connie Freeman, Ron Watson, Janie Glover, and Carl and Wilma McCauley – were quite literally the backbone of FSLT for decades.
I had admired his onstage performances and his creative set designs for years, but it was by seeking his advice on a FSLT building project that I became his friend. In 1996, I was involved with lighting and paving the parking lots owned by FSLT and the adjacent Fort Smith Art Center (now RAM). Ed advised me on everything from the layout to drainage.
Just before the paving was to begin, it was raining cats and dogs. Ed called and demanded that I come pick him up immediately so he could check the water flow. For years, it had been a common occurrence for water to run under the theatre’s front doors. Standing in the downpour, I held a huge umbrella over his head as he took photos and studied the situation. My feet were soaked and shoes were ruined, but the land grade was changed and water never entered the lobby again.
Professionally, Ed was a very successful architect. Airport terminals, churches, manufacturing plants and post offices stand today as a testament to his talent. With planning and forethought, he designed things to last. It is therefore quite fitting that Ed named the Fort Smith Little Theatre Endowment as a beneficiary in his will. It was also very generous; Ed’s gift remains the largest single gift to FSLT’s Endowment to date.
FSLT volunteers, Nancy Blochberger and Katy Boulden (deceased 2019), interviewed Larry Tennant shortly before his death in 1997 about this involvement with FSLT. This memory is excerpted from the notes of that meeting. Although many of his comments were not actually about the Little Theatre, they provided an interesting insight into one of the early pioneers of our community theatre. Larry was a leader in business as well as a leader at FSLT. Larry ended his business career as a top official at Okla Homer Smith Furniture.
Larry Tennant, was Vice President of the first FSLT Board of Directors.
Originally from Indiana, Larry first came to Fort Smith on March 22, 1942. On that day, buck Private Larry entered the gates of Camp Chaffee, one in a thousand-man cadre for the 6th Division of the U.S, Army, the first division to be trained at the new camp outside Fort Smith, Arkansas. Because he was a college graduate and had briefly worked as a personnel clerk, Tennant had been assigned a desk job.
The first day at Camp Chaffee, there was a water main break. He and a fellow recruit from his home state, took the bus into Fort Smith and checked into the Goldman Hotel just to take a bath. Afterward, they went to Dinty Moore’s Cafe and being young, males and single, they struck up a conversation with the waitress. They asked her where they could find some action. She directed them to a beer joint out on Midland Boulevard. They took a short cab ride out to the place but once inside, they quickly realized there was a different type of “action” being offered there than they were searching for. The next Sunday, the two raw recruits decided that church was a better place for them to scout for female companionship. Larry was an Episcopalian, and his friend was a Methodist. The Episcopal Church was on 6th Street and the Methodist Church was on 15th Street. As church bells were ringing, the two were standing on the corner of 12th Street and B, between their two denominations, when fate stepped in. Mrs. Doug Rogers, Sr. saw them and invited them to join her in worship. After the service, the minister stated that no serviceman in attendance should return to Camp Chaffee without a home cooked meal. Larry and his friend went home with Mrs. Willard Smart. At the Sunday dinner table, she urged her guests to attend the USO dance, which was located on the second floor over a grocery store in the 1100 block of Garrison Avenue. She even planned for Mrs. Marshall Yantis to pick them up in her Cadillac and drive them to the dance. Once there, he was introduced to Mary Louise Miller who quickly acquainted him with many of Fort Smith’s lovelies. They had found the kind of action they were looking for. The next night, Larry kept the date he had made with the Dinty Moore waitress, then had a date with Mary Louise on Thursday. Mary Louise asked him to make it a foursome and bring along his friend as a date for a friend of hers. Her friend turned out to be Jane Daily, Larry’s future wife. The foursome walked eight blocks from the Miller’s apartment to a restaurant named Constantino’s. As they sat in a booth and got to know each other, Jane and Larry found they had a lot in common. Larry continued to date Mary Louise but when she decided to marry another, he was quick to begin dating Jane. They were married in April 1943.
When WWII was over and Larry was separated from the military, he and Jane returned to Fort Smith and settled down to raise their family. Larry went to work at Eads Brothers’ Furniture for Mr. Bill Eads who was also a Dartmouth alum. His days were full as a husband, a father and businessman.
As Larry became increasingly involved in Fort Smith, he decided it was best to think before speaking about one of its citizens. Everyone seemed to be related to everyone else. Larry jokingly said, “If it hadn’t been for Camp Chaffee bringing in new people, incest would have been so rampant in Fort Smith that by now everyone would have six toes.”
