Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Gold In the Hills

Villain Richard Murgatroyd confronts heroine Nell Stanley in the nation's longest-running melodramas.


As mustachioed Richard Murgatroyd strides across the stage at the Parkside Playhouse in Vicksburg, Miss. (pop. 26,407), spectator Carlie Thomas raises a ruckus with other audience members.

Cupping her mouth with her hands, Thomas, 27, yells “BOOO” repeatedly at Murgatroyd, the villainous city slicker. Thomas’ friend, Courtney Owens, 27, takes a deep breath and lets out a loud hiss.Such outbursts are expected—and encouraged—during performances of Gold in the Hills, the longest-running melodrama in the United States. Since 1936, audiences have cheered for innocent farm girl Nell Stanley and homespun hero John Dalton and jeered the conniving Murgatroyd. They’ve sung 1890s songs with the performers between scenes and clapped wildly when good triumphed over evil.

“It’s an art form that you don’t see much anymore,” says director John Hesselberg, 49, about Victorian-era melodramas, which were popular live theater shows from the mid-1800s until the 1920s. The plays feature stereotypical characters, including damsels in distress and deceitful villains, and moralistic messages about social issues, such as the evils of alcohol.

“Melodramas involve music and exaggerated gestures and dialogue,” Hesselberg says.''  

During Gold in the Hills, lively piano music accompanies the heroine’s entrance, while menacing minor chords alert the audience when dastardly deeds are afoot. Before microphones, the dramatic music and exaggerated acting helped spectators, especially those seated at the back of the theater, follow the plot toward its satisfying happy ending.

Community treasure
Gold in the Hills, however, is more than family entertainment each March and July in Vicksburg. The melodrama is a community treasure first staged on March 28, 1936, on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers barge on the Mississippi River. In 1948, the melodrama relocated to the retired steam-powered Sprague towboat moored along the river. When fire destroyed the Sprague in 1974, the production was staged in a local church until the 250-seat Parkside Playhouse was built in 1978.

“The charming thing about Gold in the Hills is that some of the cast members today are children of the original cast members,” says producer Mike Calnan, 62.

Walter Johnston Jr., 63, who plays dancehall owner Big Mike, attended shows on the Sprague as a young boy and cheered for his father, Walter Johnston Sr., who played the hero and other parts from 1936 until 1964.

“It’s a family tradition and a Vicksburg tradition,” says Johnston, who stepped into the hero’s role himself in 1965, and whose children and other family members have acted in the melodrama through the years.

William Mathews, 61, likewise joined the cast as a teenager and for 42 years has relished his role as conniving Murgatroyd.

“The villain has a lot more gutsy part,” Mathews says. “He’s the mover and shaker in the whole play. I do enjoy the part more, though, without the peanuts,” he says, noting that peanut throwing by the audience ended in 2006 to discourage rodents from infesting the theater.

Cheering and jeering endure, though, as Carlie Thomas shouts “NOOO” when the villain steals a hidden stash of cash from the play’s honest farm family.

“I’m having so much fun,” she says to her friend, Owens.

AmericanProfile.com  (July 10, 2011)  
Photos by Greg Campbell

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