Bella Fontana

A weekly column about life in Bellefonte, PA, reprinted from the Centre Daily Times

Friday, August 12, 2005

Garman's future may mirror its bright past

News of a possible expansion of the Garman Opera House movie theater adds another facet to the architectural gem I first saw as a diamond in the rough during the summer of 1991.

Leigh Melander, a singer and actress from State College, had been given a grant from the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association to produce a one-woman show based on a fictional character's memories of performances at the Garman. I was part of a committee to look over the site.

The back wall of exposed brick was painted over in spots with an advertisement for a minstrel show. A 15-foot step ladder dominated the empty stage, lit only by a ghost light, the single light bulb that superstitious stage managers leave burning so the theater ghosts don't play around with the props. Unlike Schwab Auditorium on campus, which has three of them, I'd never heard of a ghost at the Garman.

I remember thinking the stage was perfect for site-specific theater, the newest thing off-Broadway. So why not in Bellefonte?

"Theatre of the Heart" would be performed in the actual abandoned theater where the original performances on which it was based had taken place.

From her entrance, wearing a filmy gown that looked as if it had been pulled from a costume trunk backstage, Leigh ran through a history of the opera house that would have made Daniel Garman proud.

Her character, referred to in the script as Spirit of Theatre, welcomed the audience with the words:

"Finally, you're here. ... I've sat in my beautiful, empty theater feeling myself decay along with it, with only old playbills and several generations of pigeons to keep me company, and I've been angry."

So there was a ghost of the Garman, after all.

Leigh's monologue referred to actors such as Frank Mayo, famous for playing Davy Crockett; the Lilliputian Comedy Company presided over by Gen. and Mrs. Tom Thumb; and local residents such as General Hastings, who presented a thrilling lecture, "Reminiscences of the Johnstown Flood."

Melodramas such as "Ten Nights in a Barroom" were popular, as well as historical dramas like "Shenandoah" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Musical numbers recalled the eclectic taste of Victorian-era audiences from the pathos of "An Hour Too Late" to the titillation of "You Naughty Naughty Men."

The words of Col. Jack Spangler, quoted from his opening night speech in the Democratic Watchman on Sept. 12, 1890, have a prophetic ring:

"Long after we are gone, this beautiful edifice will stand here, a source of pleasure to our posterity and a beautiful monument to its builder."