The Barnstable High School Drama Club History
The Barnstable High School Drama Club began as the idea of one student who thought there should be a theatrical production at Barnstable High School when it moved to its new home on West Main Street in Hyannis in 1957.
On September 5 of that year, when Barnstable students first walked into the new Barnstable High School, they saw, in addition to the sleek, modern design and spacious classrooms, the Melvin C Knight Auditorium, named for Melvin C Knight, who for decades served Barnstable as both its high school principal and superintendent of schools.
The Knight Auditorium, designed by the architects Alger and Gunn, was a state-of-the-art facility that included a fly-bar system, large backstage space and the steepest incline for seating allowed by law, ensuring excellent sight lines. Its 700 seats just happened to correspond exactly with the number of teachers and students then attending Barnstable High.
The student whose idea sparked the creation of the Drama Club was Osterville junior Joyce Elinor Arlington. Joyce and a few of her friends first asked music teacher Sy Gessin, music how to go about starting a club. When Gessin suggested they get a director, the students naturally asked Elliot McSwan, an English teacher and track coach who had directed the senior class play in the high school’s former location on High School Road. to be the club’s first advisor.
McSwan agreed and he and the club embarked on a very ambitious first year. In addition to competing in the New England Drama Festival, the club also produced the senior class play, Tiger House, a comedy-mystery by Robert St. Clair and staged three other short plays. McSwan remained as the Drama Club’s advisor for the next three years.
In 1961 BHS teacher Charles “Charlie” Howes began a five-year tenure as advisor. Under his direction, the club produced one or two plays a year and changed its name to the Drama Society.
In 1966 the Drama Society name was rechristened as The Masquers when former Fitchburg High School teacher Jim Ruberti arrived in Barnstable. Ruberti was not your ordinary drama coach: he also served as yearbook advisor and assistant football coach.
Ruberti began by producing and directing one non-musical and one musical each year. Ruberti’s first musical, West Side Story, proved so successful that he brought it back as a summer attraction and again was very successful.
The addition of a musical meant that Ruberti had to add to the drama club staff a musical director and a choral director, John Hagan, who directed the Marching Band, and his wife Darlene.
For the next 16 years Ruberti ran a successful and innovative drama club, scoring several key “firsts’ among his accomplishments. He allowed students to write their own original musical — Man At the Top — and added music to an already existing play — The Mouse that Roared. Ruberti also began what has become a staple of the club, the large-cast musical. Ruberti brought such classics as Kiss Me Kate, Oliver!, South Pacific, Oklahoma, The Music Man and The Sound of Music to the Knight stage. Ruberti also began to include Shakespeare productions as part of the club’s repertoire.
Ruberti would acquire further help when the position of assistant drama club coach was established and filled by English teacher Ellen Snow in 1977. Little did Ruberti know how the addition of that position would forever change the Barnstable High School Drama Club.
When Snow returned to academia to earn her Masters degree in 1978, a young art teacher who had been hired for a six-month appointment in January of 1977 was offered the position. John Sullivan took the job, and not only his six-month appointment, but his affiliation with the drama club, have continued to this day. Who could have foreseen that the six-month appointment would have turned into a 30-plus year commitment, during which Sullivan has taught everything from Ceramics, Fine Arts, and Sculpture to Drama, Arts and Crafts and Drawing and Illustration, to such recent additions as Stagecraft and Animation and Cartooning. But that was all in the future.
Back then, the assistant’s job description was simple: run the club meetings and direct a short production for the Massachusetts High School Drama Festival. For two years Sullivan fulfilled these duties but soon he began to expand his role. In 1978 he proposed doing a fundraiser with a Halloween theme. Thus was the now legendary Haunted House created. Under Sullivan’s direction it has become so popular that it continues to be the Drama Club’s major fundraiser to this day.
After 16 years of service, Jim Ruberti decided to step away from his Drama Coach job in 1978, though he remained busy at Barnstable as both a Dean of Students and an English teacher. Ruberti stayed at Barnstable another 14 years before retiring.
In the fall of 1979 Sullivan was appointed Drama Coach, with his fellow art teacher Carl Lopes , appointed his assistant. The leadership of the Drama Club passed from the English to the Art Department.
