Houlton’s Star Bright Theatre to celebrate 50 years

Karen Donato, Special to The County
6 years ago

HOULTON, Maine — “The Enchanted Book Store” will be the 50th anniversary production for Houlton’s Star Bright Children’s Theatre. The show will be presented at the Houlton Community Arts Center April 6 and 7.

This all-volunteer theatre group has been in existence since the late 1960s, beginning with Bob Johnson, a then-19- year-old Ricker College student. He produced “Charlie Brown” in the fall of 1968 and “Peter Pan,” “Jack and the Beanstalk” and then “Oliver.”

Nearly 600 attended the “Charlie Brown” performance at the Gentle Memorial Building. Some of the cast included: Peggy Rutledge, Ted McGillicuddy, Peter Keyosky, Cathy Carton and Mary Ellen Caldwell. In 1971, another Ricker student, Gordon Cantiello became the director for Snow White. The theatre group included local children, college students and adult from the community.

After the closing of the college in 1978, Houlton area residents continued the program and it is now one of the oldest continuing children’s theatre programs in the country. The organization has been led by Ann Barnes of Houlton, who directed or co-directed every year from 1982 until 2006. She has also served as a board member and board president. Barnes has been one of those most responsible for the successful continuation of the organization along with countless volunteers.

In 2008, celebrating the 40th anniversary, the group changed the name to Houlton Children’s Star Bright Theatre. In keeping with its tradition of offering live theatre “for children, by children,” the organization has presented at least one play each year since its inception. It has also brought to Houlton professional children’s theatre productions and offered workshops in theatre arts.

The hundreds of children involved in the productions have been able to experience theatre both on stage and behind the curtain. Many of the HCSBT veterans have assumed leading roles in local high school productions and a few have continued in theatre in college and even professionally.

In 2010, the group collaborated with Maine author, Tim Caverly to bring his book, “Allagash Haunting” to life. The play, adapted by Barbara Hogan represented a look into the way of life during the era of logging and river drives in northern Maine.

Children became part of the process, from writing the script and working with the author, to producing and presenting the finished product for the community.  Caverly had spent his life in Maine’s outdoors, growing up shadowing his father, a fire warden with the Maine Forest Service and his brother, a ranger in Baxter State Park.

Caverley used his 18 years of experience in the beautiful area of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway as the basis for his children’s books, “Allagash Tails” and “Allagash Haunting”.

In 2014, children were invited to write their own plays and from the submissions, three were chosen for performances. The writers also assisted in the directing of their original play. The writers were: Anna Hogan, Hope Chernesky, Jordan Farnham and Quinn White.

For many years the cast included students from grades two through 12 and in more recent years grades three through six. Cast call begins in early January and once the selections have been made the cast meets for about 90 minutes twice a week until show-time. Then a few weeks before opening night there are additional rehearsals to coordinate the lighting, staging, sound and overall production.

Through the years the organization has had to cope with no permanent location to practice, perform, make or store props and costumes. The members have had to store props, equipment and costumes at their own homes and rehearse in their basements, living rooms, the rec center, churches and classrooms. They have performed at Houlton Elementary School, Houlton Southside, the Gentle Memorial Building, Hodgdon High School and most recently Houlton Performing Arts Center at Houlton Middle-High School.

As the Star Bright Theatre plans for their 50th anniversary they have reflected on their experiences through these years and came up with some valid reasons why they have stayed involved.

Some of those experiences are: where else would you get to make centipedes out of old socks or make a serpent from your husband’s snake light? (“Hon, do you know where my snake light is?” “Um…er…ah… well. It’s …a..”) or steal your families’ clothes out from under them? (“I can’t find my socks!! Where’s my brown cardigan? What do you mean it was just perfect for the principal in the play to wear?”).

Or maybe it was bake 2,000 gingerbread cookies for the witch’s house, while the family lives on frozen dinners and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Or get up at 2 a.m. because you can’t stop thinking about it and sew 12 pairs of pantaloons from an old bed sheet? Or watch some shy, nervous, eight year-old find the courage to stand up and complete an audition, or see a 10-year-old have the poise and courage to deliver his lines faster and faster as he gets greener and greener, then make an unscheduled, quiet exit, throw up, get some fresh air and walk back on the for his next entrance? Or see children who don’t dare try out for things at school start to blossom as they discover they love to act, or see children who struggle with school work bring tears to your eyes as they flawlessly deliver line after line of the very words they struggled to read or see children of all ages, sizes, shapes, backgrounds really working together and caring about each other  or to see children take words on paper and through their own abilities, sensitivities, creativity, determination and love turn them into something living and magic?

On Friday, April 6, join them for a special birthday party of cupcakes and punch after the show and again on Saturday, April 7.

Later in the fall the group will present a dinner and show at the Lakeside Restaurant in New Limerick featuring the radio version of the play, “An Allagash Hunting” paired with historical slides from the Allagash area from the time period of the play.

The theatre has involved hundreds of children and volunteers through these 50 years. If there are photos or stories of some of the early Ricker productions or later times in albums and drawers Hogan would very much like to have a copy to include in the history for future reference.

If you would like to make a contribution to this children’s non-profit organization or would like to help in any way contact Barbara Hogan: behh@hogansystems.net  or mail to 21 Hogan St., Houlton, ME 04730. They also have a Facebook page.