Scene4-International Magazine of Arts and Culture
Bats... in, well not exactly the Belfry | Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | Scene4 Magazine-October 2018 -


well, not exactly...
the Belfry

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

Fog drifts moodily across the stage from the wings. Rose and amber lights wash over the set, and a manufactured breeze rustles Kathy Selden’s skirt, as Don Lockwood sings to her of his love. He takes her in his arms, and the pair waltzes across the stage and just as they glide gracefully downstage, the audience gasps.  It is not an exclamation of nostalgic awe, but rather a response to the large furry, winged creature which has emerged from the rafters above the stage and is dipping, diving, and swooping inches above the heads of the actors!

It is one of the Pickard Theater’s resident bats that makes his unexpected appearance to upstage the lovers on the closing night of MSMT’s sensational production of Singin’ in the Rain. This creature – and his forebears – have long been fixtures in the 150 - year-old Gothic Revival building that is home to Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, Maine.  The granite and stained glass edifice did once have a belfry, but this has been converted to storage space, so the bats have had to take up residence in the labrynth of rafters and lighting catwalks in the auditorium, from which they launch themselves periodically into the spotlight to terrorize performers, crew, and public.


So tenacious is this tribe of rodents, that legends have grown around them and anecdotes pepper the history of the sixty-year-old theatre company.  The post Civil War structure on the campus of Bowdoin College did not have air-conditioning until 1996, after it had undergone major modernizing renovations.  Until that time in the warm summer months, windows and doors were left open during the performance, and this encouraged a great many bats to make unscripted dramatic appearances, very often stealing the show. 


The first recorded incident of this nature occurred during a 1966 performance of Die Fledermaus, where the creature decided to add a dose of the literalness to the operetta, whose title, of course, is German for The Bat.   Many more such sightings occurred over the years.  For example, on August 3, 1991, in a performance of Big River, the bat chose to swoop down during Huck Finn’s solo, “I, Huckleberry, Me.”  Without missing a beat, Kevin Wright, who played Huck, continued to sing but raised his prop rifle and mimed shooting the hapless creature. The audience erupted in laugher, and the show momentarily stopped.

Not long after that episode at a preview of Baby on August 11, 1992, the actors Julie Dixon and Joe Langworth were lying on a hospital bed holding a live infant when the bat dive-bombed the threesome. Gasps were heard throughout the audience as everyone on stage closed around the baby protectively to avert any harm.  The next day the fire department came and set traps, though these proved a very temporary and rather unsatisfactory fix.


Actor John Charles Kelly remembers a memorable visitation during the August 2, 1995, closing performance of My Fair Lady.  Playing Colonel Pickering, Kelly noted that his patience was wearing thin because the bat had made multiple stage appearances throughout the show, distracting everyone.  Finally in the second act, Kelly could stand being outshined no longer. In the scene in Henry Higgins’ home, he ad-libbed to Marie Pressman, playing the housekeeper; “Mrs. Pearce, call the exterminator!”  “The line brought down the house, I add with modesty,” Kelly says, “and the bat did not reappear that night.”


Rather than take umbrage at the bat’s intrusions, former artistic director Charles Abbott found a way to work the creature into the action in a performance of George M.  At the end of the musical numbers which George M.Cohan performed with his family members, he would always introduce each of them individually.  Abbott, playing the title role, recalls being in the midst of a rousing tap sequence when the bat was drawn to the spotlight and zigzagged across the stage in tandem with the dancers. “As each family member bowed, I said, ‘My father thanks you; my mother thanks you, my sister thanks you, and HE thanks you.’  Instead of bowing myself, I tipped my hat to the bat, as the audience roared.”  No doubt, Mr. BAT felt his performance properly acknowledged because he made a swift, circular pass, his version of a bow, and promptly exited.

The Pickard’s tribe of bats, however, shares its affinity for the stage and theatre folks with rodent relatives who are not content with occasional stage appearances, but have tried to take up more permanent residence in the actors’ lodgings. One such chaotic and ultimately hilarious episode transpired last summer when a very persistent bat refused to depart Christine Mild’s apartment.  Mild, who is terrified of the creatures, recounts her tale:

“I was enjoying my stay in Maine, living in lovely company housing and preparing to play the role of Patsy Cline in Always, Patsy Cline.  It was the night after our busy tech day [when the performers rehearse for ten out of twelve long hours] when I awoke to the rustle of wings.  A bat was in the apartment! I made sure he was not in the bedroom, and then I barricaded myself in there by placing pillows under the door crack.  I tried to go back to sleep and was just dozing off again about 4:00 a.m. when I realized that the bat had made it through the pillows and was flying above my head. In a panic I ran out of the room and shut myself in the bathroom, where I called the company manager.  She, in turn, called Curt [Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark], who immediately came to my aid.”


“Curt was very brave,’ she says with a teasing smile. “He gave me the courage to come out of the bathroom.  Together, we searched for the bat, who had now gone into hiding.  We closed all the windows and rattled pans to rustle him out. At last he flew out of hiding, careening around the room while Curt swiped at him like a soldier.  It was all very dramatic!  Finally, in a panic, the poor little thing came to rest on a window screen, clinging there terrified.  Curt grabbed a towel, scooped the creature up, opened the window, and set it free. I was so grateful to Curt.  What other artistic director would come rescue me from a critter at 4:00 am so that I could get some sleep and be able to perform two shows of Patsy that day! He is my hero for life.”


Mild subsequently made a video about her experience and before long Brunswick was abuzz with the story. For the rest of the run of her show, Mild – and Clark – could not escape jokes about the bat.  Maine State Music Theatre staff gave Mild a toy bat, which she christened “Batsy Cline,” and fans sent her box loads of bat-themed memorabilia, while Clark was affectionately dubbed “The Batman of Brunswick” and received his share of silly souvenirs.

For his part, this particular bat seemed sufficiently chastened to vacate the premises.  But who knows where he has taken himself. Might that have been he upstaging not only Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden? A curious little bit of one upmanship on his part – to insist on sharing the limelight in this closing performance of Clark’s spectacularly produced Diamond Jubilee season?  Who says these furry little beings, so often misunderstood and maligned, do not have a sense of wit and whimsy?

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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold |

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold is a writer and journalist.
Her latest book is Return Trip - Ten Stories
She is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2018 Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold
 ©2018 Publication Scene4 Magazine




October 2018

Volume 19 Issue 5

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