By Steve Novotney
At the time Mollie O’Brien graduated from Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy in 1970, her options were limited. She wanted to perform her music, and doing that in Wheeling seemed impossible.
Wheeling at the time was the home to nearly 50,000 residents, and the region favored rock and roll even more than it did country.
O’Brien didn’t fit.
After two years of college, she ventured into New York City with dreams of Broadway, but she ended up working in the garment center. She returned to Wheeling after four years and then opted to join her brother, Tim, in Colorado in 1980.
“I wanted to play music, and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity here to do that at that time,” O’Brien said. “There weren’t that many people to play with either. I didn’t know exactly what kind of stuff I wanted to do at that point, but it was obvious to me that I was going to have to be somewhere else if it was going to happen.
“I may have been able to find them in Pittsburgh after I came home from New York, but by that time my brother, Tim, had moved to Colorado and was experiencing some success, so I decided to go there and see what might happen. So I saved up my money and moved,” she explained. “And I did find a band right away and settled in, and then I met Rich about a year after moving there.”
Rich Moore and Mollie have been married for 31 years, and the couple has two daughters. But when Moore first heard about Mollie’s hometown, he was aware of just one fact about the Friendly City. It did not concern statehood, Jamboree USA, or steel.
“When I met Mollie and she told me that she was from Wheeling, the only thing I knew about Wheeling was the tunnel. Everyone seems to know about the tunnel. That’s what people say when they find out, too. For some people, that tunnel is all they know about the state of West Virginia.”
These days they perform a duo act in many different cities across the country, and they will visit Kansas City, Seattle, Spokane, Portland, and Little Rock, and they will also travel abroad to the Shetland Islands and Scotland in the summer. Mollie and Rich joined Tim on the Capitol Theatre stage this past Saturday evening during the Wheeling Symphony’s second “Pops” concert.
And she found her sound. Bluegrass. Jazz. Folk. Rhythm and Blues. She has produced several albums, collaborated with many recording artists, and she and Rich have released one studio album (“Saints and Sinners”), as well as one live recording (“900 Baseline”).
“How often we perform just depends, really, and it’s always up and down,” the 62-year-old said. “We did a bunch of shows in Colorado in January, and we have a number of performances scheduled for February. I will perform as often as I can because we’re still young enough to do it, and I can’t imagine retiring.”
And returning to her hometown is always a trip she looks forward to. Rich and Mollie have returned to Wheeling on many occasions over the past three decades for holiday celebrations, performances, and simply to visit.
“It’s great when I get the chance to come home. I wish it could happen more often,” O’Brien said. “Unfortunately, travel and the expense of coming here doesn’t allow that to happen too often, so it was really nice this time to have a full day off so I could get around town a little bit.”
This time, though, Mollie and Rich noticed a difference.
“On this trip we have met a lot of young people who have moved here, and they are very enthusiastic about trying to re-invent Wheeling, and it seems like a good thing,” O’Brien said. “
“There is a lot in Wheeling now. I hope people realize that,” she said. “I know people can be negative, and they can hold the past against all of the wrong people, so it’s good to see that there are people here now that are moving forward.”
Even Rich, a native of Philadelphia, insisted he has felt a discrepancy with the Friendly City he’s come to know since 1981.
“I’ve been coming to Wheeling for 30-some years for all of the holidays and things like that,” Rich said. “I know all of the ins and outs, the roads, and this is the first time I have seen Wheeling where it looks like it has a smile on its face.
“Wheeling is a lot like many of the mill towns in Pennsylvania, but I now see more happening here than I do in those other towns,” Rich said. “It’s tough on people when one era ends and the people of a region are looking to see what the next era will be. Here in Wheeling, it just seems as if people are finally figuring it out.”
While Mollie performed at the Capitol Theatre in December, her visit was brief, and Rich did not accompany her. Rich, in fact, had not returned to the Northern Panhandle for a few years.
“But this time we’ve had time to take a good look, around, and it seems as if the city is up a couple of notches,” he said. “It’s not just what you see, but it’s also what you feel and what you hear. It’s different. It’s better. I can see why people are either moving back or re-locating here.”
The turning point for Wheeling’s revival, many believe, was reached when the Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau purchased the Capitol Theatre in April 2009, and O’Brien is thrilled with the upgrades that have taken place to the venue in the past five years.
“The theatre looks beautiful, and it sounds wonderful. It’s very thrilling when I get to come home, and it’s thrilling to work with the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra,” she said. “It’s a big honor to be here.
“And, as far as the Capitol Theatre, it’s way up there compared to the places where I have performed,” O’Brien said. “You can see all of the improvements that have been made since it re-opened, and those improvements make all the difference in the world.”