How New Richmond High School Alumni from the 1960s Came Together to Change Their Village

New Richmond, Ohio's

Fifty-year class reunions are always monumental. You meet up, see people you may not have seen in a very long time, and talk about what you’ve done with your life and education. You reflect upon the past.

Unless you’re New Richmond High School Class of 1962. Sure, your days attending the Market Street School (de-commissioned as a school in 1974 and renovated in the ’90s for use as the district’s administrative offices) are long past. Sometimes you find those classmates of long ago less interested in talking about the “good old days’ than they are in asking you to put together a meeting of people who want to talk about your community’s future.

That’s just how RiverStage Community Theatre of New Richmond began in 2013.

“I was happy to put together a group (at Bob Baker’s request),” said Linda Shuck (Class of ’64), who organized the original meeting, “but had absolutely no intention of joining a theater group, of all things!”

The classmates had lost contact with each other until that 50-year reunion. Baker (’62) had moved to the South in the mid-70s, settling in Huntsville, Alabama, where he had begun writing plays and had been managing a theater since 1998. Shuck was working as part of Historic New Richmond. Pat (Mattingly) Norman (’62), David Vornholt (’62) and Susan Gerding (’62), among others, were still in the area and involved in the local community’s push toward village renewal.

It had been half a century since their Junior/Senior Class play “Meet Me in St. Louis” had listed Baker among its cast. By 2013, not only had the reunion come to pass, but Facebook had become a viable way to get in touch. Norman and her husband traveled South to see Baker, who had missed out on attending the reunion.

“We just discussed theater in passing,” Norman said. “(Bob [Baker] said it was a dream, and I said he should do it.”

During the River Days festival in the summer of 2013, a meeting was held specifically to discuss starting a community theater. A collection was taken up to begin the venture, with 35 to 40 people in attendance.

By the time the third meeting was conducted at Front Street’s Peacock Pastry, a smaller, dedicated group was ready to select officers. Additional classmates joined in; Bernadine (Simmons) Taylor (’64), Donna Hammons (’64), Bob Lees (’70), Ruth (Saylor) Boys (’64). Baker, already designated as founder, went on to become artistic director.

That was August. In December the newly-christened RiverStage was ready to put on a show.

They brought the Baker-penned “Standing by Tammy Wynette” up from Alabama with staging and cast in-tact, and produced it in New Richmond, at the Market Street School Auditorium, their alma mater and an historic building constructed 1914-1915.

As RiverStage’s decided-upon venue, it proved an emotional touchstone for all. Baker recalls that the last time he had been inside the Auditorium was at his high school graduation.

“When I first approached those at the meeting to discuss starting a theater there, I was close to tears during my entire presentation.”

Response to that first show was tremendous. So much so Shuck still feels they were “spoiled by (that) show.” And as a group they were also energized by the experience.

It had begun to feel more and more like community theater could make a successful and permanent home in the village of New Richmond.

Several members had vowed never to perform on-stage, but both Shuck and Gerding found themselves cast in Steel Magnolias, with Gerding even going on to join the cast of last December’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Though Shuck declares she was scared to take the role of Clariee in “Steel Magnolias,” she had “a great time learning about theater from the inside.”

To date, RiverStage is able to claim more than 1,000 in attendance of all their events (teas and receptions as well as shows) combined. The organization’s present board of directors numbers five New Richmond High School alumni, and Tom Dean, their production manager with an education in theater from Miami University and experience in regional productions locally and in other parts of the country. Dean is not native to New Richmond, but has found a creative home with RiverStage.

The organization will soon begin its first membership drive. Until now it has been able to rely on a core of volunteers, many of them not yet retired, but all motivated to go above and beyond in order to see RiverStage flourish in their hometown.

RiverStage officer and local business owner Lees mentions that, historically, “New Richmond has a long and rich tradition of excellence in music and theatrical arts. We now have a vehicle to deliver quality performance right here in our historic village for locals and visitors alike to enjoy.”

As for a possible future for the group, Baker’s visions, “are for us to rebuild the old Opera House...to have a home for both the performing and visual arts, and a destination stop for visitors to the most charming river town ever!”

To some degree the immediate future of RiverStage is decided; there will be a children’s production in June, dinner theater in August (also at the Market Street School venue), and in December, the fan-favorite “Sanders Family Christmas” will be their first musical.

As for now, they are in rehearsals for April’s “The Odd Couple,” which will run at 7 p.m. April 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, and in a 2 p.m. matinee April 10 (tickets available through showclix.com). You can follow RiverStage on Twitter @RiverStageNR.

– by Alicia Gibson