Curtain Call

September/October 1997

Reading time min

Curtain Call

Photo: Vyto Starinskas

Last spring, for the first time in 20 years, spotlights brought the stage of the venerable Vergennes Opera House in upstate Vermont to life. For Gary Simpson, who led the campaign to reopen the long-abandoned theater, it was a moment to cherish. Those lights also stirred a personal memory. One of early television's famous bits featured comedian Jimmy Durante crossing a darkened stage from one spotlight to another. That signature exit was Simpson's idea.

Simpson, who joined NBC shortly after graduating from Stanford in 1938, produced the Jimmy Durante Show, the Armstrong Circle Theater and the Danny Thomas Show during television's early years.In 1959, he moved to Vermont with his wife, Broadway actress Kathleen McLain, to launch Vermont ETV, the state educational channel.

Simpson's campaign to save the Vergennes Opera House and reopen it in time for its 100th birthday may have been his finest production yet. The theater represents an era when Vergennes--a hardscrabble city of 1,200 located on the shores of Lake Champlain, 200 miles northwest of Boston--was the cultural center of the region. In the 19th century, opera, plays and vaudeville shows were produced there, followed by silent movies, big-screen films and the occasional amateur show.

In 1979, Simpson retired and moved to neighboring Ferrisburgh, hoping to start an amateur theater company in the old opera house. However, he found the theater's rich velvet curtains and historic sets gone and the building in shambles. Enchanted by the place, Simpson spent years circulating petitions and addressing civic groups, seeking support for the theater's refurbishment.

The city finally approved a fund-raising effort in 1993 and the cadre of supporters Simpson had recruited formed the Friends of the Vergennes Opera House. Since then, $300,000 has been raised and dozens of area residents have volunteered time and skills. The building is now structurally sound, equipped with new electrical wiring and plumbing, replastered and painted.

On Memorial Day, the first performance in 25 years featured Vermont singer/songwriter Jon Gailmour. There was also birthday cake for the hundreds who toured the building. The following Saturday, a black-tie dance appropriately entitled "The Extravaganza of the Century" was held, with Simpson as guest of honor.

Simpson--unlike his comedian friend Durante--tries to sidestep the spotlight. "Don't make it look like it's been a one-man show," he says. "It's been a community effort."

But Gerrianne Smart, president of the Friends of the Vergennes Opera House, counters, "He's the soul man, the man with the vision, the reason we're here today."

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.