Despite its classy sounding name, the Alamedean Light Opera Company in Baltimore was little more than an amateur theater group. Composed mostly of wannabe opera singers, some with damn fine voices, the company produced standard fare operettas — “The Student Prince, “The Desert Song,” “My Maryland” — weekends on the stage of the old Poly high school on North Avenue in the late 1940s and early ’50s.
These acting-singers, certainly not singing-actors, thrived upon their solo numbers but pooh-poohed the dialogue of these saccharine musicals as an excuse to get to the next song, stiffly posturing and mechanically repeating their lines. Suddenly, as the first musical chord was struck, they came alive as a leg thrust forward, arms reached out, and those booming voices emerged, supported by diaphragms that can only have been developed from many years of vocal training. At the end of the song they retreated once again into their colorless characters, anxiously awaiting their cue to belt out their next musical number.
My Baltimore City College music teacher was the musical director of the company and recruited me,along with several other members of the glee club, to perform as chorus in many of the shows.
My first production was “My Maryland” by Sigmund Romberg, an operetta set during the Civil War featuring Stonewall Jackson and his troops marching through the streets of Frederick, Maryland, only to be confronted by Barbara Frietchie waving the Union flag from the window of her home. “Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag,” she supposedly said (most likely a myth perpetrated in a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier.)
Unfortunately there were only six men in the chorus who must portray both Union and Confederate soldiers. The most difficult part for the male chorus was not while on stage but off, hurriedly changing from one uniform to the next and making it to the next entrance on time. One night one of the chorus members made the change from Union to Confederate but forgot to switch caps. There he was on stage, a rebel soldier with his Union cap much to the chagrin of a glaring Stonewall Jackson. He got a note from the director.
The most embarrassing moment came at the climax in that famous scene when Jackson’s troops paraded through Frederick. Since we were only six, we were directed to cross the wide Poly stage with a huge space between us. When we exited on the other side, we hastened out the side door of the building, ran around the back, re-entered the other side and re-crossed the stage. By the second march, there was giggling in the audience upon the sight of the same soldiers parading through Frederick. I attempted to disguise it by switching my rifle to the other shoulder. Upon the third cross I decided to do a different character by adding a limp along with a facial tic, which only provoked more laughter. One night when we ran around the back of the building for the first re-cross, we found to our dismay that the stagehands forgot to unlock the door. After some serious banging, we were let in and swooped on stage in a frenetic pile-up only to see Barbara holding a piercing glare from her window, tight fists clenching the flag because we missed our entrance. She could have covered it with a song.
The show was costumed by A.T. Jones and Sons who have been in business in Baltimore for over 150 years. When I got my Union uniform I noticed printed inside the cap a name along with “Massachusetts 6th Regiment.” Obviously these were real Civil War uniforms. Recently I called George Goebel, owner of A.T. Jones on Howard Street, and asked what became of these. He said over the years they had mysteriously disappeared from stock. What a shame.
Otts Laupus lives in Elkridge and currently teaches for the Osher Program at Johns Hopkins University; his email is email@example.com.