Archive for Wednesday, August 22, 2001

History to return to stage

Ballad of Black Jack is back

August 22, 2001

When the Maple Leaf Festival committee first asked local playwright Don Mueller to write a musical for the city's centennial year in 1970, he liked the idea.

With a $2,000 stipend from the committee, he set out to discover the history of the area. And as serendipity would have it, Baldwin City provided him with the perfect resource for the "Ballad of Black Jack," a two-hour musical.

"Baldwin City had a used bookshop for a few months back then, where the carpet place is today," said Mueller. "And I walked in one day and I picked up a book, which opened automatically probably because all the kids had read that part of the history book to the story of Branson and Dow."

Mueller has the book, Four Centuries of Kansas History (written in 1944) which he bought for 10 cents readily accessible on his end table in his living room.

"When I read this story, there was the plot of the show," Mueller said. "An innocent man arrested for murder, and of course I made the victim his friend, and the rescue from Sheriff Jones by the good guys from Palmyra. Interestingly, the book store was there just long enough for me to buy this book."

Mueller enjoyed the research, he said, but it was hard work.

"The account of the Battle of Black Jack came from the historical library," he said. "It's hand-written in pencil on ruled notebook paper tied together by a shoelace. But it was definitely an account of the battle by someone who was there."

The polka Mueller wrote for the musical is based on "Governor Robinson's Polka," written in 1855. Robinson was the first governor of Kansas the first free-state governor, that is.

"Half-way through that first year's rehearsal period I knew the musical would not be a one-year shot, as I originally assumed," Mueller said. "Because the show was taking shape so nicely, I was sure that it would go on."

As Mueller developed the concept for the play and composed the music, he hoped to inform people and interest them in history, as well as to entertain people.

"The songs came very easily," he said. "However, the song 'Kansas' was not a part of the original score. I had envisioned a big, epic opening with hundreds of travelers coming in with their wagons. It was one of the first things I changed in the process of my refining the show."

Mueller was pleased with the quality of local talent available for casting the show that first year. He was Playwright in Residence at Baker University at the time and had created the Baker pLaymen, an acting group. Several of these young Baker students performed in major roles.

"I was delighted with Al Johnson, who played Branson. He has just a beautiful singing voice, very sweet tenor voice, not the Irish or vibrato tenor. He was the first and last Branson in my show," he said.

The last performance of the Ballad was performed in Liberty Hall in Lawrence in the mid-1980s.

"But only on the proviso that Jay Branson was allowed to sing 'Quiet Place,' which was his favorite number," said Mueller. "So I had to rewrite it so Branson could sing it. I was glad to do it; a small price to pay for a really good leading man."

Mueller expected to keep on refining the play year after year. As he saw the show performed each year, he would say to himself, "Oh, next year I'll do this a little differently and a little better." And the people who volunteered their services every year also expected the play to keep running and get better.

"Ron Chinn, the lights man, was there from the start," Mueller said. "The second year R.J. Stephenson joined him. But these two were so into it they would plan the lighting for the whole year and when the show was going on they would be talking on Walkie-Talkies about what they wanted to do the following year."

There were lots of other people, too, who helped out.

"Pretty much Phyllis Braun and myself were the two who knocked ourselves out each year, plus the two lighting people, and we had a script girl from year to year," said Mueller. "Carolee Vincent, the director and choreographer of this year's revival of the 'Ballad,' didn't come along as choreographer until half way along in the run. I'm delighted that Carolee is directing, because she was in the 'Ballad' for a number of years. She knows what the show ought to be. She knows what people come expecting."

The first show was done with two pianos, with Alice Ann Callahan-Russell on the second piano.

"And somewhere along the line, Harold Bundy began playing string bass," said Mueller, "and now Hal Bundy, his son, will be playing this fall."

