Local thespians create on-stage magic at the regal old playhouse in Hawley

I'm going to let you all in on a little secret: Believe it or not, I nearly took a completely different path in life.

Yes, there was a time when I seriously considered becoming an actor rather than a writer.

Hey, don't laugh! I earned the lead in the very first play I ever auditioned for.

Ah, I remember it like it was yesterday: Kevin Edwards starring as Old Joe Clarke in a musical entitled, amazingly enough, “Old Joe Clarke.”

I was pretty young at the time, so there weren't any talent scouts in the audience looking to whisk me off to Broadway. However, there were several cool aspects of playing Old Joe Clarke.

I got to dress like a cowboy, strum a kid-sized acoustic guitar, shoot off a cap pistol (those were much more innocent times, folks) and … brace yourselves … I also received my very first kiss! Yessir, I got a peck on the cheek from the prettiest girl in my class right up there on the stage.

This heady stuff all took place in my second year of Kieglergarten, a much-loved preschool here in Honesdale during the 1960s and 70s.

Sadly, memories of my early stage triumphs soon faded. As the years passed, I began to focus on sports and just slowly drifted away from the footlights.

However, my experience as Old Joe Clarke and my, ahem, latent thespian talent, emerged in the next generation...

The Ritz

Both of my children love the stage. They caught the bug from their mom, herself a talented performer who sang and danced at Woodloch Pines for many years.

One day when Alec and Scout were little, I drove them to a practice for their very first Ritz Bitz play: “Guys & Dolls Junior.”

For those of you who may not be familiar, Ritz Bitz is a kids' theatre group that stages scaled-down versions of famous plays.

They're incredibly well done and unbelievably cute.

Unfortunately, my first impression of the Ritz Company Playhouse in downtown Hawley wasn't entirely positive.

My memories of The Ritz on that first summer's day are of a dark, dank, hot, crumbling old building. The water-stained ceiling tiles, musty old curtain and peeling wallpaper caused me to shake my head sadly.

That was a long time ago, though, and little did I realize the magic I'd see conjured there over the course of the next 15 years.

A Bit of History

The Ritz was built in 1933 as a home to a Comerford Motion Picture Theater.

What once was a beautiful art deco style building deteriorated over the decades and closed in 1970. Three years later, it was purchased and given a second life as home to a locally-based theatre troupe.

This group, led by the trio of Dick Murphy, Peggy Murphy and Samuel “Ed” Buckmaster, mounted its very first production in June of 1973.

“Brigadoon” was a huge success and established the company as a major player on the NEPA arts scene. The Ritz became, and remains to this day, a major part of my family life.

Over the course of its 45-year run, the Ritz has hosted hundreds of shows and entertaining nearly a quarter million spectators. Its performers have earned many accolades and awards since 1973.

For example, Ed Buckmaster, who sadly passed away two years ago, was a fixture at The Ritz in just about any capacity you can imagine.

I knew him as the dapper old dude at the back of the house, passing out seat cushions and helping folks find their seats.

Ed appeared in literally hundreds of shows at The Ritz spanning more than four decades. He acted, directed, designed sets, worked lights and sounds … even served as House Manager and Box Office Manager in later years.

As recently as 2015, Ed was still taking on acting roles, appearing in “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

In 1988, he was honored to receive the NEPA Theatre Association's lifetime achievement award at a gala ceremony held on the campus of Wilkes University.

Going Strong

While Ed is sorely missed, the Ritz Company Playhouse remains a vital, living entity.

The troupe stages everything from light-hearted musicals to intense dramas, much to the delight of local audiences.

Some of my personal favorites in recent years include “Curtains,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Young Frankenstein.”

At the moment, the troupe is staging a classic musical comedy from the 1920s. “Anything Goes” features music by Cole Porter and a story penned by PG Wodehouse.

Each night I sit there in the dark, look up at my son and smile. Alec is playing the role of Moonface Martin, a hapless gangster wannabe who's “Public Enemy Number 13.”

With every wisecrack and every song, my smile grows wider. I think back all those years to his first role as Harry the Horse. Once again, I shake my head … this time, not in sadness but in wonder.

This wonderful old edifice is home to a talented, dedicated, hard-working group of actors who routinely produce wildly-entertaining shows.

If you haven't been to The Ritz, you really don't know what you're missing.

The company is once again producing a full slate of shows which includes:

•Anything Goes (through July 22);

•The Second Lady (July 27-Aug. 5);

•Seussical Jr. (Aug. 10-19);

•Sandy Toes and Salty Kisses (Aug. 24-Sept. 2).

For further information, visit the Ritz Facebook page or the website at ritzplayhouse.com