The 1970s Rebirth of Colonel Chandler's Music Hall

How a bunch of flatlanders and hippies adopted a once-proud landmark and showered it with love

John Jackson's story about the renaissance of Randolph's beautiful old music hall is a reminder that Chandler wasn't always the performing arts center it is today. I remember the years when the hall saw little use, other than as a stage for town meeting and the annual Halloween parade (I was a fairy princess one year, a Dutch girl with a winged cap another). The story of the Chandler revival is also a reminder of the vitality that newcomers bring to a community. Another newcomer of the period, Nat Frothingham, directed me and several of the Jacksons in a Chandler production of Twelfth Night in the summer of '72. That's him, below, in the photograph next to Virginia Reidy. Todd Vandegriek, above, appeared in the choice role of Feste. John wrote about the Chandler renaissance in an autobiography that he began in 2008, when he was in a writing group that became known throughout Vermont as the Hale Street Gang. John was an active member of the group until shortly before he died in 2012. This essay was originally published on The Hale Street Gang and Me—Sara Tucker, editor 

Virginia Reidy and director Nat Frothingham watching a rehearsal for the 1972 production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

By John Jackson

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Cynthia and I and our two children, Mindy aged 15 and John Christopher aged 12, arrived in Randolph in early August 1969. Our first impressions were very positive. Taped to our front door at One School Street was an invitation to dinner after the movers left. Within days, the leader of the young people’s group at Bethany Church stopped by with the names and addresses of children of appropriate ages who he thought would be compatible with our two. We had moved quite a few times over the years and we had never had such a warm welcome.

It was a very few days later that Christopher came home in a state of excitement with the news that there was a big theater across the street from Bethany Church. I found out many years later that one of his new friends had shown him an unlocked window in the basement of the music hall through which they could crawl in and look around. Phil Hall, the minister at the time, saw them and went over and gave them a guided tour. Phil was a remarkable man. It’s no wonder he was popular with the church young people. I soon got my own guided tour and was struck by the possibilities. At that time, the hall had gone almost completely out of use and was in pretty bad shape. Everyone in our family had an interest in theater. None of us had had a lot of experience, just bits and pieces here and there, but we all began to dream about doing something about Chandler.

Mindy was the first to take positive steps. The following summer, she and some of her new friends decided it would be fun to do some theater during vacation. I found out that the hall was under the supervision of three older members of the community, on behalf of the Board of Selectmen of the town. I talked to them and they gave more or less grudging permission if it was all right with the janitor. The children got some paint and began to brighten up the dressing room area. There was nothing but trouble from the janitor. He had a very strong sense of responsibility toward the hall and didn’t want to deal with the young people, and he had no interest spending any more time there than he had in the past, which was very, very little. He made life miserable enough that the energy soon went out of the summer theater group and Chandler settled back into its moribund state. That same summer, the Randolph Singers did their annual production, The Student Prince, at the high school auditorium.

Sometime during that first year, I joined the Randolph Singers. What with settling into the new house and getting used to a new job, I hadn’t gotten involved with The Student Prince. After the show, I was approached by members of the singers about a problem they had. Bill Whitney, the stage director of their summer shows, had just retired from teaching at Randolph Union High School. They knew of my interest in theater, and they wanted to know if I would take on the job of stage director for their next show. We discussed the possibilities, and I eventually said that I would if the new show would be Brigadoon and if they would agree to doing the show in Chandler Music Hall. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I really have no memory of how it happened, but we decided to put the show on in February!

It would take a book to chronicle all the trials and tribulations of getting that show on the boards. For starters, there were only 60 amps of power available in the hall, including the house lights. The only technical lighting equipment was an ancient rheostat about a foot in diameter that dimmed the footlights. If one tried to use it, it tended to throw sparks and blow out the building fuse. The attic had numerous buckets scattered around to catch the drips from the leaking roof. The back wall of the stage had loosely fitting windows and structural cracks that did little to keep the weather outside. On at least one occasion we had to sweep snow off the stage before rehearsal.

And then, there was our ever present janitor. He seemed to be determined to make life as difficult as possible. He was the only one who knew the ins and outs of the heating and water systems. The normal winter regime was to have the heating system shut down and the plumbing drained. Getting heat and water for rehearsals was always a hassle. Often we had cold rehearsals with the hall getting warmed up about the time we were leaving. But, enough of the problems. There were many, many wonderful things about the production.

We had open rehearsals, and it turned out that our two leads were from Montpelier. Paul Ohman became Tommy and Phyllis Andrews Fionna. They were singers of professional quality. All of the other speaking and solo parts came from the Randolph Singers. There was some grumbling about “out of towners” getting the big parts, and there was some justice to it, but I think the end justified the decision. I had gotten to know a man from South Royalton, Bill Lovering, who, with his wife, had a small advertising company there. I found out that he was an artist and had some interest in theater. I got him to agree to do the stage designs. He did a fantastic job. The comedy leads were Dr. Brewster Martin and Bunchie Angell, both longtime Randolph Singers. They were superb. Organizing and managing rehearsals for a show with 25 scenes and scene changes was a challenge, and the schedule of rehearsals was a sight to see. Fortunately, the music director did not retire until the next year. That was the beloved Mr. Alderfer, the music teacher from the high school. With his wife playing the piano, the music for the show was terrific. In the end, we had a good show with terrific audiences. Saturday night, we had a sell-out with every folding chair we could find set up in the aisles.

After the show, the Randolph Singers voted to make a contribution to the music hall of $1,000. 

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Do you have a favorite memory of Chandler Music Hall? Leave it in the comments section below.


Part 2 of the 1970s Chandler Revival, by John Jackson (Tuesday, August 14)

Who Is the Esther Mesh Room Named For? (Thursday, August 16)

Part 3 of the 1970s Chandler Revival, by Paul Bouchey (Sunday, August 19)

Readers remember Chandler; Dick Drysdale's tribute to Jean Montgomery, and more . . . 

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Further reading

Breakfast with Bach, a Kid's Concert, Open Rehearsals, and More What's happening at Chandler this week and next.

The Hale Street Gang: In Cahoots: This collective memoir by a dozen members of the Greater Randolph Senior Center is a rich, lively, and intensely personal tale of twentieth-century America, its nexus a small town nestled in the Green Mountains.


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