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Carol Waddell wrote this retrospective of her time with the Galax Theatre Guild and shared it with The Gazette.
When I came to Galax in 1974, I found that there were no performing arts.
When I met Bill Waddell, my brother-in-law, I found that he had worked with Andy Griffith in the play “No Time for Sergeants,” presented in Hawaii. Bill had also been a radio announcer in Alaska.
He offered to introduce me to several people in the area who had been trained professionally in the performing arts. I invited six or seven of these friends to my house to discuss the possibility of presenting a play in Galax.
It was concluded that there should be a theatre guild in Galax, and I was immediately nominated the president, producer and director. My favorite show was “Music Man,” which I had seen many times, so I suggested that this be our first presentation.
My friend Sue Nunn got me off to a start by presenting me with a paper, which I still have, outlining the prospective duties of a new producer. I had never been a producer, but I had worked on and off stage in my hometown of Chicago in other capacities.
So I went to work and called New York to find out for the volunteers what might be involved in such a large undertaking. I called the principal and got permission to show the film to the public at the high school.
There seemed to be a consensus at the time that this was much too large an undertaking. It could not possibly be done with the skills, materials and money available in the Twin Counties. Individual donations inspired by door-to-door visits, newspaper ads, radio announcements and other venues finally resulted in enough money being collected to purchase the rights to produce the play.
The first effort was to contact friends and enlist support in all the backstage activities that would be needed, such as woodworking, painting, lighting and even choreography. Next, actors had to be found in the local community. Soon people began to appear from everywhere to volunteer for these roles.
\To ensure objectivity and fairness auditions were held with three members as judges: myself, Sue Nunn and Mr. Cherry of Wytheville Community College.
It took seven months for the production to be ready for an audience. Perhaps, remarkably, or perhaps not, the first two performances were sell-outs and the fire department had to limit the size of the audience at the high school auditorium for safety. Those turned away inspired us to put on two more sell-out performances a month later.
That was the spectacular arrival of the Galax Theatre Guild on the cultural scene. To reflect the extent of cooperation from other people in the region (Independence, Hillsville and elsewhere), the name was changed to the New River Players of the Galax Theatre Guild.
Since then, our group has produced some 60 productions. Over 100,000 people have attended over the years.
In 1981, Mayor Glenn Wilson of Galax asked me if I could produce an event to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Galax.
It had been incorporated in 1906, beginning along the watercourse of Chestnut Creek, and a stop on the track of the Norfolk and Western railway.
With the help of the local churches and the members of the theatre guild, we were able to stage a suitable event, which even included an inspirational visit by Miss America Kylene Barker.
I received a formal letter of appreciation from the mayor and was later asked to arrange the activities for the 85th anniversary.
In May 1985, I was awarded the Governor’s Award for the Arts in Virginia in Abingdon by Gov. Gerald L. Baliles.
From the late 1980s throughout the 1990s, I served as a member of the Board of Directors of the Council for the Performing and Creative Arts for the Wytheville Community College Educational Foundation.
A turning point came after an initial meeting at my home in May 1987, when I presented at the Galax Council Chambers my concept of a Twin County Arts Council to representatives of area arts groups. This council could concentrate on raising funds, hiring a director and finding for the first time a bricks and mortar home for all the area’s arts groups.
The groups at the time were entirely dependent on borrowing or renting warehouses to various unique and underutilized commercial spaces. Storage space was needed for costumes, props and art work; for visiting artists to display their works; and for organizing schedules and publicity for events.
Lona Mae Cox of the Galax Art Guild, JoAnn Redd of the Blue Ridge Music Association and John Cock, the chair of the Galax Downtown Association, were prominent among the attendees of this meeting.
William Waddell was appointed the temporary chairman, and Ginger Correll, Karen Stevens and Martha Nichols were to assist in drafting a constitution and bylaws. Cynthia Shaw of the Virginia Arts Council in Richmond also agreed to assist with the organization.
At this point, as the producer, I realized that we needed to obtain grant money because some of these productions were quite expensive to produce.
I contacted Peggy Baggett in Richmond, who worked for the Virginia Commission for the Arts. She agreed that we should create an Arts Council since the commission provides technical and financial assistance to both professional and nonprofessional organizations that strive for artistic excellence.
Organizations were to receive funding, but are expected to earn as much income from ticket sales and admission as possible while seeking contributions from individuals, corporations, foundations and government as well as income from special fundraising activities.
This philosophy recognizes that government resources are limited while demands for services are high and that the arts are healthier when open to diverse influences and not financially dependent on any single source of support. Artistic quality, access to the arts, art education and diversity are priorities.
The Blue Ridge Arts and Community Center was incorporated in 1990 to provide for some of these needs. Anne Vaughan was interested in having a convention center, which could be used for both the performing arts and for meetings of the furniture and other industries.
Private donations from a small group including myself, Anne Vaughan and John Nunn among others were enough to purchase land.
When the state later was unable to provide matching funds, the land was sold to the city as Mountain View Park. The money from this sale was then put into a fund. After almost 20 years of growth the Blue Ridge Arts and Community Center voted to donate these funds to Chestnut Creek School of the Arts to kick off an endowment campaign and move the school towards self-sufficiency.
Ten years ago, there was still no building for performances. The downtown association at this time purchased the Rex Theater. The Galax Theatre Guild donated $30,000 and their time and work towards the renovation of the Rex. This was truly a labor of love and a grassroots endeavor.
I participated in the “Save the Rex” drive and went to several historical theaters in Washington, D.C., in Richmond and Los Angeles.
It was in L.A. that I met Brian McNeil, the director of Flynn Theater of the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vt. He was a well-known consultant in adaptive restorations of historical theaters, and I was able to persuade him to provide written recommendations for our theater, with his consulting fee paid for the by the downtown association.
In 2002, an agreement of affiliation was signed between the Galax Theatre Guild and the downtown association, permitting use of the theatre for productions.
In the late 1990s, I was asked by the City of Galax to represent Virginia’s arts at Roanoke’s sister city, St. Lo in Normandy, France. Stevie Barr and Stu Shenk, among others, came from Galax.
The Galax Theater Guild has over the years given scholarships to deserving students of the arts in Grayson and Carroll counties and Galax on a yearly basis and the theatre guild also conducted hands-on workshops in the performing arts.