Before long he received a call from Mrs. Mose Smith (Lucille). She had heard he had college theatre experience and asked him if he would be interested in joining a group of her friends who were forming an amateur theatrical organization. It was going to be sponsored by Sparks Young Ladies Guild, and oh yes, would he be the vice president? Larry replied that he would be honored to have his name on the slate. She informed him that it wasn’t necessary for he had already been “appointed” to the position. He said that “coercion” went on for many years as he repeatedly agreed to serve on the Board of Directors, act on stage, and help backstage with Little Theatre productions.
Larry was called back into the military to serve during the Korean War. While he was on active duty, the Little Theatre became independent, no longer needing a sponsoring organization. Soon they purchased a former grocery store building on North O Street and converted it into a small theatre in the round. He recalled that stage lighting was made by painting coffee cans black and wiring them for bulbs and then hanging them from the ceiling.
After his return from military duty, Larry served many years on and off the board. He suggested policies that would promote FSLT to grow as an organization and keep board members from becoming entrenched. He urged them to develop staggered terms for board members, a policy that was later incorporated into the constitutional bylaws.
One of his fondest memories was of being on stage with his daughter in a melodrama. Larry played the villain. His wife Jane was active also, but only backstage.
Larry also remembered an incident when he was onstage in the old theatre on “O” street. It was a small, intimate venue where the audience was right in the actor’s face. He did what every actor fears; he went “up on his lines”. He could not remember what he was to say. The audience was silent in anticipation. His friend Bob Dills, whose voice carried almost as well as Larry’s did, was in the audience just a few feet away. Bob leaned over and said loud enough for all to hear, “Larry, say something!” The audience loved it, and fortunately, Larry remembered his line.
It is hard for me to believe that the Fort Smith Little Theatre is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Searching through my old files certainly brought back some great memories. I will always cherish the friendships that were made, both on and off stage at FSLT.
I first walked into the theater on North O St. in 1965. I was the same age as the theater, we were both 18. I was there with my high school friends, Rod Hocott and Bob Hughart and we were trying out for the summer musical, “Brigadoon”. We were all three so excited to be cast in the chorus. That summer pretty much hooked me, and I worked both on stage and off stage for the next 20+ years.
I served on the Board of Directors from 1975 through 1987. Served on every committee and was President in 1987 which was the first full year in the current theater building.
It is hard to say which shows were the most successful during my involvement. Some shows that I felt were outstanding did not have great audience appeal but in my eyes were still successful shows. The summer musicals were always extremely popular and the two that stand out the most to me would be “Evening with Rogers & Hammerstein” 1979 and “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” 1986. Both shows played to full houses and had extended runs. Best Little Whorehouse was of course the first production in what I still call the new theater building on north 6th. It exceeded all our hopes and expectations.
This brings me to my favorite roles on stage and the #1 must be “Doatsey Mae” in Best Little Whorehouse. Other favorites: “Mrs. Bumble” in Oliver 1967 & 1973, “Snookie” 110 in the Shade 1968, “Luisa” in The Fantasticks 1970, “Laura” in The Glass Menagerie 1971, “Ruby” in Dames at Sea 1972.
The musical reviews created by Jay Burk, Evenings with Rogers & Hammerstein 1979 and Cole Porter 1984 were special and I am proud to have been a part of them. I also loved being in the cast of “Jacque Brel is alive and well and living in Paris”, a special off-season production and “the Magic of Musical Broadway, at the municipal auditorium. Both shows were in 1977 and were fund raisers for theater capital improvements.
Lloyd Johnston moved to Fort Smith in 1978 and joined First Methodist choir. Connie Freeman asked him if he would like to try out for a play. He did and got a part. He enjoyed the people at the theater and helped with building sets, and tear downs as well as other odds and ends. He was in a play about the Barrymore’s and sold tickets and ushered for others. In 1980 he had by-pass surgery and we attended infrequently for a while. I’m not sure of the year but he was chosen for the board. In a few years he was elected president. A split had begun among the participants who did the work of keeping the theater operating. He was good at keeping people focused on putting on plays, but board meetings were loud arguments. He was tired after many of those, but for the good of the theater the board members compromised on some things and moved on. More than one person thanked him for his patience and help in getting back to reasonably calm exchanges. He valued the friendships with a group that had nothing to do with work and of course the after-rehearsal pizza and end-of-the-show parties were fun. The friends from the theater opened up other activities that helped make Fort Smith home for us.
