Pennsylvania theater brings the message of the gospel to life on stage


November 27, 1992|By Wayne Hardin | Wayne Hardin,Staff Writer

STRASBURG, PA. — The artistic and entertainment directors came from Hershey Park, and the technical director from Disneyland in California. The camels came from Connecticut, and the audience comes from all around.

The destination is Sight and Sound Entertainment Centre, the "vision" of owners Glenn and Shirley Eshelman, in the Amish country of Lancaster County.

"This is the country's largest full-time professional Christian theater," says Gregg Halteman, 37, sales and marketing manager.

Mr. Halteman says in the year since it opened, 250,000 people have seen at least one of five shows, all with nondenominational Christian themes, in a 1,400-seat theater which has a stage the same size as the one in Radio City Music Hall in New York. The current show, "Joys of Christmas," featuring 30 cast members, 15 animals (including those two camels), music, robotic Christmas trees and a barrage of special effects, runs through Jan. 2.

In the beginning there were slide shows

Glenn Eshelman, 53, wearing a patterned shirt over a purple turtleneck and light-colored trousers, sits in Centre's second-floor conference room. Shirley Eshelman, 49, known as the quieter of the two, sits on the other side of the table.

"I oversee the business operation," says Mrs. Eshelman, vice president of administration. "Glenn handles the creative and vision aspects."

"I'm not in this for the glory," he says. "I can live in the shadows. What I do I do for the glory of God."

All this started in the 1960s when Mr. Eshelman was drafted, but because of his religious beliefs (he's a member of Church of the Brethren) he did alternative service at a hospital where Mrs. Eshelman also worked.

Pay was low so he worked in a dairy, did landscape paintings of farms, took photographs to help in the sketching. Then they started doing slide shows of his photographs for churches, adding a sound track and readings by Mrs. Eshelman.

"From that it grew into a business," he says.

After being on the road, they returned to their native Lancaster County in the mid-1970s. They built a 650-seat auditorium a half mile down the road, now used for their non-actor "Living Waters" show, but when they moved into live entertainment, they decided a theater was needed.

The current center, on 65 acres, opened in March 1991.

The theater is a technical dream, with a master control booth that looks like the cockpit of a jet, a "fully loaded" recording

studio, a film and videotape library of every production, 1,000 lights controlled by a computerized light board, a custom-designed sound system. Computers run two dozen slide, 35 mm and video projectors. There also are fog machines, a 100-by-50 foot main stage, a separate elevated stage (good for heavenly scenes), two 75-foot side stages and a 10,000-square-foot production facility in a separate building.

Mr. Halteman says a show costs $200,000 to $300,000 to mount.

After creating a concept, Mr. Eshelman says, he does models and drawings and turns them over to the technical crew to execute. Nels Martin, his technical director and a man who appreciates detail, says, "Glenn is the bottom line to everything here," including such things as the "color and texture of fabrics."

Mr. Martin arrived this month after 20 years in California, the last 2 1/2 as production stage manager for live entertainment at Disneyland.

"Theater is theater," says Mr. Martin, 41, who got into the business at 15 and has worked everything from dinner theater to Elton John concerts. "All that changes is the subject on the stage. Our only goal is to present Jesus as gospel, not teaching religious politics."

Earl Grove, 31, artistic director, and Bonnie Bosso, 34, entertainment director, agree. They are two more young members of the "incredible" staff Mr. Eshelman says makes his projects successful.

Mr. Grove and Ms. Bosso formerly were at Hershey Park, the popular amusement center.

"Bonnie and I have an artistic and logistical type of relationship," says Mr. Grove, director of "Christmas." "For instance, she arranges auditions, and I conduct them; she sets up the rehearsals, and I run them."

Both say the chance to present a New Testament message rather than just doing entertainment attracted them to Sight and Sound.

One way of emphasizing the message is a "team approach," Ms. Bosso says. "The traditional show business way has been to acknowledge one person, the star. We acknowledge everyone as a team. We have no stars, no curtain calls.

"Theater is a very self-centered business. It's really neat for me to see that flipped."

The actors, including two Eshelman daughters, are not full-time or Actors Equity union members. Auditions are required for each show.

Keeping the flocks

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