The first year under Sullivan set in motion the shape of things to come. His first production, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, was small, but his second was a spectacular unlike anything seen before on the Barnstable High School stage: J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
The Hobbit was big in every way. Sullivan and Lopes created large complicated sets and props to tell the story of Bilbo Baggins’ epic quest. The cast swelled to 125, the largest ever to be on the Knight Auditorium stage. Vince Puleo, ceramics and sculpture teacher, was enlisted to help create Smaug the Dragon, a 14-foot high talking puppet with a 30-foot wingspan. The Hobbit also included spectacular pyrotechnical explosions, elaborate costumes and stirring music written, arranged and conducted by English teacher Don Nardo. Every performance of The Hobbit sold out and set in standard for the type of show the Drama Club would always put on under Sullivan’s direction.
A series of lavishly produced musicals continued for the next 10 years; Fiddler on the Roof, The Wizard of OZ, Babes in Toyland, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Oliver! All got the Sullivan treatment. He even outdid The Hobbit by staging an elaborate version of Tolkien’s entire Lord of the Rings saga. Things happened fast and furiously. Puleo eventually replaced Lopes as assistant coach. Sullivan added flying, dry ice machines and snow machines to his bag of tricks in A Christmas Carol in 1981. He also added performances, boosting the production schedule from one weekend of 4 performances to 2 weekends of 6, adding matinees as well.
The energy kept flowing. In 1985 Sullivan started the Barnstable Summer Family Theater with the simple goal of providing a way for his high school actors and their families to experience theater together. Like its “big brother,” the BSFT produced large musical and non-musical productions specifically designed to entertain family audiences. The Summer Family won numerous community theatre awards and continues to this day, producing two or three productions a summer.
Change was in the air, however, as Sullivan took a leave of absence in1990 to study animation at Cal Arts and Peter Crosby, who had been a Drama Club star during his years at BHS and was Sullivan’s musical director, took over the reins. Another former club member, Scott Glista (BHS Class of ’76), who had previously taken Vince Puleo’s place, continued as Assistant Drama Coach.
Crosby more than held the fort for Sullivan as he continued the tradition of large-scale musicals with his productions of A Christmas Carol and Godspell.
When Sullivan returned, he returned with a bang, this time restaging old favorite The Hobbit as an original musical (written by former club members). The large cast and ornate sets were nothing new, but Sullivan had another surprise up his sleeve: this time Smaug actually walked out onto the stage and shot fire from his nostrils! Things seemed back to normal again, or at least as normal as the BHS Drama Club got.
However, when Sullivan got a call from Hollywood asking him to work on an animated film, The Pagemaster, he couldn’t resist, and he once more left the club in Crosby’s capable hands. Crosby stepped in and didn’t miss a beat, staging typically high-quality productions of Annie and Pippin.
Sullivan returned for good in the summer of 1995, first announcing that the Haunted House would return, and then staging Revenge of the Space Pandas by David Mamet and the Tony Award winner On The Twentieth Century. He recruited local music instructor Joe DeRose as Musical Director and BHS English teacher Jeff Billard as Assistant Drama Coach.
Soon the Drama Club would face an enormous challenge, one that some thought might close it down for several years. The club’s home for nearly 20 years, the Knight Auditorium, was closed to the club. The renovation of Barnstable High School meant that the Knight stage had to be used as a music classroom. Homeless, the Drama Club seemed out of luck and options.
Sullivan, however, like a force of nature, could not be stopped in his desire to keep the club alive. A call from the Cape Cod Mall’s Leo Fein in the spring of 1996 provided the spark Sullivan needed. Fein hoped to create some kind of an exhibit in the empty space that once had housed Woolworth’s. With the Summer Family Theater out on the street, Sullivan was looking for something to keep the Drama Club students busy in the summer. Real Dinosaurs and Seamonsters was the result. The attraction proved so popular that it was followed in successive summers by Giants of the Deep, Dinosaurs Alive and Kingdom of the Dinosaurs. Drama Club students designed, built and staffed the exhibits, which featured life-sized giant creatures of all types. In exchange, the club ran the Haunted House in that space. In its second year “in residence” at the mall, the club also built a stage in that space and performed A Christmas Carol there.
