Chris Rosenblum | Garman’s demise breathes life into Boal Barn Playhouse

December 22, 2013 

Snow drifted down on Bellefonte Victorian Christmas, settling on festive decorations, horse-drawn carriages and the masked men hauling seats out of the Garman Theatre.

Contrary to appearances, a robbery wasn’t in progress — though the red seats were a steal.

Progress Development Group, which plans to demolish the historic but wrecked Garman and construct an apartment building, gave an early Christmas gift to a new drama company that hopes one theater’s death might help another’s resurrection.

David Saxe, a Penn State professor of heritage interpretation, playwright and veteran actor, formed the Boal Barn Players this year with the goal of restoring summer theater to the Boal Barn Playhouse in Boalsburg.

The 113-year-old barn on the Boal Mansion grounds has stood dark and vacant since the State College Community Theatre, its tenant for 54 years, departed for other venues in the fall of 2012 to become a year-round company.

Around the same time, a fire destroyed the Hotel Do De and severely damaged the Garman next door.

Developer Ara Kervandjian purchased the properties, along with another fire victim nearby, the Cadillac Building, and presented a plan for apartments promised to be architecturally compatible with the Victorian-era downtown.

The Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association pushed to save the Garman and restore it into a regional arts center. But barring an 11th-hour twist, a long legal battle appears to have ended in favor of Kervandjian, who expects to begin razing the Garman soon.

Which brings the story to Saxe — and how he came to don a mask on a wintry day.

As he tells it, Christopher Lee called him early last summer. Lee resides in the mansion, his ancestral home, and serves as CEO of its museum.

He had a problem. The curtain had fallen on SCCT’s decadeslong run at the barn. Lee needed another tenant.

Would Saxe bring in his own small, nonprofit group?

He declined, adamant that the Nittany Theatre Company wasn’t the right fit, but Lee persisted. Finally, Saxe relented by suggesting the barn needed another community theater organization.

“I talked to 13 friends,” said Saxe, a former Actors Equity member from Chicago and longtime member of the local theater community. “Every one of them said let’s form a group.”

And so, in May, the Boal Barn Players emerged.

From the start, the group staked out a summer stock identity.

“We’re not looking to do shows in the fall,” Saxe said. “We want to do them in the barn and to preserve the barn.”

The challenge, he said, will be updating the barn’s interior while maintaining its charm.

Since a stage and seats replaced cows and chickens in 1958, the Boal Barn’s seasonal theater-in-the-round experience has always had a rustic flavor.

Without air conditioning, sweat tends to pour from actors and audiences alike. Then there are the resident bats that often swoop from the eaves during performances.

One even joined a play one night, dropping in for a brief death scene.

“Everybody kept going,” Saxe recalled. “One of the actors, with his foot, inched the bat to the side and the house manager came out and picked it up. Nobody stopped. The show went on.”

In the same spirit, Saxe dreams of lights once again bathing the theater. And that led him to contact Kervandjian.

As the fight for the Garman’s future played out this summer, Saxe asked about acquiring some of its seats, with their padded armrests, as comfier replacements for the Boal Barn’s chairs. Saxe thinks the Garman seats, installed when the theater was first restored 18 years ago, probably came from a 1970s-era cinema.

While the Garman’s fate was in limbo, Kervandjian put off a decision — until recently. Out of the blue, Saxe learned he could take as many seats as he wished.

But the clock was ticking.

Preparing for demolition, Progress Development Group gave him less than a week to act. Saxe, busy with classes and night rehearsals, finally got to the theater three days before the deadline.

In darkness, toiling by flashlight, he and a friend struggled to remove debris-covered seats. They bought better tools and returned to an easier job. Armed properly, Saxe himself unfastened 46 seats in two hours.

The next morning, hours before performing on stage, he again strapped on a mask to protect against mold and dust and went back to work. In the end, his truck struggled up High Street with the last of 120 saved seats, a little less than a third of the Garman’s house.

He collected more than a present worth about $12,000.

PDG and Ron Iadarola, the Garman’s previous owner, gave the Boal Barn Players a set of two foyer French doors, a poster marquee box, two ticket windows, a cash box, pieces of a broken light fixture and two long signs emblazoned with “Garman Opera House.”

All date from contemporary restorations, but Saxe also received one of the Garman’s original legs — a board with rope pulleys for raising a curtain and the inspiration for the famous theater expression “break a leg.”

After a successful show, the curtain might rise several times for encores.

“The idea was that if you broke a leg, that meant you had a great performance,” Saxe said. “So you wished everybody that they would break a leg.”

He could use some good luck of his own with staging a Boal Barn revival.

Even with the seats and a $15,000 sound system from the Nittany Theatre Company, the Boal Barn Players need to raise about $85,000 to realize their plan for a revamped 102-seat theater.

The troupe needs a new lighting grid and board, preferably for modern LED lights that don’t produce heat. Interior layout plans call for removing one side of seats to expand the stage.

Saxe also envisions a display of Garman items commemorating the theater’s history.

Most critically, the county has told the Boal Barn Players that the barn needs several modifications — including additional exits, simplified wiring and a different exterior staircase railing — to meet code and gain an official “certificate of occupancy.”

According to Saxe, the barn had never been inspected before this summer. But he’s confident the necessary changes can be made.

“We need to save the barn,” he said. “We can’t save the Garman, but we can save the barn.”

Regina Brennan, a Boal Barn Players supporter living in Texas, hopes so.

The barn changed her life.

At 15, while in a show, she met her husband, Patrick, then a year older and a Boal Barn intern. Their romance deepened as they shared performances.

One night, he wrote a short love note to her on the barn, in keeping with the Boal Barn tradition of actors signing the wood. But his message is no longer there.

Before she moved this year, Brennan made sure she obtained the board. Now, the barn has a small gap and she owns a treasured keepsake of where she fell in love, married and saw her first child, at age 5, perform.

Already, she’s planning to do a show when she returns to town in two years.

“I love it. It’s my home,” she said. “It’s where I found the love of my life, the father of my five children. It’s a huge part of my life.”

Saxe said he and Lee have worked out an annual lease, though whether summer theater returns to the Boal Barn next year depends on how soon SCCT ends its existing lease.

In the meantime, Saxe needs to break a leg drumming up support for the Boal Barn’s second act. Donations to the Boal Barn Players can be made in care of the Boal Mansion, and more information can be found at www.boalbarnplayers.com.

“It’ll be a whole new barn,” Saxe said. “You’ll sit in those comfortable seats, you’ll have that lighting and you’ll be in heaven, theater heaven.”

One thing, however, won’t change.

“We’re going to keep the bats. The bats miss us.”

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews.

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