Thursday, August 07, 2008

A Longtime Jewel In Winters' Crown

This feature article appeared in the Davis Enterprise on 8/7/08

Fortunately for the town of Winters, and the outlying communities, Howard Hupe, one of the founders of the Winters Community Theater, and a regular director there, decided against taking a 14 year old bride.

Hupe, a native of Pittsburgh, PA met Davis resident Germaine Walgenbach (whose father, Jake, the owner of Jake’s Plumbing since 1948 was a beloved town character) on a blind date. Howard was attending the Army Language School (now called the Defense Language Institute) in Monterey and Germaine was doing her first year of teaching in Pacific Grove They fell in love and became engaged. Hupe went off to Saudi Arabia, as the first American other than embassy personnel in that country.

He traveled around the country with an interpreter and, as Germaine recalls the story, happened to notice one day that the interpreter looked particularly happy. The interpreter replied that he had just returned from his second honeymoon.

Howard said "Oh, that's a lovely custom...we do that, too, in our country after several years, we take off with our wife" and the interpreter said "No--this is my new wife. She's 14 and my mother just arranged her and she's absolutely wonderful."

The interpreter then said that he would be very happy to have his mother arrange for a wife for Howard as well, but Howard explained that he had a fiancee back in the states.

“This guy said ‘do you have a picture of her?’ -- this 'old bat' of 22 -- me – so Howard hauled out a picture of me and he just shook his head and said, "tsk tsk...her father must have many sheep and goats!!”

Howard returned to the States, and married Germaine in Georgia, where he was sent to another special school. The two traveled extensively with the Army and lived for three years in Tehran, where Germain taught at the English language school, just before the fall of the Shah.

Germaine recalls having to have armed guards traveling with them on school field trips and one particular occasion when the school bus was being bombarded with rocks. Everyone was lying on the floor to escape the bombardment and their son looked at his mother and said “Don’t ever tell me that Grandpa had to walk three miles to school when he was a kid.”

In addition to giving the Hupes a unique world view, their Army experiences also gave them an introduction to theater. Germaine had been a drama major, but “Howard’s theatrical experiences had been limited to playing a tree in his fourth grade play.”

“It was high school,” Howard corrects his wife. “I was much more advanced.”

They were living in Missoula, Montana when they were first married and saw a notice that a group was auditioning for roles in a play. “I wanted to try out, so I dragged Howard along,” said Germaine. “They took one look at him (he was a hunk)...and had that voice...and they cast him and me. That was the beginning of it.”

The Hupes continued to be active in theater wherever they were stationed because almost every military post had some sort of a theater, usually run by the women’s club, who would get their husbands involved as well.

When Howard retired, after 25 years in the military, they moved back to California, where Germaine’s roots were. Howard planned to go to graduate school to get a Masters Degree in counseling, and Germaine applied for a teaching position in 17 different locations. She was hired to teach English at Winters High School.

“I was only going to stay two years while Howard completed graduate school but I fell in love with the town and the people.”

When he completed his degree, Howard also joined the faculty of Winters High School as a counselor.

Though they lived in Davis, the couple became quite active in the social life of Winters. A few years after the Hupes’ participation in the 1976 Centennial Festival in Winters, there was a movement to start a theater group. Howard explains, “It was Shirley Rominger, who has since died; Linda Glick, our current theater group president; Jeannie Vaughn; Germaine’s brother Wayne; Germain and I who decided to form a group.”

They sought permission from the city of Winters to use the community center, currently under construction, for performances, and it was granted. In fact, the very first production was a benefit for Yolo Family Service Agency, and Howard explains that “the kitchen floor was still unpaved. Just dirt. And there were no stalls in the bathroom, so it was a unique experience.”

But the fledgling company took root and began putting on 4-5 productions a year. With the demise of the Davis Comic Opera Company, the Winters Community Theater is now the oldest continuously running community theater in Yolo County.

Elly Award winning actor/director Gil Sebastian got his start with the Winters Community Theater.

“When I was in high school I had no desire to do theater,” he said. “I was really shy and didn’t like performing in front of people. But I had a girlfriend at the time who was the city clerk in Winters. They were doing a melodrama and she said there was a role for a butler and that I would only have two lines. I said it scared me to be on stage, but she dared me and I went out, delivered my two lines and I’ve been doing it ever since -- 27 years now!”

Sebastian explained that the Hupes made a very comfortable environment. “Howard was more than just a director; he was like a surrogate father. I learned so much from him–his demeanor and attitude. I even learned how to tie a tie (I was 28 years old at the time). It was always that family atmosphere, always a family group.”

It was that comfortable environment that drew Amy Vyvlecka, now a director with the Woodland Opera House. “Howard and Germaine are just delightful people, and it reflects on their whole theater experience. What loved about doing shows in Winters was that it made theater fun again.”

Vyvlecka was a theater major at San Francisco State and when someone dropped out of a production of “Twelfth Night” in Winters, she was asked to take over the role. “I didn’t know Shakespeare. I didn’t even like Shakespeare, but I agreed to do the role.” And she began to learn how to perform Shakespeare.

“Both Howard and Germaine have this love of Shakespeare and of teaching and they let people explore characters. Now I do love Shakespeare,” says Vyvlecka, pointing that she has performed in three of the summer Shakespeare productions.

