On September 30, the recently reopened historic Capitol Theatre in the village of Port Chester in the Town of Rye, in the county of Westchester, founded in the days of vaudeville, beloved by the Grateful Dead, rechristened by Bob Dylan, and just host to Willie Nelson, hosted Flashbacks.
A musical to the history of the town written by local sisters and educators Camille Linen and Donna Cribari, Flashbacks tells the story of high school students who complete a historical multimedia project and are drawn to the local river that mysteriously produces figures from the town’s past as primary source documents.
The play was performed for all the fourth graders in the public and parochial schools in the village. Hundreds of students walked to the theater in the center of town from their various schools with the police blocking off roads along the way so everyone made it safe and sound.
Town Supervisor Joe Carvin performed in the musical in a non-singing, non-talking role as one of the purchasers of the land from Native Americans in colonial times. He also signed a certificate of community that included the town seal and which was presented to students. The certificate is provides a physical reminder and record that the student participated in the program as a resident of the Town of the Rye.
Port Chester Superintendent Edward Kliszus requested that the performance be in September so during the school year teachers will be able to say: “Remember that scene from colonial times or the American Revolution or the Civil War or the industrial era or the depression or on immigration that you saw? Well, now we are studying it.” Naturally we hope that this performance becomes an annual event for the fourth graders who study local history.
If any of this seems familiar to regular readers of the New York History Blog, it’s because it is exactly what I have been saying should be done to strengthen the sense of place, the sense of belonging, the sense of community among the residents of each municipality. After telling everybody else what I think they should do, I decided I should put my money where my mouth is, and try it in my own town.
With that in mind, I approached the Town of Rye trustees at a regular monthly meeting. (By the way, since these meetings are taped and shown on local cable TV, I strongly recommend that municipal historians at least once a quarter make a presentation to the local trustees on what they have been doing. This serves as a public reminder that you exist and you never know who may see you on TV or what may come of it.)
I knew from our 350th anniversary in 2010 that the musical already existed. I wanted it to be performed for the fourth graders as part of their civics program, but not at a school auditorium. I wanted the performance to be something special, something outside the normal routine, at an unusual location. Many municipalities have old vaudeville and/or movie theaters which have been restored and reopened as entertainment facilities. Fortunately, we have such a theater right here in my town – the Capitol Theatre.
Following a successful pitch to the town trustees, I approached the village. As I was talking about students taking walking tours of the community I mentioned the Capitol Theatre. One of the trustees said I was in luck, the lawyer for the Theatre was sitting in the row in front of me. Welcome to small town America. The Capitol Theatre folks loved the idea and provided the space for free. They also contributed lighting effects that weren’t available in 2010 during the 350th Anniversary production. As it turned out, one of the highlights of the performance was when the spotlights pointed into the audience in swirling bright whites and reds. The audience of fourth graders went wild. The audience at the evening fundraising performance was more sedate, but we did get our state senator, state legislator, and various school and municipal trustees to attend.
What are the lessons?
1. We need to do a better job reaching out to the school systems as only one of the three in the Town of Rye attended.
2. We need to do a better job of reaching into the community through its civic, social, and religious organizations.
3. We need to do a better job of reaching into the business community for financial support. The musical mentions four current businesses. Talk about product placement!
4. We need to reach out to the high school drama/theater clubs to participate.
5. We need to provide better photo opportunities, both for the Town Supervisor giving the certificates to each class and for the students with the cast. The students really loved seeing the people on stage up close and personal in costume, even though they already knew some of them.
6. We need to build on this event with additional civic activities including mock sessions in the town and village halls, visits to the county and state chambers, walking tours of the town, and the use of apps with maps, photos, and stories.
By the way, it should be noted that the local performers were quite excited at the opportunity to perform in such an historic setting. They may not have been on Broadway but they did see the Flashback name on the marquee where a week before Willie Nelson had appeared.
So it can be done. Annually. I once wrote that county history conferences were in part high school or camp reunions. We are a storytelling species that loves to congregate, gather together, share the stories of our past and our lives.
The musical did that for the students and the community’s heritage; the adult audience did that with each other. Little did I know that the Town Supervisor once had been a student of the Flashback playwright. Welcome to small town America. Isn’t this the way a community should function?
Celebrate your heritage. Connect your community. Create your glee.