By Bill Hanna
For the past 76 years The Linsly School has provided Wheeling residents with a night of wonderful entertainment, and that tradition will continue when the curtain rises for the 77th Annual Linsly Extravaganza on Friday, Feb. 27, at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theatre.
The genesis of the show dates back to 1939, when Capt. Douglas Haigwood organized and directed the first Linsly Minstrel in celebration of Linsly Military Institute’s 125th anniversary. The minstrel was such a success that it became an annual event under Haigwood’s direction for the next 35 years until 1974, when the name was changed to The Linsly Extravaganza as it is known today.
For the first seven years of its existence the show was performed in the auditorium of Madison School on Wheeling Island before moving to the historic Virginia Theater in 1946. The minstrel’s final relocation occurred in 1963, when it occupied its permanent residence in the Capitol Theatre.
Unlike the Extravaganza, the shows mimicked the prototypical minstrels of the old South complete with chorus, soloists, end men in black face ala Al Jolson, and an interlocutor who introduced all the acts and generally ran the show. The end men provided the humor with their silly jokes, and they also sang solos of catchy tunes like “How Come You Do Me Like You Do,” whereas the more serious soloists wore white coats and performed such songs as “What Is This Thing Called Love.” As the years progressed, the black-faced end men evolved into hobos and eventually hillbillies.
The chorus comprised about 100 students, half of them cadets who invited their girlfriends to make up the other half. When the chorus performed its portion of the songs, it did so by executing synchronized hand motions in time to the music. The chorus, end men, soloists, and interlocutor remained onstage for the entire show, which also featured a number of variety acts. For years the finale was the appearance of the Linsly Stage Beauties, primarily huge student athletes who performed their rendition of a Rockette’s dance line.
For the past 29 years the Extravaganza has been under the direction of Frank Wilson, chairman of the fine arts department at Linsly. A native of Connecticut and a graduate of West Chester University in Connecticut, Wilson came to Linsly in 1980. When then Headmaster Reno DiOrio asked him to take over as director of the annual show in 1986, Wilson readily agreed, but he did suggest a major change for the event.
“I said to Reno Diorio I was more than willing to take over the directorship of the show, but one the of things I really wanted to see happen was that we require every student, every fifth grader through senior, to be involved in some way, and then I said that while we’re at it, let’s require it of all the faculty as well. Now the staff too is involved, so we have just about everyone in our school involved in some way.”
Wilson said that at first students somewhat shied away from participating in the show, but this has changed.
“I think the first couple of years kids were hesitant,” he said. “A lot of kids wanted to be ushers or stage crew or anything but on the stage, and that has slowly changed over the years to this year where I’m actually pleading with students to be ushers because everyone wants to be on that stage.”
With the exception of the entire school’s participation in the production, Wilson said the modern Extravaganza is not that much different from the shows of the bygone era.
“I think we are very close to being the same as the minstrel show,” he said. “Other than having every student involved, we still have comedy skits, we have soloists perform both instrumental and vocal, and we have our large group numbers. I think it’s structured very similarly to Doug Haigwood’s style. We just modernized it, and we try to keep aware of the modern trends.”
Although the Extravaganzas usually do not have a particular theme, Wilson pointed out that the 75th Anniversary production was an exception to this rule when the theme was “Everything Old Is New Again.”
“That was fun because we got a chance to do a lot of salutes to the wonderful Doug Haigwood and his original minstrel,” Wilson said. “Our opening acts featured some of the hand choreography that was done in the old shows, and so it was kind of a wink and a nod to the beginnings of our show and of course relating it to the new sounds of the modern music.”
Wilson said that for most of the students rehearsal for the show begins in the first part of January as soon as they return from the holiday break, but auditions for the big opening act actually occur as early as October and November. Wilson added that despite the long hours spent rehearsing and the work involved in scheduling the rehearsals around other school activities like athletics, the entire process is enjoyable because of the enthusiasm and cooperation of everyone involved.
“Everyone is so cooperative, and the students have a such a positive attitude toward it,” he said. “The families who transport their children back and forth to school to the practices in the evening just make it easy, and the attitude that goes through the school this time of year is just amazing. No matter how difficult all of the behind-the-scenes work is, the hard work of the students makes the entire process very enjoyable. I’m really fortunate to be working here.”
Wilson’s excitement and enthusiasm for this year’s production were easily detectible in his voice as he offered a brief preview of it.
“There are always some surprises, and some of the favorite acts of the past are returning. The happy whistlers are almost a traditional annual act that the audience enjoys. We always have a senior act at the end, but prior to the senior act every year we have the lifers. These are the eight-year students, who offer a little bit of advice, or ponderings as we call them, with the audience prior to the senior act and that’s always a lot of fun.”
One person Wilson credits for making the show so successful each year is Greta Foose, who has been teaching theater, dance, and speech in the lower school for the past nine years, but who also has been the sole choreographer of the extravaganza for 19 years. She said she has been involved with the show on and off for most of her life, and she, like Wilson, loves the idea that the production encompasses the entire school.
“I like it that everyone in the show has to participate and the fact that everyone has to do something encourages everyone to try something they maybe wouldn’t have tried if they didn’t have to participate,” she said. “And once they do try it, they realize how much fun performing actually is and that it’s really great on the night of the show to be up there with the lights and the costumes. “When the people applaud for you, it’s a wonderful feeling because you know you’ve really worked hard to get to that point and it’s nice to have that immediate feedback from the audience on the night of the show.”
Foose also emphasized that participation in the Extravaganza affords Linsly students a unique opportunity.
“Our kids are really talented, but they aren’t really that different from anybody else’s,” she said. “However, with the Extravaganza all of our students are in the mix regardless of their particular areas of interest or skill. Therefore all of the participants get a chance to try doing something they probably wouldn’t get the opportunity to do if they were at school anywhere else.”
In looking ahead to the show on Feb. 27, Wilson said that the Extravaganza is traditionally “pretty much a sellout,” and ticket information may be obtained by calling Linsly at 304-233-3260. All seats are reserved.
Because of his unwavering faith in the students, Wilson also expressed his utmost confidence that the 77th edition of the Extravaganza will maintain the high standard of excellence it has established and sustained throughout the years.
“I know, and I’m confident after so many years that the kids will put on a great show, as they always do. This is what happens. No matter how rough a rehearsal may go or kids are sick from the practice or we just have a rough practice, which we rarely have, we know the night of the show the kids are going to put on their best performance ever. They always come through. I’ve found from all my years of teaching here if you just leave it up to the kids, they are going to come through for you.
“I think it’s going to be a show full of surprises but yet in keeping with the tradition of the usual format.”
The house lights dim.
A hush falls over the audience.
(Author’s Note: Special thanks to Bill Wilson and The Linsly School Museum and archives for the Minstrel photos and to Mark Pietz for the Extravaganza photos.)
The Linsly School was once Linsly Military Institute, and Bill Hanna shares his memories as a student during the late 1950’s: