The Loomer Opera House:
by: Jay Farrell
The other night I revisited Tom Beardsley's article The History of the Loomer Opera House. Can any of you recall entering the Loomer Opera House? I can, but then again I've got a few years jump on most of you. Not braggin', just admitting! My excursions there were prompted by an early entry into show business. No, not on the Opera House stage. Productions there had ceased long before I saw the light of day. Trying to put a date or age on this, I'm figuring around 1936 or '37, when I was nine or ten. Charlie Wheeler, the Grand Bandmaster of Willimantic, famed for his minstrels and theatricals, among other accomplishments, lived just down the street from us at at 135 Pleasant Street. ( I checked the Windham Assessor's database, and the house looks very familiar). I had been taking tap-dancing lessons from Tom Overholt, since age six or seven, and had appeared in a couple of recitals at the Capitol Theater, decked out in tux, top hat, and cane, dancing duets with Mr. O. picture that, if you can! He and his wife (can't remember her name), preceded Evelyn McFarland as dance teachers in the city. Mr Wheeler, always on the lookout for talent (yeah, sure!), approached my parents and me, offering me a part in his next production to be presented in the Capitol Theater. The theme of some of the numbers was a farm scene, complete with barn, water trough and pump, hay stacks, corn stalks, rail fence, and such. There must have been chickens and ducks, probably cutouts... can't remember. The barnyard setting for the old TV series, Hee Haw, always reminded me of that. The main character in one skit was a black and white cow.... live... somewhat. You are probably sensing where this is going.
Mr. Wheeler constructed more props in that little garage of his than you could possibly imagine. His "blue Baby Austin" was relegated to the driveway when a show was being put together. Yes, I agreed to serve as the front legs and "operator" of the flashing eyes (battery powered), smoking-snorting nose, wiggling ears, and a blaring "moo" sounding horn (which I had to blow!). Who brought up the rear, so to speak? A close friend and playmate in the neighborhood, Billy Isreal (sp?) who lived on Lebanon Avenue. His dad owned a shoe store on Church Street. Yes, Bill got to wag the tail, too. I threw a wrench, somewhat, into Mr. Wheeler's plan for the cow, due to a bit of childhood stubbornness. He had visioned the "legs" as clad in white long johns, but for some ungodly reason, I balked, and nothing could change my mind against wearing that underwear in public, even though in disguise! A compromise was reached, with a pair of tapered, long, cotton pants, with tattered bottoms. For the life of me I can't remember how the script went, but we were a hit. Conductor Wheeler directed the show, leading the band in the orchestra pit. On stage, two farm hands, Walter Costello, and maybe a relative of your's John Tormey, with great flourish, gathered ears of corn from nearby stalks, tore the husks off, stuck a couple together making clarinets and proceded to render an exciting duet. Without skipping a beat, one of them gathered up some sticks next to the water trough and commenced a lively tune on the xylophone hidden in the trough. I told you that Mr. Wheeler was clever.Continue...