Matt Nelson: The collected moments of 50 years

For the News-Register

Friday night, I went to Gallery Theater for the opening night of “The Wizard of Oz.”

In my youth, it was called Gallery Players. I grew up doing shows there. It’s been 23 years since I walked through those doors, but everything came whooshing back.

They’ve got a nice marquee outside, and some of the decor has changed. But so much of it was just as I’d remembered. Most profound was the smell — not good or bad, but distinct and ripe with nostalgia for me.

I saw dear Ben Frum in the lobby, clad in his trademark overalls. He didn’t seem to have aged a day, despite being older by a hundred or so set-builds.
Other friends were absent.

Sadly, I learned of Bill Baker’s passing last autumn. Bill haunted Gallery’s stage with his brilliance most of his life. I’ve never known better odds for someone’s ghost to continue the tradition.

News-Register file photo##Matt Nelson as president of Mac High Thespian Society in 1995.

Many faces were unfamiliar. But their stories, telling the story of Gallery, poured forth like a familiar friend.

I encountered the charming, unapologetically hammy character actress who put her full self out there, living life the way we could only hope. The older wispy white-haired grandfatherly gentleman packed a pocket full of Werther’s and a throat full of bedtime stories. The young adult who long since escaped to the city, but whose heart kept him coming back to do more shows. The middle-aged adventurer, surprising everyone, including himself, by finally giving the stage a try. The young teen returning to the stage for her sixth production.

And because it was a musical, families with kids were out in full force, both on the stage and out in the seats. A cross-generational parent-child combo pack produced a chorus of bright-eyed first timers, tugging at their adorable costumes.

I was there for the huge 25th Anniversary renovation. At the time, they were putting in new seats.

Here we are in year 50, making the same curtain pitch to avid subscribers, dressed-up retirees, weekend wine warriors, sprawling extended families and impatient kids squealing with anticipation. Many of their names will adorn the backs of the new seats serving for the next 25 years.

Finally, and most impactfully, I see generational change underway.

I came to watch an old friend, one whom I actually sponsored way back in high school for our thespian club. She’s now choreographing shows and wrangling kids — along with a little dog for this particular show. Names I shared playbills with are now listed among the board members and top contributors.

The students and rookies of old have become the teachers and veterans of the moment. That’s what strikes me the most — the moments, swirling round and back.

Created by a reflection of this town, a group of real people gathered to play at and watch make-believe. Taken together, collected lovingly over time, they have come to carry a torch shining brightly in countless eyes. They have fueled a forge that sustains a community — a place where not only can you carry your moments with you, but can always come back for more.

Matt Nelson is a former McMinnville resident and Gallery Theater regular now living in Portland. He recorded these observations on a visit last weekend after a 23-year absence.

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