Our history began in 1943 when the 27 singers from Lowell Riley’s First Community Church men’s glee club decided that they wanted to do something with all the music they had learned. Minstrel shows were very popular in those days so they chose that format to showcase their repertoire, recruited a few other acts and some dancers willing to form a chorus line, and reserved the stage of Upper Arlington High School for the nights of March 12th and 13th. Realizing that he couldn’t accompany all of the acts, Lowell invited Bob Murphy to play the piano with him. The audience was so enthusiastic that the encores ran past midnight, which began the tradition of “no encores.” The second performance was 45 minutes shorter!
With the success of their first endeavor, Lowell enlarged the chorus, recruited more performers and added the church’s Cloister Choir of high school girls the following year. An orchestra comprised of local musicians volunteered their services and the twin pianos moved onstage where for the next 49 years they continued to be one of the most popular acts. The minstrel format soon evolved into a musical variety show called Vaud-Villities that grew each year in size and popularity. By 1947 the cast was over 200 strong and local newspapers lauded the show as one of the great community activities that involved whole families. A women’s glee club was added in 1958 with many Cloister Choir alumnae as members.
Both the cast and audience continued to grow and by 1961 it had become clear that three performances at the school could not nearly meet the demand for tickets. In a giant leap of faith, Lowell, Bob Murphy and the production staff opted to try for a fourth performance at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. Enough tickets were sold to encourage moving the show downtown the following year for our 20th anniversary production, “Suddenly It’s Broadway.” Major adjustments were required. The cast now numbered 300 and new sets and risers had to be built to fill the huge 70-foot stage. With tickets priced at $2.00 to $3.00, the biggest challenge was selling enough tickets to cover increased costs. Since 1944, our orchestra had played for nothing, but now we must hire union musicians and stagehands as well as rent the hall. A giant publicity campaign was launched which brought good coverage from enthusiastic columnists who built upon the reputation that Vaud-Villities had achieved as a popular Tri-Village entertainment tradition.
During the 1960’s as Vaud-Villities became more professional, newspapers were generous in their praise. David Denning and Kirby Wyatt designed lavish sets and lighting effects that received high accolades. In 1965 by means of a giant turntable at center stage, a southern plantation revolved to become a lively showboat and later changed from a cascading fountain background for the women’s glee club to the set for the twin pianos of Riley and Murphy. Vaud-Villities sophisticated sets launched Kirby Wyatt into the spotlight making him a much sought after stage designer in professional theater.
Rehearsals were held downtown in a space now occupied by BalletMet during the 80’s and 90’s and in early 2000’s Vaud-Villities moved to Northland. For nearly a decade that old movie theatre, that was once a part of the Northland Mall footprint, was home. Sets were stored there, rehearsals were held and the start of Kids and Senior Camps began there. With the expansion project put in place for the Northland community, and the plan for a new dog shelter and several businesses entering the strip on Morse Road, we began to plan our next move.
The production was hosted at Veteran’s Memorial up until 2009 when the costs became more than the non-profit could justify. In 2010 we went back to our roots and performed our annual spring production at Upper Arlington High School while renovations were being made to the space we now call home, the Northland Performing Arts Center in Northland just a stone’s throw from the ol’ movie theatre.
During these years, the cast was under the fine direction of Bob Potts and Toni Auch. When Auch announced her retirement from the show in 2011 the Board of Trustees was set to find a new Director, one that could move the show forward into the future and they found that in not one, but three artistic directors and a team of artistic visionaries from costumes to tech to dance. Russ Coffman, a VV veteran of over a decade at the time took the helm as the Director. Johnny Steiner was hired in 2012 as the music guy – the Associate Director, Music; the first time in many years that the show had only one music director. Maggie Ellison, a dancer and previous dance coordinator, filled the role of the Associate Director, Movement.
In 2012, Vaud-Villities added a second annual production, a holiday show in December and in 2015, a summer production: Summer Stages which benefits a local non-profit.
Vaud-Villities remains true to its roots and continues to dazzle audiences of all ages, encourage youth to pursue the arts and plays a major role in the community through partnerships and volunteerism.