2015-12-09 / News

The Curtain Still Rises

Toasting the historic Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 50 years later
By Rich Griset

Tom Width, artistic director of Swift Creek Mill Theatre, started as a resident actor at the theater 40 years ago. 
Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer Tom Width, artistic director of Swift Creek Mill Theatre, started as a resident actor at the theater 40 years ago. Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer Rowing a canoe through a flooding basement, Tom Width was on a mission: He had to save the paintings on Swift Creek Mill Theatre’s walls before the water reached the electrical panels.

“When you felt that tingle, you knew to get out of the water,” said the theater’s artistic director, recalling the many times he and others dealt with flooding at the Mill. It’s just one of the memories recounted as the theater toasted its 50th anniversary with a small party last week.

Considered to be the oldest American grist mill still in existence, the earliest reference to Swift Creek Mill dates back to 1663, a time when Rembrandt was still painting and Isaac Newton was just 21. In 1965, three couples purchased the former mill and converted it into a dinner theater.

As the opening night price tag of $5.50 for dinner and a show suggests, things were a little different back then. In those days, national tours of Broadway shows weren’t coming to Richmond, meaning it was up to the Mill to provide locals with exposure to big musicals like “Mame,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “My Fair Lady.”

Linda Rubin’s parents Lou and Fran were one of the couples who purchased the Mill. She recalls watching her father inform her mother that he’d put a second mortgage on the house in order to create the theater.

“Mother burst into tears,” said the Brandermill resident. She later asked her father how much money they made running the theater. “Enough to pay for the dry cleaning bills,” he replied.

While most local professional theaters these days are nonprofits, it wasn’t the case back then.

“They made it on their skills; they lived on their box office,” Width said. “No one handed you money to do anything: You had to make it work.”

The Rubins were eventually bought out by another founding couple, Buddy and Betty Callahan. Many theater professionals at the anniversary party credited the Callahans as being instrumental in helping them start their careers.

Jacqueline O’Connor, actress and managing director of local company Quill Theatre, said it was Buddy Callahan and Swift Creek that convinced her to stay in Richmond. She worked at the Mill for a decade.

“Finding your theater home is so important to a young actor, feeling that you’re respected,” O’Connor said. “The Mill has afforded that to generations of actors. It’s a true treasure.”

Local actress and longtime Haynes Furniture commercial spokesperson Jan Guarino started working at the Mill when she was 18. Among other adventures, she recalled being unable to finish the run of a musical because the Mill flooded on closing weekend. Ironically, the show was “Two by Two,” a Broadway musical about Noah’s Ark.

“It feels like coming back home,” said Guarino at the party.

Another attendee with fond memories of the Mill was Virginia House Majority Leader Delegate Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), who waited tables, took reservations and worked in the kitchen off and on for a decade.

“I did a little bit of everything,” he said. “I just couldn’t act.”

It was also at the theater where a co-worker caught his eye.

“I asked my wife out on our first date here, so that’s pretty special,” said Cox, who presented the theater with a commendation from the General Assembly at the party.

Width – whom many consider the public face of the theater – arrived at the Mill nearly 40 years ago as a resident actor. A former magician, Width initially lived in a trailer in the theater’s parking lot with the rabbits and doves he used for his magic act. He became a director, set designer and de facto artistic director at the Mill in 1981 and built every set until recently.

A number of actors Width took under his wing have seen success elsewhere, including Broadway actress Emily Skinner; Duke Lafoon, who recently starred off-Broadway as Bill Clinton in “Clinton: The Musical”; and former “L.A. Law” star Blair Underwood.

“Blair just stopped by last year,” Width said. “He just stopped in and said, ‘Thank you for what you did for me way back when.’”

In 2013, the Mill received a $1.5 million facelift, including a new elevator, restrooms, sound and lighting equipment, roof, kitchens and dressing rooms. Now that the historic theater is handicap accessible, it’s eligible for grants that it previously wasn’t.

“That has really upped our game and opened lots of possibilities,” Width said. Backstage, conditions in the green room were once so cramped that pulleys were used to get set pieces out of the way. Dozens of cast and crew members had to make use of a single toilet. “Things were really tight back there.”

Since the addition of new sump pumps a decade ago, flooding hasn’t been the problem it once was, but the Mill’s proximity to the water still makes things interesting. The theater once received a call that a dinosaur was swimming in the creek next to it. Outside they found a massive Atlantic sturgeon, stopped in its trek upstream by the dam near the Mill.

Currently, Width is staging two shows at once: the mainstage musical “Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings” and the Mill’s annual Drifty children’s show. For the past 25 years, the Mill has created a new Drifty the Snowman holiday show, and this year is no different. With only one stage, the theater has to pull down and construct two sets multiple times a week.

With 12 Drifty performances a week, the show will probably entertain 7,500 kids and their families this year. As in past years, Width will reprise his role as the character Cowboy Jim.

“We all get sick, we all get bronchitis, because 400 kids a day want to hug us,” Width said. “But it’s totally worth it.”

Ivan Perkinson, a retired minister who owns Ivan Art Gallery in Matoaca, saluted Width at the party.

“I’ve never seen a man as devoted to children as that man right there,” said Perkinson, as he displayed a portrait he painted of the Mill. Perkinson has made 500 prints of the painting for sale, and all money raised will benefit the nonprofit theater.

At 8:30 p.m. last Wednesday, the partygoers raised their glasses at the exact moment the curtain would have gone up 50 years earlier on the Mill’s first show, “Carnival.”

“I’m really proud of what the Mill has come through and how it has come out on the other side,” Width said. “I don’t think you’ll find a theater that doesn’t struggle all the time, financially, artistically – whatever the challenges are.

“I’ve been here through the floods and everything else. It’s always an adventure.”

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