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The PTA “Gaslight Players” of Gilford Do It Again!

By Diane Mitton

My friend was a shy, retiring mother of four young girls, but once a year she appeared on the stage of our local school and became another person. It always amazed me to see the transformation which came over her. It was as though she put herself on the shelf for the duration of the play, after which she once again donned the self that she was – like putting on a change of clothes. Play acting seems to be something that we all enjoy. For some it is the act of creating a new persona for themselves, for others, the enjoyment comes in seeing their friends and neighbors cast out of their usual role.

This seems to have been the case in the mid-forties and fifties in Gilford when a talented and enthusiastic group of young couples turned to theatricals to raise money for the PTA. Known as the Gaslight Players, they staged an annual play which they wrote, produced, choreographed and performed to delighted sell-out crowds year after year. It began about 1947 when Jean and Todd Wallace wrote a skit for several members of the organization to perform at a PTA meeting. Everyone had so much fun that they decided to continue the activity as a fund raiser. Among other things, their efforts resulted in providing fluoride treatment for children’s teeth, furnishing the teacher’s room, the purchase of audio-visual equipment and playground equipment, uniforms for sports and sponsorship of boy and girl scouts to go to camp and jamborees.

Each show ran for six nights: Fri., Sat., and Sun. for two weeks. Performances were held at the Gilford Town Hall which was arranged in an informal atmosphere with card tables covered with checkered tablecloths for the audience. Nearly every production was sold out, including the balcony, and it was not unusual for additional performances to be added in order to accommodate those who could not get tickets for the scheduled dates. The design of the Town Hall was often used as part of the set, as in the case of one of the most popular productions (1948), a western thriller, “Gunmen of Goon Gulch”. The upper part of the hall’s windows were suddenly dropped down and guns from the outside popped through, putting the audience in the middle of the performance. The “bar” was on the floor, making the audience participants in the events taking place. Seth Keller, a professional candy make, fashioned realistic liquor bottles out of candy so that when the bottles were broken over the heads of others in a “bar room brawl” they broke easily.

Original scripts were written each year by the Wallaces (“Gunmen of Goon Gulch”, The Other Side of the Mountain”, a humorous melodrama of the Matfields and the Cloys, and “For Whom the Bells, Clang”, a comedy of two lady wrestlers) and other members of the community including Jim Stamps (It’s In the Ice Box”, a comedy set in Alaska about two hustlers trying to sell ice boxes to the Eskimos) and Seth Keller (“Hey, Rube”, a comedy of the big top). Keller’s play was also performed several times over two years to sell-out crowds in Shreveport, Louisiana where it was a “howling success” as attested to by a very grateful PTA member who says that repeated performances “took them out of the red”. Original music was created by Todd Wallace who did not know how to write music so he hummed the tunes to Peg Keller who then wrote out the melody and chords. Three pieces of music from “Gunmen of Goon Gulch” were later copywrited. The middle act of each show included musical and dancing acts that might have occurred in a bar and were greatly enjoyed by all, including Elverton Whitney who played the honky-tonk piano.

One of the most memorable evenings occurred when the performers arrived to rehearse for “Rehearsal for Death”. To begin, a heavy downpour had caused flooding and muddy roads making the way difficult. The hall was so cold that someone had turned on the furnace which blanketed the hall with smoke causing the doors to be thrown open. Unseen by anyone, a skunk took advantage of the open door to wander in out of the wet. Apparently offended by someone, the intruder did what skunks do causing a stampede out, in spite of the rain. Everyone decided to give it up and rehearsal was put off until another night.

About 40 people were involved in all aspects of each show from performers to stage crew, publicity, refreshments, etc. Newspaper articles in the local papers reported on the sold-out performances, the extraordinary community spirit and the good times had by both the performers and the audience. The energy that created these productions was in many cases the same energy and people who developed the Gilford Outing Club about this same time. The last show seems to have been about 1956. I have heard many people say what a great place Gilford was to live in the forties and fifties and with such spirit and enthusiasm it is easy to see why.

Information for this article came from Gilford PTA scrapbooks of the years discussed and from an interview which Peg and Seth Keller gave on 10/21/1994 for The Gunstock Parish. Thompson-Ames Historical Society is grateful to those who have made available memories, photographs and documents which compile our archival collections. These materials are housed in the Belknap Grange Museum and are available for research and perusal by the public. To contact us, please call 527-9009 or write us at thomames@worldpath.net .You may view our website at www.gilfordhistoricalsociety.org .