A good time had by all Play time: Audience and cast leave laughing after Manchester firefighters present an evening of flubbed lines, missed cues and ad libs.

April 20, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

In the northern Carroll County town of Manchester, the social event of the year is the volunteer firefighter follies.

For 70 years or more, audiences have been coming to the old Manchester fire hall for comic relief. Manchester has its share of pancake breakfasts and bingo games, but as far as anybody knows, it is the only volunteer fire department in Maryland producing plays to raise money.

At least, they say they are producing plays. It's more like a cross between vaudeville and Mayberry R.F.D.

"If there was an Academy Award category for best cornball, we could be a contender," said Manchester Mayor Elmer C. Lippy, a 76-year-old lifetime member of the Fire Department, who never "attended a fire or missed a play production or pig roast."

Mr. Lippy, a veteran of about 30 fire hall productions, remembers "Arch," the propman who imbibed too freely from the supply of stage-fright medicine -- "I think it was Jack Daniels" -- and disappeared long before the final curtain.

Occasionally, a player misses an entrance and leaves someone stranded on stage. "Help! I'm out here alone again," the actress playing the cook called out.

At dress rehearsal last week for this year's show, "Peck's Bad Boy," a singing sister trio, decked out in matching outfits and three shades of heavy hair, tried to get their act together. With an offhand gesture, one lost her bouffant wig. Her sisters followed suit. It made the cast laugh, so it was written into the play.

The last line of this year's show sums up the sentiment: "Even when you're encouraged to be good, it's a lot more fun to be bad."

Except for a brief hiatus during World War II, the volunteer Fire Department has staged a play every spring in this town of 3,100. It is not critical acclaim, but high camp that makes the shows a success. The actors ham it up, miss cues and forsake practiced dialogue for the easy laugh.

"The audience knows what to expect, and they know they will leave laughing," said Gary Eppley, the lead in this year's production.

The show goes on even if a fire call comes through from the station downstairs. With about 200 volunteers on Manchester's roster, nobody has left the stage to fight a fire yet.

"We have lost guys to a fire during practice, but never during a show," said director-actress Bobbi Vinson.

The event draws about 250 to each of three performances. It brings in at least $1,500 -- more if the company counts the money from the homemade desserts sold at intermission.

Every folding chair in the house is $3.50 for adults, $1 less for children. Long intermissions after each act help ease nagging aches caused by the furniture, Mr. Eppley said.

As always, the department expects to fill the house this year, for "Peck's Bad Boy," a 1930s comedy peppered with puns and pranks.

"I think we have done that one before," said Mr. Lippy

Ten years ago, he abandoned the stage for politics. "The plays haven't suffered one iota from my absence," he said.

The mayor may not be on stage, but he and other local officials are sure to receive a few zingers during the show. "Elmer is a standard, and town pillars are all fair game," said Ms. Vinson.

During the performance, one actress says of the hero, "He is good-looking, but he's no Elmer Lippy."

At another point, a glass of discolored water is served. "We have a little problem with the water superintendent here," says the actor in a jab at fire Chief Steve Miller, who heads the town Water Department.

Nobody has more fun than the cast, said Ms. Vinson, whose background in theater did not prepare her for the Manchester troupe.

"We are all raw talent that will never be refined," said Mr. Gary, a 37-year-old man with a mustache, possibly miscast as the 14-year-old bad boy.

"Once he was a woman with a mustache," said Ms. Vinson. "He won't shave it off. He just winks and tells the audience he is 14 in the first act."

Behind the scenes, but within earshot of the audience, prompter Diane Nichols is the indispensable element. The players beg frequently and shamelessly for a line.

"The audience finds it humorous that we have to ask," said Mr. Eppley.

Completely lost in one monologue, Mr. Eppley finally said, "How about if I just move my lips and let Diane read?"

He's certainly no Elmer Lippy.

Show time is 8 p.m. today and 2: 30 p.m. tomorrow. Information: 239-2286.

Pub Date: 4/20/96

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