The irrepressible Sullivan had also turned to Our Lady of Victory Church in Centerville for shelter from the storm. Back in 1985 he had been asked to direct the Victory Players’ production of The Sound of Music in the OLV church hall. Sullivan wound up directing four shows there. In the winter of 1995 Sullivan called the Victory players, hoping to find a space to do a musical. As it turned out, they wanted to do a show themselves, but couldn’t find a director. Sullivan saw a chance to help both his club and theirs. He offered to direct with the condition that the show have two casts, a Victory Players cast and a BHS Drama Club cast. The deal was struck and for the next two years the Drama Club produced The Music Man and Bye Bye, Birdie in the OLV hall in collaboration with the Victory Players.
School construction was almost finished in the fall of 1998, but since the mall was undergoing construction of its own, the Drama Club was forced to move again, as the Performing Arts Center would not be completed until February. That year the club was entirely nomadic. They were able to put one more Haunted House at the mall, but their fall musical, Sullivan and Gilbert, and As You Like It, their first Shakespeare play in over 20 years, were staged at the Tynan Auditorium in Marstons Mills Elementary.
With spring around the corner, the club at last was able to move into its new home, the Barnstable High School Performing Arts Center, the largest high school auditorium in New England, where, appropriately enough, it would stage its largest production ever, The Wizard of Oz. Over 350 cast members inaugurated the PAC stage, ranging from second-graders to faculty members to administrators, all of whom were eager to lend a hand in what proved to be one of the club’s best received productions ever.
The new and larger stage meant that the Drama Club could produce even larger and more elaborate productions: Peter Pan, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Seussical and The Pirates of Penzance, among others, have all been given the grand treatment on the new stage,
That year, Jeff Billard stepped down as Assistant Drama Coach and Ed O’Toole took the position. O’Toole, also a member of the English Department, taught Shakespeare class, English 1 and Yearbook. When Sullivan approached O’Toole about mounting a Shakespeare production every year, and O’Toole happily agreed to do so. Since 1999, O’Toole has directed a Shakespeare play as part of the Drama Club’s already busy schedule. The Summer Family Theater has even caught the Shakespeare bug and is now heading into its third summer of staging Shakespeare as the centerpiece of the Town’s Harbor Your Arts program at Aselton Park. The BSFT also has continued its usual summer schedule in the Knight Hall, renamed after it was redesigned and reduced in size from 700 seats to a cozier 340.
Fifty years after its inception, the BHS Drama Club as run by Sullivan and O’Toole is seemingly never off. Throughout October the annual Haunted House holds sway in the PAC; the fall musical moves in throughout November; and club members sing carols in the Enchanted Village at the Cape Codder Motel in December. January means it’s time for the annual Talent Show; Shakespeare arrives in February; the spring musical is the focus in March and April; and the Summer Family Theater (after auditions in May) takes over for July and August.
The Drama Club has come a long way from two performances of a spring show to a year-round schedule and upwards of an unprecedented 50 nights (and afternoons) of entertainment.
The club’s expertise and talent have long been in demand by other organizations, a tradition that began years ago and continues to this day. Sullivan and his students have donated their time and skills to raise money for such organizations as Big Brother and Sisters of Cape and the Islands, The March of Dimes and Housing Assistance. They have always been of great service to the Town of Barnstable as well, from helping to stage events such as First Night and Disney Days to creating the backdrops used as part of the Town’s winning presentation at the All-American Cities competition.
For setting all this in motion, thank you, Joyce Arlington, wherever you are!
KATHLEEN SZMIT PHOTO-THE SWEET SMELL OF RECOGNITION – Joyce Arlington poses amidst 50 red roses and a commemorative plaque honoring her for starting the Barnstable High School Drama Club in 1958. Arlington was recognized following intermission of the opening night performance of The Wizard of Oz.
Written by Kathleen Szmit
Joyce Arlington’s idea a major force 50 years later
When Joyce Arlington sparked the idea to create a drama club at Barnstable High School in 1958, she had no clue that it would become the revered organization it is today.
On last week’s opening night of The Wizard of Oz, the BHS Drama Club’s spring production, Arlington was recognized in a special mid-show ceremony.
Following intermission, Shakespeare teacher Ed O’Toole called Arlington onstage where each of the five main characters of the play, including Toto, presented her a bouquet of 10 red roses, one for each year of the club’s existence.
O’Toole offered praise to Arlington for her contribution to the school, noting the thousands of students who have benefited from participating in the club through the years.
Arlington, who has attended club shows through the years, wasn’t expecting the attention.
