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North Carroll: Manchester fire company has put on annual plays for a century, except during world wars — and coronavirus

Members of the Manchester Volunteer Fire Department have put on an annual play for over a century. Sitting in front of the stage at a rehearsal is Kelly Rhoten, and on stage, from left, is Kathy Rhodes, Steve Miller, Steve Hossler, Gary Eppley and Sandy Black.
Members of the Manchester Volunteer Fire Department have put on an annual play for over a century. Sitting in front of the stage at a rehearsal is Kelly Rhoten, and on stage, from left, is Kathy Rhodes, Steve Miller, Steve Hossler, Gary Eppley and Sandy Black. (Courtesy photo)

We have a lot of traditions in the North Carroll area. Many have been in existence for so long that it’s hard for even our oldest community members to say exactly when they first began. As we sit at home today, learning and working from our living rooms, interacting almost instantly with a global world but unable to physically get together with our friends and neighbors due to the present coronavirus concerns, that link to the past becomes even more interesting.

Imagining how things were in our community before computers, endless 24/7 cable news coverage or even cars never fails to make me appreciate the sense of community found in our area. 

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I thought it might be fun to share the history behind some of the places and events we might take for granted in today’s North Carroll. One of those events is the annual theater production on the Manchester Volunteer Fire Department’s stage. The stage is in the tall, older building attached to the firehouse on Main Street. 

Traveling up the stairs, you can imagine stepping back to a simpler time — a time when you couldn’t just turn on the TV or catch $5 Tuesdays each week at the local movies to be entertained.

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Area residents have been gathering to put on a play in this building each spring for longer than any of the people I’ve talked to can remember. We know that the performances in Manchester have been happening for at least a hundred years now. Volunteer Elwin Wagner writes in an email, “This has been a long standing event for the fire dept dating back to as far as the 1920′s. There are several actors who have been doing this for many years, a few over 30 years. I personally remember coming to the play when I was a kid. I would go to all the performances and would come early in order to get a front row seat.”

The plays were discontinued for a few years during wartime — once during the first World War and again during World War II. It must have seemed like a momentous change for children of those eras, just as the current cancellations of events do for youngsters today. One thing that remained constant, though, was that life would return to normal and the play would continue as soon as each threat was over.

It will this time, too.

This year’s production of Lunatics at Large has been halted, but I’ve been assured that the stage will fill again next year and the play will be presented to enthusiastic audiences, just as a MVFD play has been for over a hundred years now.

If you have area history or trivia that you remember, send me a message and I'll do my best to share it with readers in an upcoming column.

But wait — who are these “Lunatics,” and why are they at large?

I’m glad you asked. Wagner shared the details with me, and it’s time to name names.

The play was in the final weeks of rehearsal and lines were getting memorized. Creative juices were flowing to bring in alibis and local humor to the script when everything had to come to a screeching halt due to precautions about COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. 

Elwin relates that, “During the three months of practice we all become family and very close friends. We feed off each other when it comes to interjecting humor. Sometimes we crackup so much that we have to pause to get all the laughter out of our system.  I feel at times we should have audiences come to our practices and see humor at its best. We are all just volunteers and certainly not professional actors. This group works so hard, but we have such a fun time doing the play and I think it shows through when we perform for audiences. In the end this is a fundraiser for the fire dept. and we appreciate the folks who come out and support us.”

The play was originally written in 1936 by James Reach as a companion to “One Mad Night,” a mystery comedy that left audiences at the time clamoring for more. “Lunatics at Large” uses many of the same characters and builds on them for even more mystery and comedy that has endured for generations. 

The setting is the reception hall of the lonely and bleak “old Cutter mansion.” Don Cutter, played by Wagner, is a playwright and the owner of the home. He and his wife Lucille, played by Sandy Mancha Wright, run a home for the mentally ill with the assistance of Dr. Janet Reed, played by Armatha Shower, who is in charge of mental patients. Mysteries start happening when Amos Burke, a business associate of the previous owner of the home who is up to no good, portrayed by Tom Rooney, is released from prison. 

There are actually two mysteries in this play, though, and lots of laughs. One is a murder whodunit, and the other surrounds a missing black box. Intertwined are the antics of the lunatics living in the mansion. Unexpected guests come out of the blue, causing more chaos.

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Doug Wheeler has the part of Mr. Hyde, a ferocious villain. The bloodthirsty wench Priscilla is brought to life by Kelly Rhoten. Jeremy Sperlein is fascinated in Native-Americans as John Alden, while Deb Bair is a victim of Shakespeare as Lady MacBeth. Adding to the enjoyment are Angel Collins, the mysterious Mrs. Adair, with Lisa Warner as her “somewhat cracked” daughter Elaine, and Gary Eppley as Greg Stevens, a man in a hurry with his sister Claire, played by Sandy Black. Blake Rhodes has the part of the unseen actor. Kathy Rhodes is the prompter for the play. Jeff Diems handles sound and lighting, and Jason Dubs serves as stagehand. 

With the able assistance Steve Hossler as Wing, Don’s Chinese valet who is a disciple of Charlie Chan and has a quotation for every occasion, and Steve Miller as police Inspector Britt, who feels he is going crazy himself at times, all the mysteries get solved in the end — or do they? You’ll have to catch one of the actors around town for the inside scoop at this point or wait until next year to find out.

Pam Spenner covers Hampstead, Manchester, Lineboro, and neighboring communities in northern Carroll County. She previously covered the neighborhoods of North Carroll for 19 years. She can be reached at rhythmdancemom@yahoo.com.

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