Dastardly Deeds…Damsels in Distress…Daring Defenders at The Old Havana Courthouse Theatre
Story and photos by James P. Hughes
On quiet summer evenings, spirited sounds emanate from the cozy theater on the second floor of the Montour Falls Village Hall. Boos! Hisses! Cheers! Applause! Piano music rings out, from emotionally intense to gently melodic, depending on the action unfolding on stage. These raucous sounds ring in another season of magnificent melodrama presented at the Old Havana Courthouse Theatre.
Since 2011, the Courthouse Theatre has presented four lively melodramas each summer, all family-friendly and filled with music, emoting actors, over-the-top plots and a generous dash of slapstick. There is little subtlety here. Shows have jaunty titles, indicating fun is ahead: Grievous Goings-on at the Glen Springs Sanitarium; D. K. Molar, the Devious Dentist; and “Have Gun – Will Murder,” She Wrote. Characters sport whimsical monikers like Mortimer Whiplash, Rollinia Rhubarb, Tobias Twillaby and Jezebel Filcher.
The theater is one of a very few of its kind in the Northeast. Its company promises “all the fun of 1901,” and guarantees that each show delivers. As with melodrama performances of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, audience interaction is prompted (and encouraged) with hand-printed signs and actors’ “asides,” spurring the audience to robustly applaud virtuous heroines, cheer courageous heroes, and boo vile villains.
The creative forces behind the Courthouse Theatre’s antics are Bill and Donna Christoffel, and about three dozen energetic folks from Montour Falls and nearby towns, who contribute their writing and acting skills to the popular productions.
The Christoffels met – and trained – at the esteemed Manhattan School of Music in New York City. Bill majored in voice, Donna focused on the piano. They married, settled in New Jersey and started a family. “I could sing, but couldn’t play a lick on the piano,” says Bill, with a chuckle. “So I married my piano player.”
Looking for a calmer family environment outside the clamor and congestion of metropolitan New York, Bill and Donna moved upstate in 1985, eventually settling in Montour Falls in 1992. Over the years, professionally and voluntarily, their careers have remained intertwined with their musical interests.
A Theater is Born
The Montour Falls Village Hall occupies the first level of a classic 1855 Greek-Revival structure, once used as the Schuyler County Courthouse. Bill visited in 2010, and was surprised to discover an upstairs auditorium sitting relatively unused. Over the years, the space had functioned as everything from a movie theater to a roller skating rink to excess storage. Bill called Donna, they gave it the once-over, and creative juices began to flow. The auditorium was already outfitted with a set of pews from a former church and had intriguing possibilities. Live theater, they wondered?
The Christoffels acquired a lease from the village, recruited a group of like-minded people with artistic flair – and the Old Havana Courthouse Theatre was born. Sound and light systems were added and a stage was prepared. A struggle ensued to get an 1895 upright piano (donated by village Mayor John King) hoisted to the second floor. Not wanting to compete with other local theater groups, the Christoffels searched for “something different.” A script was chosen, followed by auditions and rehearsals, and in 2011, the theater debuted its first melodrama, Run to the Roundhouse Nellie! (He Can’t Corner You There!).
The Vision Continues
As the theater company enters its seventh season, enthusiasm for the venture continues. “We’ve had some bumps and bruises along the way,” Bill says. “But they’re overridden by the fun we’ve all had in the process.” Members have come and gone over time, but the group remains a loyal family.
Much of the writing and directing has fallen to the talents of Jeff Hetzel and Joe Edkin, each a capable actor as well. Donna “tickles the ivories” of the antique piano, eliciting just the right emotions to match the onstage action. Bill designs sets, gathers props, and is often seen on Main Street prior to show time, waving at passersby while sporting a sandwich board touting the production. Chosen from the troupe, the cast changes from show to show, in addition to executing all other essential tasks: selling tickets, handing out programs, tending the snack bar, running the chair lift, etc.
When asked to reflect on his notable memories, there are many, Bill says. “Joe jumped off a desk in one show, wrenching his back in the process. He rallied and finished the performance in a wheelchair … all of it taken in stride by the audience.” On another occasion, an actress playing “Granny” got cold feet just before a performance and couldn’t go on. Panic ensued! Bill donned a fluffy wig at the last minute and played the role, trying to learn and keep up with his lines between scenes.
“In the end,” he says, “It’s all about fun … fun for the cast, fun for the family, and fun for the community. That’s what keeps us going.”
The Old Havana Courthouse Theatre (408 W. Main Street, Montour Falls) will present its four shows on summer weekends during the months of July and August.
For dates, times, and specific show information check the website: oldhavanatheatre.com