The Don Bosco Theater
A miniature theater at St. Joseph's Village
by Jim Brown
It's been some 40 years or more and the sound of music and live performance still sticks in the memory of many former residents of St. Joseph's Village. Broadway and cinematic musicals that were having a surge in popularity in the early 60s and popular tunes from our parents time provided much of the source material for many benefit concerts produced by the Village staff and children. The complex had its own auditorium where these concerts and dinners were held. Some were held in other local vinues. Even the new swimming pool became a concert hall.
It was only natural that St. Joseph's Village add another performance space for puppet shows and other miniature stagings as a part of its metaphoric "village" of cottages, barbershop, store, school, library, infirmary, and so fourth.
The idea came about when senior boys prefec, Mr Lampert ran a wood shop class for the older boys around 1965 or '66. I always had a strong interest in the technical and creative aspects of theater, perhaps through my many visits with my parents to Radio City Music Hall. It stood to reason that I would take this as an opportunity to build a small stage complete with lighting and curtains. Just how the would take shape was inspired by the scale model of the Great Stage at Radio City that director Leon Leonidoff used along with models of set pieces to plan the staging of Music Hall spectaculars.
This model of the stage at Radio City Music Hall inspired Jim Brown in his design of the stage for the Don Bosco theater. Music Hall Art Director James Stewart Morcom poses in front of the working model which allowed designers to plan in mineature the look and operation of each show.
And speaking of Radio City, later in life at about age 48, I did a search for my birth family and was immediately told by my newly discovered Aunt Ivy that my grandfather, Henry Schaffner, created the first curtain at Radio City Music Hall. I was speechless for a while which caused Ivy to ask if something was the matter. After telling her of my many visits to Radio City and the great influence it had on my life and career I collected all the information I could get from these relatives. Little did I know all those times while sitting as close to the stage as I could that I was looking at the curtain that my grandfather made in 1932 during the great depression.
The puppet stage itself was rather small, about 18 inches across the percenium and 13 inches deep. It was mounted on top of a 3 foot pedestal and had a system of curtains and fabric panels on either side to partition off a backstage area. A drop away stage floor accommodated the use of hand puppets. Small string puppets could be dropped from above. The lighting consisted of footlights, three electrics above the stage and other auxiliary lighting. There were four circuits on each electric for white, red, green, blue and amber making it possible to achieve many other color combinations. A switch board was mounted to the back side of the rear wall of the stage. There were no dimmer circuits due to cost as there were none in the Village's auditorium where I also worked live shows, likely for the same reason. Lights were either on or off. Sound equipment consisted of a reel to reel tape recorder and a small amplifier and speaker. Very low tech by today's standards.
I made many trips to Northvale to Western Auto with my limited funds from allowances given at the village and money from my father to buy switches and other items for the stage.
Once the stage was finished, the question arose as to where to put it so it could be used to present shows.
Each of the cottages, three boys and three girls, had a small room about 10' x 25' to the rear of the playroom that were designated as TV viewing rooms in the original floor plans. In the senior boys cottage, this room was the most suitable place to house the stage, a backstage area, and an audience of up to about 25 people.
Stage at the Don Bosco Theater
A name was needed for the new theater. Each of the cottages were named after someone that the nuns considered noteworthy. In the case of the senior boys cottage it was Don Bosco. Who he was nobody seemed to really know but that is how the theater became known as the Don Bosco Theater or for short "The Bosco." (There is information about a Don Bosco whom I guess might be the one that the cottage was named after at http://www.shelterdonbosco.org/aboutus.htm or http://www.salesians.org/salesian.htm)
There was a grand opening show at the new theater and admission was to be 5 cents. However I remember Mr. Lampert and Sr. Francis saw this to be impractical as many of the kids would not have money and thought that it would work better to be financed in another way. I seem to recall that they got me to forgo the charge.
Each show at the Bosco Theater was performed once for each cottage and once for the staff and convent residents.
One performance, inspired by the Ford Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair featured toy dinosaurs roaming among rocks and foliage. In developing the shows, I often mimicked displays I saw at the fair. The World's Fair was the other great spectacular of my youth that had the greatest influence on me. That fair to this day continues to provide inspiration. I am active with a group who study the fair's history and make yearly "pilgrimages" to the site. It also resulted in my introduction to Katherine who contacted me about her website www.stjosephsvillage.com after reading an article I wrote for www.nywf64.com, a site about the fair.
The stage was intended to be used for puppets, however in my nievity and focused interest in the staging and technical aspects, I neglected an important component -- puppets. I think I had one or two hand puppets that were given to me from what was available around the Village. The shows had lots of scenery and changing lights, recorded music and narration, but no "characters." Perhaps I should have involved others who were more skilled in that area, but that is another story.
The stage was too small for my grand ideas, so when I wanted to "book" the senior cottage Rock 'n' Roll band, "The Comets," for a live performance, we needed to use the floor space just in front of the miniature stage for their setup. We still used the stage, but as background scenery and lighting to go with the music. The band played a concert with many songs by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Recently Ken Walker contacted me through the web and reminded me that he was my assistant and stagehand. At first I didn't remember that, but now I recall working with him on developing shows and in particular, writing and editing a script. Without a wordprocessor, like the one I am writing this story on, I hand wrote each word as we rapidly came up with lines to use for the show's narrator. I was also contacted by Dominic Scalcione who recalled, as he put it, "I thought it was genius!."
A few months before I was scheduled to leave the Village after the school term of 1967, the stage and all its equipment was moved to my home in Bergenfield, NJ. My father who hated "clutter" objected, but despite his grumblings, I continued building what was quite an elaborate theater for a 15 year-oldd. From a pile of donated stuff stored in the garage building at the Village, I acquired a few string puppets and some black fabric wall panels to partition off areas of the room to create a backstage. As I can remember, the name Don Bosco Theater, remained. In its new location, the only thing missing was an audience other than my father and sister who preferred to stay downstairs and watch TV.
The stage as it appeared in Bergenfield, NJ with additional side partitions to create larger backstage area. A scenic element representing a power plant is above stage side wing curtains. It was used for a show inspired by the Tower of Light pavilion at the New York World's Fair.
Many reading this were victims at SJV, but my horror story was after I left the Village. My father married a woman who was worse than the barrenness in the "Sound of Music." Her passion was to deal change everything as she delt out mental tourcher and downgraded me for not being, as she defines, a "normal" kid. I was too creative and industrious. Throwing out EVERYTHING including the stage was their plan to end any behavior that today would be praised as that of an "exceptional child." Meanwhile my father, repeatively accepting the ill advise of others, stood back silently and let it all happen as he too lacked the vision and belief in nurturing creativity. Growing creatively was often a loosing battle and I can tell it supressed my full potential in later life.
In the summer of '67 the curtain fell for the last time and the lights went out on the Don Bosco Theater.
Backstage in Bergenfield showing the stage from the stage left wing. Backstage at the Village looked similar to this photo. The lighting switchboard is seen attached to back of stage. A tape recorder and phonograph are in the lower part of photo.
If anyone has memories of the Bosco theater and shows they saw there, post your accounts on http://groups.yahoo.com/group/sjvillage