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Tom Chaney: A Community Necessity

Of Citizens And Their Theatre: A Community Necessity. Tom recounts the history of theater in Horse Cave and says the mind of man is stunted without music, painting, sculpture, and theatre." This column first appeared 12 October 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Selling Bibles and Stealing Automobiles

By Tom Chaney

A Community Necessity

A week or so back representatives of Kentucky Repertory Theatre traveled to Frankfort to receive the Governor's Award for the Arts.

KRT was singled out for its contribution to arts education in the community.

Now in its 32nd season, our theatre has steadily built a reputation on two fronts -- excellent theatre by a professional staff and an educational outreach program which touched the lives of some 15,000 students in more than twenty counties last year.

Compare that to fifty years ago when a student could complete twelve years of school without ever seeing "real" theatre, to say nothing of having a chance to study acting and the other arts of the stage.

We have grown used to having theatre available, to having our students learn from professionals.

From three plays and a couple of classes in the summer of 1977, the theatre is rarely dark nowadays. Actors travel to schools when they are not on stage in the Warren Hammack auditorium or teaching in the newly opened educational center at Main and Higbee streets.

This past winter and spring the theatre opened the U. K. Music in Horse Cave concert series on the main stage featuring the best from the fine music program of the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

Now, all of this did not just happen. As usual, the vision of one person was pivotal to the birth of such a project. In the case of Horse Cave Theatre, as it was first known, that person was William T. Austin.

A couple of theatre dreamers approached Austin in the summer of 1966. To their amazement he was excited by the idea of theatre in Horse Cave. The dream had a gestation period of eleven years.

Those eleven years saw major changes in Horse Cave.

Interstate 65 passed us by to the west. With better highways, shoppers and diners could speed away to out of town stores and restaurants. Hidden River Cave intruded its horrible stench into our collective noses.

The town was in real danger of dying of toxic waste and ennui.

Bill Austin saw the economic potential of the theatre in addition to its artistic and educational possibilities -- yes, necessities.

But the dream could not be realized by one man alone -- or by two or three or even a dozen. The entire community began to see the dream. By community, I do not just mean Horse Cave. Glasgow; Munfordville; Cave City; Bowling Green; Legrand; Bear Wallow; Magnolia, Arkansas; Tulsa, Oklahoma, and more eagerly joined in the project.

The Austins provided the building. Town folk chipped plaster off bricks and chewing gum off seats from a Texas movie house. A barn builder was brought in to build a lobby and dressing rooms. Dozens of folks chipped in some of their sweat equity.

Of course real money was needed to mount that first season. Actors may love to act, but they also have to eat. W. S. Moss and the Horse Cave State Bank devised a unique funding plan. They extended a $60,000 line of credit to the theatre to be secured in limited amounts by theatre supporters.

I was just over at the theatre lobby looking at the little bronze plaque which commemorates that support. One hundred eighteen folks loaned the theatre a bit of their credit. Some pledged $5,000.00; others pledged $5.00. Governor Julian Carroll provided $10,000.00 from his contingency fund at the behest of a local state senator. That was accompanied by the promise of the same amount for each of the next two years.

At the end of that first season artistic director Warren Hammack wrote in a season summary, "Live things grow!" And grow it did! And the growth was not just in additional seasons and more plays. The growth happened in the lives of our young folks who left our high schools with a deeper, broader understanding of life because they were touched by the theatre. The growth is measured in part by the rise of other theatres in the surrounding area as more folks can see what is possible.

And we have grown because we have had artists among us helping us to use eyes we did not know we had.

I'm telling an old story, but the point of it is this. We cannot exist without the arts. We can study science and English and mathematics and history. But the mind of man is stunted without music, painting, sculpture, and theatre.

And the theatre has become a significant economic engine in this city's life. We have lost significant business to surrounding, larger towns. Tobacco is no longer the monetary life blood of yore. But the arts are on the make hereabouts.

Horse Cave has received a major incentive grant for creating an arts district in the downtown. Just watch us shine!

Governor Beshear was right to single us out. Things are popping in these parts. Kentucky Repertory Theatre has become the nucleus for arts performance and education. Our music; our painting; our plays; our museum; our festivals have a world-wide reputation. And, by the by, we smell better these days as well. But that is another story.

There is time for a bit of pride as we roll up our sleeves and continue to work.

Editorial Note: Sadly the theater closed at the end of 2012. - RHS.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-10-13 00:38:24
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