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Business Focus: Stage Right At the Historic Crighton Theatre

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Photos by Gina Turner

Inside the beautiful Crighton Theatre, with its Italian-Romanesque architecture and an interior that resembles a Venetian garden.[/caption]

IN THE FALL OF 2008, a group of friends gathered around Steve and Carolyn Wong’s dining room table to discuss the possibility of founding a new theater company in Conroe.  The group was concerned about the fate of the Crighton Theatre, which opened in 1935 and is one of only about 10 extant theaters of its vintage in Texas.  The friends worried that, without a steady source of income from a resident theater company, the Crighton—so magnificently restored in 1978—would once again fall into disrepair.

The result of this collaborative effort was STAGE RIGHT, a volunteer theater company that delights local residents with six productions each year, funneling more than $100,000 per year toward the Crighton’s upkeep. (RIGHT is an acronym for Respect, Inspire, Growth, Heal and Treasure.)  the company has more than 700 season ticketholders, and last year it sold about 20,000 tickets to its performances, says Steve Wong, STAGE RIGHT’s business manager and treasurer. Plays and musicals have become so popular, a tenth performance will be added to all productions this season, and continued success will soon enable STAGE RIGHT to construct a rehearsal facility.  is will enable the group to hold classes and rehearse even while the Crighton  Theatre is rented to other organizations.

STAGE RIGHT’s next performance will be the Wild Women of Winedale, a humorous, yet touching tale of two sisters and their sister-in-law. “ They find themselves buried alive with the stuff they’ve inherited,” says Carolyn Wong, STAGE RIGHT’s artistic director. “They still love the memories, but they will always have those.  They don’t need the stuff anymore.”

Over the past decade, there have been many memorable productions, including Annie,  The Wizard of Oz,  The Savannah Sipping Society, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. With 5,200 attendees, A Charlie Brown Christmas was the highest-attended production in the company’s history. One of the most-discussed productions, Steve says, is Singin’ in the Rain, which featured rainfall on stage. “You could hear rain and then you smelled rain,” Carolyn says. “It was a wow moment.” STAGE RIGHT has a YouTube video for those who want to see how they did it.

Although many productions have made audiences laugh, some have made them think. One of those was the Diary of Anne Frank. An actor wearing a Nazi uniform politely greeted people as they arrived, then performed a violent role during the play. Attendees were left with the uncomfortable reality that the profound changes of WWII-era Germany were insidious, and began with a seemingly helpful Nazi Party.

The Historic Crighton Theatre

After Conroe Mayor Harry Crighton struck oil on his property near Conroe, he spent $80,000 — a jaw-dropping amount in 1934—to build a lavish theater in his hometown. When the Crighton Theatre opened in 1935, it seated about 600 people, which was roughly half the population of the town. Built on the site of a theater that had been destroyed in one of Conroe’s two devastating fires, this new structure boasted re-resistant construction of steel, concrete, and native limestone.

The new theater was also beautiful, with Italian-Romanesque architecture and an interior that resembled a Venetian garden. Attendees often talked about the theater’s deep-blue ceiling with twinkling stars. Perhaps most remarkable, however, was the air conditioning.  The Conroe Courier called it “the very latest in electrical refrigeration which will enable the theatergoers to enjoy the comforts of mountain weather on the very hottest days of summer.” Surprisingly, this modern structure was located on an unpaved street.

Although equipped for vaudeville productions, the theater was primarily used for what  the Conroe Courier called “the latest talkie productions.” By the mid-1960s, however, the 30-year-old theater, once called “the crown jewel of Montgomery County,” had lost its luster. Audiences often preferred to attend more modern theaters, and the Crighton began to show B  films. Crighton’s daughter, Hallie Crighton Guthrie, reportedly objected to her father’s name being associated with such films. She closed the theater in 1967, and with no upkeep, the building declined. Leaks in the roof ruined the spectacular lighted ceiling, and the orchestra pit sustained water damage. The theater eventually became the home of pigeons, snakes, rodents, and spiders.

Steve and Carolyn Wong have been instrumental in the
success of STAGE RIGHT, but humbly give credit to the group of people
who team together and make it happen

In 1976, Hallie decided to donate the Crighton  Theatre to the people of Montgomery County if it would be restored. In one evening, $365,000 was raised and reconstruction soon began. After an extensive clean-up, the original ornamental detailing was painstakingly restored; however, the vivid blue ceiling was irreparable. The Crighton  Theatre’s reopening on January 25, 1979, was a grand event.  The Houston Symphony Orchestra performed with bass-baritone Leslie Guinn, a native of Conroe, as the featured soloist.

“It’s an extraordinary story,” Carolyn says, noting that many other historic Texas theaters have been destroyed. “We are very blessed and grateful that people took the initiative to save this space. We need to take care of it and preserve it so future generations can enjoy it,” Carolyn says. “It’s a treasure of this community that needs to be supported and taken care of.”

Fun for Everyone

STAGE RIGHT’s membership includes people with a variety of abilities and experience. While some volunteers act, others serve as ushers, carpenters, and lighting and sound technicians. Some have professional theater experience, while others are hobbyists. “I am a biochemist, and my husband is a petroleum engineer, but we love theater,” Carolyn says. She still laughs about how Steve became involved in theater. A self-admitted “stage nerd” in high school, Carolyn met Steve while both were students at Texas A&M. After graduating, Carolyn became active in community theater groups. At one point, when she was still out painting a stage set at 2 a.m., Steve “realized if he wanted to see his wife, he’d better get involved,” Carolyn says.

Many people credit the Wongs with the success of STAGE RIGHT, but Steve humbly deflects the praise. He maintains that STAGE RIGHT strives to be a good corporate citizen, choosing productions that do well in Conroe. He also emphasizes that STAGE RIGHT has thrived because it has a different focus. “People give of their time and talent and their heart to help others and to nurture their spirit,” he says. One way the organization serves others is through its educational wing, Bravo Company, which offers classes to children and teenagers.

Carolyn vividly remembers the day when a father and son wandered into the Crighton Theatre.  e front door, which is normally locked, was open. “They knew there was a theater in town and wanted to see what was inside,” she recalls.  The son was quiet and unassuming and told Carolyn that he didn’t really have any hobbies. She suggested that he come the following day—a Saturday—to help build and paint sets for the upcoming production of 42nd Street. She told him, “You will see if you like it.” To her surprise, he came and worked all day. Later, he got a small, non-speaking part in a play. He got a bigger part in another production and subsequently became part of the chorus in a musical. It was gratifying for Carolyn to watch the quiet young man become a vital part of STAGE RIGHT. “Sometimes,” she says, “you don’t need a salary when you see how you have changed somebody’s life.”

For more information about STAGE RIGHT or to purchase tickets, visit its web site, www.stage-right.org, or call 936-441-7469.

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