Towngate Celebrates 50 Years of Community Theater
Season Dedicated to O’Leary; Special Preview Party Is Friday
WHEELING –Oglebay Institute’s Towngate Theatre kicks off its 50th season of community theater in September. To celebrate this milestone, its staff, volunteers and patrons are looking back at its beginning, hosting a season preview party and honoring its founder Hal O’Leary, who passed away in late June.
O’Leary spent a lifetime in the theater as actor, director, designer, teacher and mentor. He served as Towngate artistic director for 43 years. The 50th season is dedicated to O’Leary and his legacy.
Sponsored by Unified Bank, the main stage season kicks off in September with “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Other main stage shows include “Miracle on 34th Street,” “The Shaughraun” and “Our Town.”
Audiences can get a sneak peek of this year’s season during a special preview party Friday, presented by the Friends of Towngate, a volunteer group dedicated to raising awareness and funds to support Towngate and its mission.
Titled, “Let Us Entertain You,” the party begins at 6:30 p.m. with hors d’oeuvre, wine and beer in The Gallery at Towngate. Then, guests head upstairs for captivating readings from each of the main stage plays featured in this year’s lineup. Guests also will be entertained by guitar master Roger Hoard. After the show, guests return to The Gallery and enjoy a selection of desserts. The evening concludes with a champagne toast to kick off another successful season of performing arts.
Friends of Towngate board member Dana Applegate said the preview party is not only a chance to get a snapshot of the coming season but also to “mingle with others who have a passion for and love of live theater.”
The tradition of community theater at Oglebay Institute dates back to its founding in 1930. Prior to the purchase of Towngate, theatrical productions took place at a variety of venues throughout Wheeling including the Carriage Barn and Mansion Museum in Oglebay, St. Michael Catholic Church and the former Pennsylvania Railroad Station, which was located along the waterfront in downtown.
In 1969, OI leased the Zion Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and staged four productions during its first season — “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” by Tennessee Williams, “The Absence of a Cello” by Ira Wallach, Moss Hart’s “Light up the Sky” and “Uncle Vanya” by Anton Chekhov.
In 1970, the Institute purchased the current building in Center Wheeling. Under the direction of O’Leary and with funds raised from members of the theater community, major renovations transformed the historic church into Towngate Theatre. Since that time more than 300 plays have been staged at Towngate.
With 166 seats, Towngate provides an intimate theater experience for actors and audiences.
In addition to community theater performances, Towngate offers poetry and spoken word performances, children’s theater, improvisational comedy shows, live music and cinema. The Gallery at Towngate features changing art exhibits throughout the year. Kids can enroll in Saturday acting classes or summer theater camps. Towngate’s educational outreach program brings theater and improv programs into elementary and middle school classrooms.
Towngate remains accessible by keeping admission costs low.
“Theater shouldn’t be a luxury for the rich. We strive to keep our ticket costs affordable for everyone,” Oglebay Institute director of performing arts Tim Thompson said.
According to Thompson, ticket sales only cover about half the cost of producing a play. Fundraising efforts, like the Friends of Towngate season preview party, help bridge the gap.
Tickets to the Friday event can purchased at www.oionline.com or by calling 304-242-7700.
The Friends of Towngate also coordinates volunteers to serve in various roles at the theater such as ushers and concession workers when needed.
Applegate said the group is always happy to welcome new people who want to support Towngate. Anyone who attends events at Towngate and has a passion for theater is encouraged to get involved by contacting the theater at 304-233-0820.
Corporate sponsorship and individual support are also essential to sustain and expand programming at Towngate, said Oglebay Institute director of development Micah Underwood.
“Corporate sponsorships offer local businesses a unique way to invest in our shared community. This year, we are tremendously grateful for Unified Bank’s generous gift to support the 50th season, and we look forward to celebrating this milestone with them and the community that has made these past five decades possible,” she said.
“Individual donations, like corporate sponsorships, help to create unique and powerful experiences for theater makers and audiences alike. We’ve been particularly moved this year by gifts in memory of Hal O’Leary, which will ensure the carrying on of his remarkable legacy,” Underwood said/
Anyone wishing to make a gift to Towngate in memory of O’Leary can do so at www.oionline.com/halmemorial, by calling 304-242-4200 or by mail to Oglebay Institute, Hal O’Leary Memorial Fund, and 1330 National Road, Wheeling, WV 26003.