by Barry Blake

Photo of scene from Music Man The Pick-A-Little ladies from the 1991 Humboldt Light Opera producation of "Music Man." (Photos courtesy of HLOC)

JIM STANNARD WAS SITTING IN A SMALL WOOD CABIN IN Yellowstone Park last month looking out a window onto the glow of the morning. Old Faithful was about to do what it has always done when a telephone call came in with an inquiry about something that had happened 25 years ago.

The Humboldt Light Opera Company, which Stannard help found, was, after all, about to turn a quarter of a century.

Stannard, a professor at Humboldt State University then (as he is now), recalled that he had been talking with a couple of colleagues from the music department one day in 1973. Someone, he doesn't remember who, said: "Wouldn't it be nice if there were some kind of performing experience for the people in Humboldt County?"

Maybe it was Francine Peterson, he said.

"She became musical director, later went on to the music department at Loyola in New Orleans and has since moved back. Phil Cates was there, too. He's in Texas now," Stannard said.

That response to an innocently phrased question tells volumes about the history of the opera company. Nobody, least of all Stannard, will take credit for the outfit's success. No matter who you talk to, somebody else is always responsible for doing a cracker jack job.

After the triumph of the first production, "Amahl and the Night Visitors," with a cast of students and professors, it fell on Stannard and his pals to continue the fledgling company.Photo of Guys and Dolls scene

A scene from the 1993 production "Guys and dolls"

"In the beginning, because it was us, I guess, some called us the `Holy Trinity.' But we just tried to keep it going. We've never had office space. For the first six or seven years we carried everything in the back of a '68 Volvo. We stored sets in David Peterson's barn up on Kneeland."

There wasn't even a theater.

"Theaters and offices take money," Stannard said. "We stored costumes and props in people's closets and attics."

For many years the company's Main Stage summer show was in the Eureka High School Auditorium. Since then, HLOC has used the Forum at College of the Redwoods, the Eagle House and even the old Cultural Center on First Street, both in Eureka, for opera scene concerts. Now the Main Stage summer show is in the Van Duzer Theatre at HSU and the smaller spring show somewhere else.

Things have settled, but the company remains fueled by volunteer effort.

"Once in a while we'll hire a pro, but we are community," Stannard said. "The paper work was always difficult, and if we ran into some problem, IRS, or some other hoops to jump through, we would have to work to get it right."

Theater finances can be more distressed than antique furniture. The company's Main Stage production costs about $30,000 each year. Yet for the last eight years HLOC has been in the black.

And holding with tradition, Stannard does not take any of the due. He credits Carol Ryder, a longtime HLOC cast member and director.

"Carol is really the one. She's been wonderful," he said.

Carol Ryder is a bundle of a blond woman, an Earth Mother sort, whose eyes stay shut and eyebrows become upside down U's when she laughs, which she does hard and hearty.

"Jim is the one. He's been the heart and soul of the company for 25 years," she counters.

"We have had a couple of grants along the way," Stannard said, "but we've tried to be self-sustaining. Credit Francine Peterson for purposely not getting grant money. She just said, `People want to see our shows; so that is how we will make it (financially).' "

The kind of shows that HLOC found its audiences wanted to see were often the kind that had a lot of people in them. Big casts needed singers, actors and dancers. Lapping, chorusy, glorious, bumper shows of Rogers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Gershwin, Cole Porter and Gilbert and Sullivan were the ones that struck a chord, meant melodic music, had a certain warm reliability and were exciting at the same time.

More and more community members auditioned. The talent pool deepened. Those with courage enough to sing out and the willingness to sacrifice for the show were rarely turned away for the original point of the company was to give the community a place, an opportunity, a reason to perform.

"If they weren't polished singers, they learned something about becoming one," Stannard said.

The success of the light opera company relied on inclusion and encouragement, and that brought financial stability.

"Naturally, friends and family of the cast member wanted to see the show. So all we asked was that each cast member provide five patrons for the company, and help sell ads," Stannard said.

It was an easy, happy kind of orchestrated commerce. Everyone benefited.

In the earlier days, when it did not go exactly as planned, other tactics were necessary.

"You'd see there was trouble with a particular production. Play selection was critical. For whatever reason, ticket sales were not developing, or the production was costing too much, or there were problems with the cast. So one of us would lend the company money to get through. You wondered if this was going to be the last show. If this was going to be it, you'd wonder how much you were going to lose," he said.

Stannard recalled the company's early days, a time when success wasn't always achieved.

"The people in the cast of the show would be hurt, would think it was their fault when it wasn't," he said. "Many people have given a lot to make and keep the company successful. People gave up their whole summers."

But at this moment it's summertime, and these days the livin' is easy.

"I look forward to our 25th, the gala," Stannard said, referring to a huge concert at the Van Duzer on July 24 that will celebrate 25 years of light opera in Humboldt County.

"People will be coming in from all over the country. Anyone who has ever performed is asked to come back. Even those who have since become well known in the musical world Brad Curtis, George Dudley everyone. It'll be a concert format."

Ryder shares Stannard's enthusiasm for the upcoming gala, "Music, Magic, and Memories," which will be followed by a Cinderella Ball in the Kate Buchanan Room at HSU.

"We have had 1,457 people perform and work in productions over the years," Ryder said. "It's family. A lot of them will be coming back."

Ryder remembers every production in every theater.

"Original cast members will be at the gala to recreate their roles, this time with daughters. I guess we are all getting older."

The company's more successful productions "Sound of Music," "Music Man" and "Secret Garden" have come in recent years and were shows that crossed generations. This summer's production of Roger and Hammerstein's "Cinderella," which opens Aug. 7 , is anticipated to have the same impact.

"`Cinderella' has something for everyone. Everyone knows the story. It's for the whole family, kids and grandparents," Ryder said.

There is now a rebirth of interest in musical theater on Broadway. It seems as inevitable as Old Faithful. As long as families share and love music, the HLOC's future is likely assured for another 25 years.


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