A star, his story and our gem of a local theater


Over the weekend, my husband and I headed to Totem Pole Playhouse to see a screening of the award-winning independent film, “The Father and The Bear,” which was written, produced and directed by John Putch, who many locals will recognize as the son of former Totem Pole Director Bill Putch and his wife, Jean Stapleton (better known as Edith on “All in the Family”).

If you want to know more about the film, go to the website. You can even watch it right there on your device.

We enjoyed the film, and I could write about the fact that it brought back treasured memories of the summer playhouse in the woods and the actors who have tread the boards there, including a few who are no longer with us (tip of the hat here in memory of beloved Ed Gotwalt—aka Mr. Ed, of Elephant Museum fame, who passed away last year).

I could also write about how great it is to see a movie that is genuine and good.

I could write about the plot.

But I’m not doing a movie review. I suggest you check it out for yourself. It will be time well-spent.

Instead, I am going to do what the kids these days call a “brain dump” of things I thought about during the evening.

Misty, water-colored memories

As I sat in the theatre where, back in the day when the elder Putch was in charge, I was an usher, I looked around and noticed how so many things were the same, but how many things had changed.

Years ago, there was no air conditioning—there were louvered windows which allowed theater-goers to feel the evening breeze and hear the crickets from the surrounding trees. They also allowed a bat or two to sneak in which, during one of their Agatha Christie and other mystery productions, made for an added bonus to the live theater experience.

Now, the louvers are gone and there is air conditioning, new seats, updated restrooms and other amenities that were much needed over the 70 years of summer theater.

As I watched snippets of reels from years gone by featured in the film, I remembered the actors and most of the shows. I could tell by the laughter and not-so-quiet comments that most of the audience that evening also had recollections of the past.

Taking a broader look at the nearly full-house crowd when the lights came up after the show, I assessed that the bulk of us—how can I put this respectfully?—have been loving the theater for quite some time.

Let me stop here and note between a pandemic and a busy schedule, I’ve not attended the summer theater as often as I should have over the last few years, so what I’m about to say is purely anecdotal.

But when I have, the crowd is mostly comprised of folks who more than qualify as members of AARP.

Admittedly, I can count myself in that group and, if I’m not mistaken, I was one of the younger people in the audience.

Where are the youngsters?

What will happen when this crowd, in a term my husband likes to use, takes their dirt naps?

Who will support live, local theater?

At the end of the screening, Putch and several members of the cast took questions.

I wanted to ask what is being done in the industry to ensure live theaters like Totem Pole live on because, coming from the dying newspaper industry, it’s a real concern, But I didn’t want to sound morbid, so I kept quiet. But it’s a legit question.

When I was a kid, my parents took me to see Totem Pole’s production of “Dracula.” I fell in love with the theater and the dynamic lead actor, Carl Schurr. (To be honest, he was my first theater crush. A year or so later, during the summer between elementary and middle school, I found my true theater love, John Putch, but I digress.)

Anyway, from then on, I was hooked. My parents and grandparents had season tickets, so whenever I could, I tagged along.

As a parent, I took my daughter to shows and I hope to take my grandkids there some day to see their first live stage production.

But how long can the theater continue if its audience dies out?

Yes, we have Netflix and all the other things that bring entertainment to our homes and hands without leaving our sofas.

But live theater is different. No two shows are ever the same. You’re sitting right there with the actors only feet away. There is magic in that!

When my fiscally responsible husband and I talked about it on the way home, he mentioned the cost of theater tickets may intimidate some young adults from buying them.

I suggested many young adults we know don’t hesitate to head out to a brewery on a weekend and drop close to $100 on a meal and some brews, so I guess it’s all in priorities.

Which brings me back to what are we doing to help the younger generations appreciate and support live theater?

It’s the laugher we will remember

That brings me to my next thought: John Putch.

Here’s a guy who attended Fayetteville Elementary School and went on to national TV with roles in “All in the Family,” “One Day at a Time,” “The Love Boat,” “Newhart,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Seinfeld” and more, before becoming a director of multiple TV shows and films that you’d surely recognize. (He’s famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page, for heaven’s sake!)

But anyone who knows him or has quietly stalked him over the years (virtually … from afar, I swear!), can tell that his real passion is not fame, but filmmaking.

Here’s a guy who is currently working on the West Coast and has a respected career there, but returns to little old Franklin County to make movies now and then, and takes time away from his busy life to help the place where he got his start.

Friday night’s film screening was a fundraiser for Totem Pole.

Putch didn’t have to return to his roots. He has chosen, on multiple occasions over the years, to come here to entertain us, make us laugh and help our community.

Listening to him engage with the audience—and he knew the faces and names of many of the folks who were there—was heart-warming.

This isn’t some Hollywood dude who is here to get an “attaboy” from the peeps he left behind. This is a guy who appreciates where he came from and chooses to remain connected, pitching in where he can. How often does that happen these days?

Kudos to Putch for staying humble and honoring his roots! (And PS, if you’ve never seen his “Route 30” trilogy of films made right here in Franklin County, you may want to check them out.)

Which brings me back to the gem we have here—Totem Pole Playhouse—a summer stock theatre that has brought in some big stars over the years.

The theater is a 501(c)3 nonprofit outfit where, if I’m not mistaken, ticket sales cover probably only half of the operating costs to bring professional theater to our town.

They produce about a half-dozen productions each summer and the periodic “A Christmas Carol” show. It’s not cheap to bring quality actors and entertainment to town.

Over the years, Totem Pole shows have made us laugh, cry and sing our hearts out to familiar tunes in the musicals.

We aren’t New York or DC or some big metro area with lots of professional entertainment options, yet we have a professional theater in our midst. I would hope the community supports it.

The curtain is about to close on this summer season. But next year is an opportunity to get to know or revisit this gem. Put a note on your 2023 calendar to make a theater memory. Go yourself! Have a girls’ night or a date night! Take the kids or grandkids and introduce a new generation to the theater.

I’d hate to see it become just another memory of the past.

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