“Germaine’s love for Shakespeare is just incredible,” added Sebastian “She is so thorough. She does an incredible job.”

But Shakespeare is only the summer production. There are all those plays at the community center throughout the rest of the year. Winters has been fortunate to have enormous community support.

“By the time we put on our 25th play, which was something like 20 years ago, more than 600 people had participated,” Germain remembers. “Now we’ve done more than 100 productions and it must be up to about 1500, in terms of either acting or helping to build sets or being spear carriers or helping with costumes and this kind of thing, which is pretty amazing for a town that size.”

“We’re pretty much non-threatening and we welcome new people without any hesitation. If there’s a part for them and we think they’ll do well, we’ll put them on stage,” says Howard.

The group advertises in all the outlying areas, but their core of members come from Winters Woodland and Davis. “They get a talent pool from within the community that’s pretty consistent,” Sebastian says.

“We don’t have a very large pool to draw from that a lot of the other local theater companies do,” says Howard. “I attribute that to the fact that their venues are a little bit more sophisticated than the community center and there is the added distance, particularly during the winter months. That additional 12 miles in the fog and the rain is enough to dissuade some people.”

“It really has a good diverse representation of community members,” said Vyvlecka. “One of my favorites is Larry Justice, who was the sheriff for the town for years. He is a sheriff but he’s so funny on stage.”

Joannie Bryant, a stay at home mom currently serving on the 13-member Board of Directors, has been performing with Winters Community Theater for several years now, her first production a two-woman play directed by Linda Glick, followed by“Twelfth Night”in the summer of 2004. “Howard asked me if I would be interested in being on the board, and I agreed,” she said, adding that “It’s fun–but my husband might not agree, since I spend a lot of time doing publicity.”

Publicity must be working. Seventy-six children auditioned for the recent production of “Sound of Music.” They double-cast the children’s roles, to give as many children as possible a chance to perform.

“Costuming in that play was a killer because we double cast,” remembers Germaine. “We tried to get the most talented kids and generally hoped they’d fit the costumes, but they didn’t always, so I ended up making 13 matching capes for the final scene where they perform at the concert and then take the trek across the Alps into Switzerland.” She also had some dirndls from their four years living in Germany, which she put to good use along with “an armload of clothing” donated by a Austrian neighbor.

Costuming has been a learned art for Germaine. “I did not sew. I came from a family of beautiful seamstresses. Whenever I needed something, I just said ‘mom, can you fix it?” When we got involved in the theater I found that I had to, so I started stapling hems and that kind of thing. Then we got some talented seamstresses who were willing to join our group and they taught me a few things, so I now know not as a seamstress so much as a “rigger.” I can take three Salvation Army dresses and make a decent costume out of them by rigging. It’s been a great experience; I’ve loved it.”

They rent storage space in Winters to house the costumes and set and prop pieces. The Hupes are always on the prowl for something that might work in a future production. “I will buy the weirdest collection of things,” said Germaine. When Lawrence’s Department Store closed in Davis, she spied a shield and some swords that were being used for decoration. “They were nothing but papier mache but they looked wonderful and I bought ‘em all for $10 and we’ve used them many times. I knew if we ever did a period play we could use them or a modern play set in an old castle. We’ve used them for that too.”

Gil Sebastian performed in twenty-five productions in Winters, and returned later to direct for the company. “It’s difficult to do staging at the community theater,” he said, “There are no wings and no backstage.” “The Wizard of Oz” was a huge production and they built extensions out into the audience. “It was tough, but we did it.”

Howard’s dream is a new performing arts center. “One of our goals right now is to try to work with the city to come up with a performing arts center, not just for us, but the high school needs it, the elementary school needs it, Parks & Rec needs it–something that can be theirs and they can work with, where they have graduated seating and things like that. I think it will eventually come to fruition in Winters because I think the town wants it and the city is behind it. It’s just a matter of finding a suitable venue and finding enough money and getting the grants.”

Like most community theaters, money (or lack of it) is a constant problem. Royalties alone take a huge chunk of admission revenue. The royalty for “Sound of Music,” for example, was $2,000, which is a big chunk of money when you only charge $10 for a ticket. Sometimes you have to be creative with finding funding.

“We had an antique auction once,” remembers Howard. “One of our supporters arranged for an auctioneer and we raised several thousand dollars on that auction which was actually attended by a lot of dealers.”

“And we’ve had a few ‘angels,’” says Germain, with a smile.

Bryant says that the board is working on their five-year plan and their ten-year plan. “We’re hoping to catch up with the rest of the world,” she laughs.

The Winters Community Theater is a little gem of an institution which owes its longevity to the dedication of a core group of people, primarily Howard and Germaine Hupe.

“I adore Howard and Germaine,” says Amy Vyvlecka. “ I think what they’re doing is really wonderful. It gives people the opportunity to do really great plays. It gives people a chance to try out some of these roles. So many people have this opportunity to be part of this family they’ve created.”

Gil Sebastian agrees. “Performing for Howard (who directed all of my 25 shows there) taught me some valuable life and work lessons, as well as theater etiquette. The confidence I gained, the ability to stay calm amid chaos, the ability to engage and hold an audience, the importance of humor, to respect others as you wish to be respected –– all have made me a better person, and I seriously owe all of that to Howard.”

Imagine how things might have changed in Yolo County, had Howard accepted that offer of a 14-year-old bride.

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