Americana, Traditions
on July 7, 2011
Greg Campbell The 1890s-era melodrama staged last fall in Julian, Calif., funded college scholarships.

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.

Heroes and villains
Though Vicksburg lays claim to the nation’s longest-running melodrama, villains sneer and twirl their moustaches at dozens of historical opera houses, community centers and schools across America.

At The Butte Theater, a refurbished 1890s opera house in Cripple Creek, Colo. (pop. 1,115), a troupe of professional actors stages melodramas that annually attract 10,000 spectators.

“We don’t treat melodrama as tongue-in-cheek, but find old scripts of a true style of melodrama and present it in a more genuine style,” says Mickey Burdick, 32, art director for the Thin Air Theatre Company. More than 1,500 actors from across the United States auditioned for parts in this summer’s performance of Hazel Kirke, which was a Broadway sensation in the 1880s.

Audiences in Cripple Creek and other Western mining towns have enjoyed live theater since the Gold Rush era.

“In the West, it was a rowdier time and people weren’t afraid to yell out in the audience,” Burdick says. “You could see a melodrama in the West and in New York, and they were totally different experiences.”

Boo and hiss
Amateur actors and volunteers keep classic theater alive in Coquille, Ore. (pop. 4,184), where a melodrama has been staged each summer since 1966.

“It’s all local talent and I use that term loosely,” says Lynn Kindred, 62, a member of the board of directors of the 215-seat Sawdust Theatre. “People are laughing from the time they get to the theater until the time they leave.”

The retired schoolteacher bought his first pair of tap shoes at age 50 so he could participate in the song-and-dance variety show between acts.

“The melodrama is part of Coquille’s culture,” Kindred says. “In the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century, there were traveling melodrama troupes, and shows sometimes lasted five to seven hours.”

When the Sawdust Theatre burned in 1994, Coquille residents rallied and garnered $1 million in donations and grants to rebuild the playhouse and rescue the melodrama.

In Julian, Calif. (pop. 1,621), the women of the Julian Triangle Club put their usual bake sale fundraiser on the back burner in 1956 to stage a melodrama. Fifty-five years later, the play remains a hit, and last year’s performances of Throw Out the Barrels (Lips that Touch Wine Shall Never Touch Mine) raised $8,000 for college scholarships for graduates of Julian High School.

Tryouts are conducted each July, and the show is presented at town hall each weekend in October when the apple crop ripens and vibrant fall colors attract visitors to the historic gold-mining town.

“People love coming back every year” to boo and hiss at the villain in the old-time drama, says club president Shirley DuErmit, 55.