Our high-school play was a striking success

Miss Margaret Ashworth inherited a family-owned hotel in St. Johnsbury and left her native Maine to become a Vermont innkeeper. In this way she avoided notoriety as my high- school English teacher. I loved her, and she was an excellent teacher. She was worth every cent of the $1,200 our town paid her each year for teaching French and English, and that included casting, coaching, and staging the annual junior-class play, which was a tradition in our town.

Miss Ashworth was unable to conceal her distaste for this chore, and one morning in opening English class she said, "I suppose we've got to do a class play. Do any of you want to be in the thing?" After some cajoling, during which she stressed the importance of dramatics, she signed up six of us, four girls and two boys. Miss Ashworth sighed, perhaps because I was one of the two.

Staging a play in our town started with the basics; we had no place to stage it. Our only chance was the movie theater with its white plaster wall for the screen, and across the front a two-foot platform the janitor could stand on while he cleaned the "silver screen" once a year.

We had a platform to add to that for plays, but it had to be put up and taken down each time, because the area was used for dancing during and after the movie. The girl who played piano for the movies also played for the dancing. This temporary platform had footlights, and a long cord that plugged into the light by the exit door.

A play had to be staged on non-movie nights – Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday – but ours was a sabbatarian town. We never had plays other than on Tuesday and Thursday.

Selecting the class play was easy, once Miss Ashworth knew how many actors she had. She thus wrote at once to the Walter Baker play people, who specialized in plays for amateur dramatics, and ordered a play for six actors, four girls and two boys. The substance of the play was not important.

Since high-school plays were attended by parents, relatives, and friends of the cast, success depended wholly on the number of actors. With a cast of six, we were disadvantaged. On the other hand, Miss Ashworth was fortunate to have only six this time.

The play that came from Walter Baker was titled "Ruth in a Rush," and the title had nothing whatever to do with the action of the play. What that action was I do not recall today, but it started in a railroad station and ended at sea where we were saved from a watery tragedy by the Knights of Pythias.

Maybe I'd do well to explain this.

The combination dance hall and silent movie theater had a third part, a bowling alley. This had three lanes that were well patronized and partitioned off with thin wallboard. You should bear in mind that silent movies had no sound, so there was nothing to be disturbed by the noise of bowling pins being knocked about next door.

The bowling alley operated six evenings a week and Sunday afternoons. In our cast for "Ruth in a Rush," Lloyd Towle was our hero. I was cast for comic relief as a deaf old gentleman who sold tickets in the railroad depot. I was behind a wicket window with an old-time ear trumpet. Every time anybody wanted to buy a ticket, I would hold the ear trumpet up and say, "What?"

I had one big scene. One of the girls approached my window and said, "I want to buy a ticket for Milton."

"What?"

"A ticket for Milton!"

"What?"

"Milton!"

"Oh, yes, Milton. One moment!" (Looking through tariff directory.) "Just where is Milton?"

"What?" (Laughter.)

"Milton. Where is Milton?"

"Settin' over there on the bench."

The evening that "Ruth in a Rush" was played was also playoff night for the town bowling league, and as the contest was between the Red Men and the Knights of Pythias, a good turnout was in the alley.

By that time, Miss Ashworth had thrown her hands in the air and asked, "What else can happen?" and the play began. I do not remember how we got from a railroad station to a storm at sea, but we did, and Lloyd Towle came to his dismal lines, "The ship is sinking! We are going down! Nothing can save us! We are lost!"

At this moment, the Red Men were ahead by five pins for the town championship, and Ben Stilkey was to roll a spare ball. Everything depended on Stilkey: If he got six pins, the Knights of Pythias would be the town champs! As Lloyd Towle repeated his doleful words of doom, Ben Stilkey rolled.

The bowling alley was silent as all eyes watched Ben's ball roll down the alley. The silence was appropriate, because this was the saddest part of our play. Ben Stilkey rolled a strike! The burst of cheering by the Knights was hardly suited to our dramatic predicament, but it was heard throughout our village and people supposed we six play actors had earned a tremendous expression of approval.

Long years later, I paused at the St. Johnsbury Hotel to pay respects to my English teacher. Our high school play was recalled. Miss Ashworth said, "That one burst of applause repaid me well for all the miserable hours I spent coaching class plays!"

Miss Ashworth said the best reward for any English teacher is to inherit a hotel in St. Johnsbury.

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