Way back when West Deptford Little Theatre started, almost four decades ago, I learned of the legendary backstage crew hand, Elroy Clayton.
Now, I’ve never met Elroy. But the part he played in those early days of WDLT was immeasurable. While I spent my summer memorizing lines, practicing dance steps and learning to hit my mark.
But while I was doing all that singing and dancing, magic of another sort was going on. The older kids who made up the crew were creating the puzzle pieces that, once together, would provide the backdrop for our production.
In the backyard of the Sherwood home of Mike and Anna Cassabian, props were collected or assembled. On their driveway, flats were painted.
Then everything was moved to the stage at West Deptford High School, where the crew–led by theater co-founder Joseph Schramm and fellow teacher Barbara Howdershell–would put those pieces together, add finishing touches, and create a forest, a ballroom, a dwarfish cottage or whatever other scene needed for the show of the week. (Back then, we did four shows in four weeks–a feat WDLT will top this year, with five shows in the same time frame.)
Anyway, back to Elroy. It seems that whenever something went wrong, the rarely seen Elroy Clayton was the one to blame.
Lost prop? Elroy must have taken it. Hammer missing? Elroy used it last. Spilled paint? Oh, clumsy Elroy! What started as an inside, backstage joke grew into a full-fledged legend, with the name “Elroy Clayton” appearing in many programs of that (and future) eras.
In time, Elroy reached the pinnacle of stage crew success–he had an award named after him. To this day, the Elroy Clayton Award is handed out at the Theatre’s end of season banquet to a child who goes above and beyond in contributing to the backstage success of the summer shows.
It’s good to know that Elroy’s legend lives on—and that crew members do get some recognition. After all, when most of us think of the theater, we think of those appearing in the spotlight, not those running it.
I have to plead guilty to that–when I was in the very first production of Snow White that very first season of WDLT, I was all about the acting, the singing, the dancing and not so much the painting or hammering. I worked to become the Evil Queen, but paid little mind to those building the fairy tale world around me. (I guess I was type casted, after all.)
Fast forward 38 years (how is that possible?). My stage days are long behind me. My oldest daughter did her own stint as Grumpy in a WDLT production of Snow White and the Eight Dwarfs in the '90s. My youngest will follow in our footsteps this Wednesday and Thursday nights when she appears as Bashful in this year’s version.
Lots of people have come and gone in 38 years, but Mr. Schramm, the original technical director, is still leading the backstage staff. This year he and a handful of volunteers will provide magical backdrops for not only my little Bashful, but also productions of last week’s Oklahoma!, this week’s Sleeping Beauty, a Community Theatre production of Back to the 80s (July 21-22) and the closing show, The Wizard of Oz (July 27-28).
This Friday, Libby came home and told me all about what she learned at theater that day. “They even had us practice our bows,” she said, eyes flashing.
Maybe that’s something the crew needs to learn as well. After all, they’re just as deserving of the audience applause as the dwarfs (and, yes, even the Evil Queen).
Elroy Clayton may just be a legend, but there are real people behind every costume, every made-up face, every painted flat, and every magic mirror. Mr. Schramm and the rest of those who put in countless hours to put this all together, it’s time to take a bow.