XENIA — They came one by one, some in pairs, down a steep hill to visit the Blue Jacket amphitheater for the last time.
Some brought their cameras. Others brought their children, their dogs. And they pointed to a boulder, or a grassy path, and they talked about the summer nights that they sat in stadium seats and watched the outdoor drama about a Shawnee war chief.
For many, it was where they learned the story of Blue Jacket, who according to the Van Swearingen legend, led his tribe against army forces in the 1790s in what is now Ohio. A story that, centuries later, came alive just feet away from an audience.
They each remembered different scenes, different characters — the canons and the costumes and the horses. Some had seen the play once, others summer after summer. Until 2007, when the show stopped, and its parent company succumbed to bankruptcy, ending the 26-year run.
Greene County Parks and Trails (GCP&T) officials opened Ceasar’s Ford Park to the public Oct. 3 for two hours before the amphitheater is removed. Fans of the play reminisced and said their goodbyes to the theater, which today, a decade after its closing, is marked with age.
But for many others, Oct. 3 was a family reunion.
Production crew members and actors from various years met once more on the land where they sweat off stage makeup, directed children and designed costumes, rode horseback, accidentally shot themselves, and embraced all things outdoor drama.
“It was the most fun I ever had,” said Eric Long, who played an “Indian kid” in 1986. “I never did anything this interesting ever again.”
“I ran down the hill here,” he said pointing. “I had an arrow on a spring under my vest, so I’d pull the string, and the arrow would stick up, and then I’d roll down the hill. I did that every night,” he said, laughing.
Long said he remembered the paint — head to toe.
“You’d go home and you’d wash yourself and destroy the bathtub — it was just completely stained in that stuff — my mom hated that part,” he added.
Elizabeth Maines Kliemann, a props master in 1999, remembered her stained skin, too.
“I got the job and somebody who had worked here said, ‘Let me see your hands’ — and he told me, ‘These are the cleanest your hands are ever going to be for the next three months’.”
Kliemann said she made flaming arrows and torches, melted pitch and mixed it with kerosene.
“I smelled like that and my hands looked like I worked on cars, or in a coal mine, because they were just black,” she said. “It took weeks after the show closed to get it out of my skin.”
According to Richard Sillen, there were 75 firing weapons in the show, all black powder.
Sillen was master pyrotechnician from 1991 to 1996, and then again in 2007.
“It was an absolutely wonderful life,” he said. “We used to have a saying that if you survived a year in outdoor drama you could survive pretty much anything theater.”
For Aaron Reiff, the eleven summers he spent on set were marked by accidents, evidenced by the toe that still flares up or the remnants of black powder still visible in his palm.
He recalled, casually, that time he tore his quad when a flaming arrow spooked his horse, or that time he shot himself in the hand with a bullet meant for a fort.
“My mom was down here asking me how many times I went to the hospital. The answer is kind of — all of them,” he said with a grin.
Reiff started as a “G.I. or Generic Indian” in 1982. He was ten when his mom suggested his sister audition.
“It was summer camp for me,” he said. “It was a great way to grow up.”
He went on to describe one of his scenes.
“A church rolled up around the back and the Native Americans came out to steal our horses and I ran out and yelled, “Mama, Mama! Indians, Indians!” and she ran out after me, the guy popped an arrow up and she died and mayhem ensued,” he said.
According to Gretchen Rives from GCP&T, the structurally-unsound amphitheater, stages, tunnel and tack room will be removed for safety reasons. The dining hall, gift shop, restrooms, concession stand and pole barn will remain. Plans for redevelopment of the space include adjoining it to the rest of the park and opening up the land for public use.
For some, the short evening was bittersweet, a funeral of sorts.
“You know, it was a great story and it was a beautiful evening of theater. Outdoor drama is an American art form and we’re a little sad about that,” one fan said.
But the park, she said, could have a bright future, too.
“It looks like what could be done here has some nice potential, so we’re excited about that. Use the land, take care of it — that’s a lot of what this story was — it was about the land — the sacred land. Leaving it here to rot and fester? No, that’s not what the story would’ve wanted. So use it,” she said.
Rob Campbell, a costume director for five summers in the ’90s and then marketing director in 2004, too, cares about the fate of the land.
“It’s an amazing space and it’s really sad to see that it’s been sitting idle for so long,” he said. “When we were in the show, we were all over this land, every inch of it, we lived here. I got knocked in the chin from a canon — we really bled sweat and tears out here. The friendships, the family has sustained itself over the years.”
The amphitheater was constructed in 1981 before its grand opening. Darrell McQuary helped build it.
“It’s a shame they let it go,” he said, then paused. “Ah, everything’s changing.”
He took one last look at the theater before he made his way back up the hill.
Contact Anna Bolton at 937-502-4498.
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