I stayed in Texas to complete my master’s degree, but Lloyd told people that I played the piano and could sew costumes. I went out when sets were being built or to rehearsals and I think did a few sewing odds and ends. When Vanities was being staged I made the cheerleaders skirts to fit the actresses and loaned a dress and some odds and ends. There were other plays where I sewed a little but then Jay and Jim asked me to do costumes for a Rogers and Hammerstein retrospective. When I said that would require a huge number of costumes they airily said, “oh, don’t worry. We will rent them.” Famous last words! It was way too expensive to rent so we had to beg, borrow and burrow through all previously used costumes.”
FSLT had a special place in my mother’s heart. She did anything and everything to participate and promote the Little Theater: cleaning, makeup, box office, and Noon on 5 promotions. I went with her as often as she would allow. Her favorite roll was playing Anastasia with Jeanne Swearingen Lewis who played the dowager empress. She cried every night at the recognition scene. Early on after rehearsals everybody went to Gene’s Lounge on Rogers Avenue. I didn’t get to go until I was older, and I thought it was quite a big deal.
My involvement with FSLT spanned from approximately 1981 to 1991. I remember enjoying One Woman Show, Belle Starr, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Fantasticks, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Talk about a walk down memory lane! I loved playing Belle Starr and telling her story. Most of the time I was a vocal coach or a musician in the Orchestra pit and Rod being on stage. I do remember having to run a lot of extension cords when we needed more power for special lighting—back before the theatre was renovated.
I was active at FSLT for 35 years beginning with Guys and Dolls in 1971 and ending in 2006 with…Guys and Dolls! During my time at FSLT I think I played or took part in every volunteer position available—from grunt to board member. I was fortunate enough to play some outstanding roles on stage and even direct a couple of shows. My fondest moments were board meetings listening to arguments about where to install the Coke machine in the old theater! Met and made some life-long friends! It was a joy to work with some really talented individuals.
In 1978, FSLT was at the “old theatre” on North O Street. My cousin was my very close friend as well and when he got a girlfriend, he was too busy to do things with me. Driving to Westark one morning I heard the radio announcement about auditions for the upcoming play. I was president of the drama club in school but had never even thought about auditioning at FSLT. I told absolutely NO ONE about my audition and pretty much forgot about it until a few days later my mother said that a man had had called and that he would call back that evening. It was Orin Frank, my first director. Needless to say, my parents were shocked that I had done something like that on my own (I know it’s really hard to believe, but I was really shy back then!). thus began my journey……
My favorite roles were Joanne in “Vanities”, Sissy in “Come Back to The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean”, Regina in “The Little Foxes” and, of course, “Belle Starr: By Herself”.
The show that anyone involved with always comes back to was “Cyrano”, which was at the old theatre. It was truly a magnificent production. The show that I kick myself for not going to see sooner was the 2018 production of”My Fair Lady.” I went next to closing night and of course it was sold out or I would have gone again the next night. I think it was one of the finest ever.
FSLT played an important role in my personal life too. I met my future husband, Rhed Khilling, when he came backstage to our dressing room after seeing “Private Lives”, my first show. Not only was I shy then but also modest and he knocked on the door and came in and I was standing there in a slip and bra, and I was so embarrassed! Because Orin Frank took a chance on a young girl for her first show and we met through the theatre, we were married 3 years later by Orin, who was also a minister. Orin had also been in the first show Rhed was in at FSLT (The Imaginary Invalid) and he was in the last one with Rhed as well, “Bethlehem.” We were both so involved at FSLT and had such a big theatre family that in 2000 I held Rhed’s wake there as well.
In 2018 I did a one woman show “Belle Starr: By Herself” as part of Fort Smith’s bicentennial. Off season shows are not normally well attended and I was hoping for 40 people each night. On opening night, I was mostly dressed when Debbie Carney came into the dressing room and announced that the line to box office went down the whole side of the building and there were no parking spaces left—and this was 30 minutes before showtime! Jim Moody and I looked at each other with our mouths hanging open. That totally interrupted what I was doing, and my mind just shut down. At 7:30 I was waiting for the lights to come up to make my entrance and when they did, I started to take my first step past the curtains and realized I didn’t have on my guns! And one of the early lines is “I never go anywhere without these babies”! The guns were in the trunk of my car–Debbie and Jane Ann ran for my keys, opened the trunk, and ran back, belted them on me and pushed (hard!) me through the curtains. My heart was pounding so hard from that near miss that I had no thoughts for nerves! On the 3 following performances 4 people asked, “do you have your guns?” before each show!