In fact, the revival has been spurred on by people who saw the show many years ago as youngsters, as well as Ruth Payne, the mother of one of the early actors. Payne is the secretary of the board of the Ballad of Black Jack, LLC. The purpose of the organization is not only to put on the "Ballad" again, but to spark interest in local history. The non-profit organization hopes to raise enough money this year to fund next year's performance.

Surplus revenues will be given to Baker University's theater department, so it's no surprise to find out that not only is the musical set to appear on the stage of Rice Auditorium, where it was originally performed 30 years ago, but that Baker faculty members are involved: Richard Bayha, chairman of the communications and theater arts department, is a member of the Ballad board. And Mark Kirk, associate professor of theater, is overseeing the building of sets and the stage extensions and is offering advice on obtaining the all-important firearms of the period.

When Mueller was contacted last year about reviving the "Ballad" for this year, he knew he wouldn't have the energy to do all the things he'd done 30 years ago. He not only wrote the score, directed, and produced, he painted sets.

"Phyllis Braun and I shopped for all the costumes material together," he said, "so we had a color scheme we adhered to. She sewed most of the costumes in the show; some performers did sew their own. But Phyllis supervised the whole thing. I did lots of the publicity then, with the help of Jane Richards, and somewhere along the line Loreen Litteer very quietly began doing publicizing on his own."

It's as true now as it was in 1970 that the community has to be involved in resurrecting the "Ballad." Back then, Mayor Virgil Reeves played the mayor and Scott Morgan played John Brown. Morgan used to practice his lines while delivering the mail on his rural route.

The cast won't be determined until late in August, but people are hard at work right now. Rosemary Murphy is designing the artwork for Ballad posters and other advertising material. Linda Ballinger is in charge of costumes. Mary Swan, who had a part in the original performances, and Sarah Wilson are on the volunteer committee. Sharole Prahl, president of the Maple Leaf Committee, is on the public relations committee.

But more help is needed. After the sets are built, they need to be stored in someone's garage, shed or barn. People will be needed to help paint the sets, put the sets together after they're moved from storage to the stage in October, provide guns, help with the lighting and lots of other small and large details. Anyone interested in volunteering in any way should call 594-2378.

Auditions will be held in Baldwin at the library at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Parts to be filled include Kansas free-staters: the legendary John Brown and his two sons, Governor Robinson (first free-state governor of Kansas), Capt. James Lane, and other male fighters. There are also eight prominent male settlers, including the famous Branson and Dow, and two boys, ages 8-13, Oliver and Ephraim.

Of course there are women, too: Lucy, Melinda, and Laura, ages 18-30, and their mothers and other adult females. There are the pro-slavers, too: mean ol' Sheriff Jones, incompetent Deputy Marshall Fain, murderin' Mr. Coleman, Governor Shannon (the first governor of Kansas Territory). And don't forget the cavalry: Colonel Sumner from Ft. Leavenworth!

And backing up all these speaking parts are the settlers, men and women who came to Kansas to make it a free state, and when they aren't doing that on stage, they're dancing and singing. Adults chosen for the musical will later be invited to include their children in the chorus, but no children besides the two speaking parts will be cast at the audition. Rehearsals will be held in the evenings beginning Sept. 1.

Each year, beginning in 1970, about 2,000 people saw the Ballad performed in Baldwin during the Maple Leaf Festival. It will be a little less this year because the seating in Rice Auditorium has been reduced. But that won't diminish the excitement about having the musical back in town for one weekend in October.

Known as a religious playwright, Mueller has about 20 plays that have been published.

"Baker's Plays, a publisher of plays and musicals, asked me to write my own version of the Wizard of Oz, which I did, and composed a score for it," said Mueller. "It's been successful. It can't rival the music of the movie version, but the movie version has a rotten script for local theaters to do. My Wizard of Oz has been performed in South Africa. Baker's Plays has a catalog that goes around the world. One of my plays has been performed in Kuala Lampur, and another of my Christmas plays has been translated into German and done in The Netherlands."

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