LEWISTOWN - For Thiry and Paul Olbrich, theatre has been nearly a life-long passion. They met on-stage in college and were involved in a community theatre in East Orange, N.J., where they lived before moving to Mifflin County in 1964. Paul had taken a job with Fisher Electronics, and so they became Lewistown residents. They were pleased with the area and the friendly people they encountered, but one thing was missing.
"There was no live theatre," Thiry said. "People didn't know what live theatre was except what the schools put on."
For a while, they were content with dancing.
Sentinel photos by Bradley Kreitzer
Guests are seated before the start of the comedy-mystery ‘The Psychic’ the last show of the season at the Theatre-in-the-Park Sunday afternoon in Derry Township Park.
"Now, everybody walks for causes," Paul said. "Back then, they were dances."
At a heart fund dance, Paul and Thiry met up with Charlie and Barb Hackenberry. The conversation turned to live theatre, and unbeknownst to its participants, was overheard by Vivian Conrad. Conrad mentioned the idea to someone else, and eventually, Kirby Bowen, a beautician destined to open Kirby's Restaurant, contacted the Olbrichs about getting a theatre started. Bowen, Charlie Hackenberry and the Olbrichs talked about it and decided to form a group. They talked a lot about putting on a show, until finally Hackenberry pointed out that they needed to stop talking about it and actually do it. He volunteered to direct, and in June 1967, they put on "The Mouse that Roared" at Chief Logan High School, under the name "Mask and Wig Community Theatre."
"But that was the name of a group at Princeton, so we had to come up with something of our own," Thiry said. They took stock of their surroundings, and the "Stone Arch Players" were born. They had no idea at the time that they had begun nearly a half century long venture.
For several years, SAP alternated performances between Chief Logan and Kish high schools. They rehearsed at the YMCA, which at the time was located where the parking lot behind BonTon is now. Paul said they did one show per year, with two performances in one weekend. With no space to call their own, Paul added, the group had its possessions all over town.
"We had costumes in people's attics," Thiry said. They stored props, pieces of sets and other items in two empty one-room schoolhouses.
Until 1976, that is, when The Sentinel moved from its location on the Five Points to its current home in Pleasant Acres. At that point, SAP was given permission to use the former press room as their headquarters.
After some modifications and a thorough cleaning, the Press Room Theatre was completed with risers built by vo-tech students and borrowed folding chairs from various local organizations. Then, a stroke of luck led them to the discovery of some old theatre seats in Ann Fisher's barn, in Milroy.
"She wanted to sell them to us, but we didn't have that much money," Paul said, "so, she just gave them to us."
The group cleaned the seats up and put them on the risers in the Press Room Theatre, but after a few years in the theatre, where there was no air conditioning, the color started to come off the seats and onto people's clothing when they would sweat during performances. The manager at Marlette Homes, remembered fondly as "Guy," donated bolts of material to SAP and a local upholsterer recovered the seats for just $1 per seat.
In 1982, the players moved from the Press Room Theatre to their current location in Derry Park.
"We were fine where we were, but The Sentinel had no use for (the building) anymore. They offered to donate it to us," Thiry said, but the young organization didn't have the means to make necessary repairs to the building, and it ended up being donated to the Salvation Army instead.
The Theatre-in-the-Park needed some improvements, such as new wiring, but the theatre became a fixture in Mifflin County live entertainment and the members of SAP became masters of disaster avoidance. Every time the water rises over the banks of Kish Creek, volunteers can be found moving costumes and props to higher ground - namely, to the risers originally built for the Press Room Theatre, which are still in use at Theatre-in-the-Park.
They were blessed with another stroke of good fortune in September 2011. The water rose in the park-though ultimately, not to a level detrimental to the theatre-just as the theatre's seats and carpets were being replaced.
"We had the old seats out, but hadn't put the new seats in yet," Paul said. As it was, none of the seats got wet, old or new.
In addition to the new seats, they've also replaced the ticket booth and put new flooring in the lobby of the theatre within the past five years.
"It's pretty amazing," Paul said. "That first show, we had zero money. We ended up owing people money."
But they kept working, and the theatre kept going and going, Thiry added.
"We've gone from risers and folding chairs to new seats, carpet and air conditioning," she said.
In celebration of the Stone Arch Players' 45th anniversary, the group will hold its annual meeting and picnic June 14 at Derry Township Park. It is open to all members and former members of the group.
Collette Hartzler, of Belleville, has been a member of SAP for 12 years and has a part to play in the annual meeting in observance of the anniversary.
"I put together a slideshow of SAP over the years and put it to music. I'm also going to have them roll through while we're eating," she said.
Hartzler moved to the area in 2000 and went to a show that September, just to check it out.
"After the show I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I just love this little place," Hartzler said. She auditioned for 'Cliffhanger' soon after and was selected for a small part. She's been involved ever since.
"One of the things I love about the theatre is that you have these strangers. You start to work together, and this camaraderie begins to develop and you're working toward the same goal," she said.
The Stone Arch Players are always looking for new volunteers. Putting on a play requires so much more than just actors; there are many roles to be filled both on-stage and behind the scenes, in the community or in the ticket booth. Anyone interested in playing a part in the theatre's future should visit the theatre's website at www.stonearchplayers.com.