I became interested in theatre at Northwestern University, and I had always enjoyed singing, so participating in our community theatre was enjoyable for me. In 1959, I played the part of a sheriff in “White Sheep of the Family.” The role required that I smoke on stage. I had never smoked before, and I never really got the hang of it. I always felt awkward trying to light it and smoke in front of the audience, but nevertheless it was fun. After that, I stuck to being in musicals. I especially remember being in several melodramas in the early 60s. They included an audience sing-along and were very popular. But besides being on stage, my wife, Catherine, and I enjoyed attending Fort Smith Little Theatre shows for many, many years. Lots of good shows and good memories.
Paul Sandahl, 92 years of age interviewed by Nancy Blochberger, June 2021.
Katy Boulden, who passed away in November 2019, actively contributed her time and talent over several decades as a board member, producer, director, and actress at FSLT. In addition, she used her love of language to pen countless newsletters and season brochures, even into her later years. I was honored to share the stage with Katy in my first ever production at FSLT in 1991. It was in that show that she fell and broke her arm backstage but refused to go to the hospital until the final curtain closed. She didn’t just play a role in Steel Magnolias; to me she epitomized the title.
Performer, offstage volunteer, audience member
My first play, A Murder of Scarecrows was a great experience and loved every bit of it.
For years, I’ve donated by graphic design skills for FSLT’s Spotlight newsletters, and it was an honor to design their 75th Anniversary Commemorative Booklet.
Active at FSLT from 1960-2012 when moved to Fayetteville. Participated as an actor, off stage volunteer, audience member, Season Pass Holder, and financial donor.
The most vivid memory is the people I worked with, some of whom are gone now. I also remember after I had directed a play and a long-term theater person coming up to me and after taking my hand, saying “just thank you”. She could not have said more than that!
I have enjoyed being an active volunteer at FSLT including performer, volunteer off stage, Season Pass holder, audience member, and Board member.
A special memory is the audition for Sound of Music. I just wanted to do something, and I got to be a dancer in the big party scene. Then I was cast as the sheriff in Trip to Bountiful. I had to learn stage craft in a hurry. Since then, I been a part of many productions. My musical favorites are helping bring Titanic to life and singing White Christmas onstage as it snowed on us in the show. I was fortunate enough to be in two of the most powerful dramas that we have produced. I was the foreman in 12 Angry Men. We hated to see that show end. It was such a powerful experience. Then I was cast as Scanlon in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. As the production came together and we came to know our characters, we became the Boys in Blue. My director told me that I made her cry every night. That made me feel very good that I was doing a good job. I retired in 2012 and the theater has kept me busy. I’ve been onstage, backstage, and responsible for box office. I’ve enjoyed every minute. I’m so glad that we have the Fort Smith Little Theater.
Active 12 years as performer, director, volunteer, board member, audience member
2009 is when I took my first steps into the Fort Smith Little Theatre. That is where I auditioned for my very first FSLT show, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. What started as a first-time theatrical experience in a theatre in our community of Fort Smith became my new home away from home. Over the last 12 years, I have found myself as a performer. I have fallen in love with many of the notable roles in plays and musicals that I had the honor of portraying. Some of these roles include Dickon in The Secret Garden, Mr. Green in Clue, and Mr. Bingley in Pride and Prejudice. Amongst them all, there is one role in particular that I believe was one of the best on stage experiences ever. That role was playing Lumiere in the 2019 musical Beauty and the Beast. Every night, I was able to perform the role of my dreams to families and the children from the Boys and Girls Club. Seeing the faces of moms, dads, boys, and girls light up as the Disney classic was brought to life before their very eyes will be something I will never forget. The laughs, gasps, applause, and cheers through the show brought excitement that filled the auditorium, allowing me to channel one of the best performances I feel I have brought to the stage. Then meeting the families after the show, seeing the smiles on the children’s faces brought me more joy than I could have ever imagined. I have also found myself in the director’s chair. If you asked me seven years ago if I would ever consider directing, I would have said “Heck No!” However, curiosity got the best of me and now I have had the opportunity to direct. Over the last half of the decade, I discovered my love for directing. I co-directed a Christmas Off-Season called Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus with one of my very best friends (Victoria Walden), comedies such as The Odd Couple Female Version, Happily Ever After, and Glitter Girls, a magical one act called Mythical Creatures and How to Approach Them, and a comedy drama based on a true story called Calendar Girls. All the shows had a cast and crew I define as my dream team. Looking back in shows I have acted in, directed, and volunteered for, I have worked with FSLT legends, veterans, and newbies that have become lifelong friends and now new FSLT volunteers. These amazing individuals are my family, and this theatre is my home. I am so blessed to have found and be a part of this hidden treasure in our community. Whether I am performing, directing, volunteering, or watching a show, I love my Little Theatre BIG. Here’s to 75 amazing years at Fort Smith Little Theatre and many more to come.