“It was a total, total surprise,” she said, noting that it was research conducted by O’Toole and others that revealed her role as founder of the original club.
“It was 1958 and we had moved from High School Road to West Main, our first year in the new big school,” Arlington said in a phone interview this week. “I was a junior. I had come to Barnstable from off-Cape, so I was at the old school a year and the new school a year.”
Because Arlington was not drawn to sports or the clubs that existed at the time, she longed for an activity that would fit her needs while possibly appealing to other students as well.
“I think there were a couple of things that inspired me to start the club,” she said. “I had this dream that maybe I could be an actress, and I wanted to belong. I wanted to do something that I could be a part of.”
Arlington went to Principal Briah K. Connor about the idea of starting a drama club.
“He said, ‘Go find yourself an advisor’ and he’d support it,” said Arlington.
The club’s first advisor was Elliot McSwan, a BHS teacher who acted in amateur theatrical shows at the Cape Cod Melody Tent in summers.
“I felt that Mr. McSwan would be a good advisor because he had that interest,” Arlington said.
Unfortunately, Arlington learned during auditions for the club’s first show that her acting skills were, ahem, not up to snuff.
“My own acting career kind of fizzled,” she said. “I had my first tryout and I was so nervous I couldn’t speak the words. But I am a born organizer. I love to start things and bring people together. I have a knack for seeing the big picture. I definitely was behind the scenes.”
Although Arlington’s acting career never took off, life offstage has been busy for the Dennisport resident. Following graduation, she attended college and ultimately earned her masters in nursing, working since 1973 as a nurse practitioner, first through New England Baptist Hospital, and now at Preventative Medical Associates in Yarmouth.
An avid traveler, Arlington has visited Europe, been a self-proclaimed ski-bum in Colorado, and with friends even chaperoned the first US Olympic luge team.
Arlington returned to Cape Cod in 1994 during what she quietly called a “dark period” of divorce and illness.
“I came to visit my aunt,” she said. “I came for a weekend and never left.”
Upon returning to the Cape, Arlington reconnected with classmates from the BHS class of ‘59.
“We’re all very tight,” she said. “We’re a very close class.”
Back in her high school days, Arlington became secretary of the drama club, which in 1958 and 1959 had one production a year, then known as the Senior Show.
It was only recently that Arlington realized how big her little idea had grown.
“I have to admit that I was in total shock,” she said. “I had heard people talk about the Drama Club, but I never realized it was as big as it was. I’ve known that it’s been involved, but I had no idea how involved.”
Arlington was impressed to learn that shows occur year-round, with two major productions a year, a Shakespeare play, and Shakespeare and family theatre in the summer.
“We had 20 kids in 1959,” she said, marveling at the 300-plus cast of The Wizard of Oz.
What impressed Arlington in the 1950’s was that, although the club was small, students from all classes tried out for shows.
“What was evident in our first production was that we got kids from all the classes to try out, not just one class,” she said. “That was a little taste of what was to come.”
Arlington credits Drama Club head John Sullivan for helping the program to flourish.
“It started to develop under [Jim Ruberti] and John really started flying with it. He brought his artistic talent to it,” she said. “He brings a lot of connections to the Drama Club and reaches so many people.”
Arlington also offered kudos to O’Toole for his involvement with the Shakespeare productions.
“They are the proof of the importance of teachers and how important it is that they care about kids,” she said.
On opening night Sullivan took Arlington to the “old auditorium” (Knight Hall) and caught her up on the club’s history. Arlington also talked with technical director Steve Bearse and costume designer Karen Mannal.
Arlington enjoyed meeting the folks that came up to her following the show to thank her for creating the club.
“I just realized the extent to which the Drama Club has reached people,” she said. “I’m still absorbing the whole thing, by the way.
“The club just makes me happy because kids are our biggest resource. Children: raising them, caring for them and their education is most important. I see what kids get in trouble with out in the world and I wish there were more places for kids to go. This is meeting a real need. I know how it touches lives and how important it is.”
So what did the founder of the Drama Club think of its 50th anniversary production?
“It was fabulous,” she said. “I loved how Broadway it was. It’s amazing to me!”
Although Arlington doesn’t generally make a big deal about the drama club being her brainchild, she deeply appreciated the recognition.
“I’m thrilled and I have to say a little proud,” she said. “And amazed that they would give me that recognition. It was a sweet, sweet joy.”