Wilmington: A city of music and art

Randy Riley - Contributing Columnist

When I moved to Wilmington nearly 40 years ago, I admit, I really didn’t know much about the community. These were the years before Wilmington became famous for freight transportation by ground and by air. At that time, we were known statewide as being an agricultural community. We took pride in being the “Hog Capital of Ohio.”

At that time, the downtown was a hopping place to go shopping. It was filled with many busy, small shops.

The Murphy Theatre was a fancy-looking movie house. It was the only place in town where movies were shown. The stage was rarely used. At that time, the Murphy was owned by Chakeres Theatres. The old building was showing her age. I even heard rumors that the ghost of the builder, Charlie Murphy, haunted the building.

I didn’t even know they had a theatre at Wilmington College until I met Hugh Heiland.

In the early 1980s, when I first met Hugh, I was manager of the Cardiopulmonary Services department at Clinton Memorial Hospital. Hugh contacted the hospital because he was preparing the college productions of the stage play, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Hugh needed medical equipment that looked like it could be used for electric shock therapy. I told him we didn’t have any EST equipment, but I could provide him with some old cardiac diagnostic equipment and some big electrodes that could be applied to the head. It would certainly look like something that could be used for shock therapy.

Hugh said he would stop by and look at what I had.

After looking at my mocked-up version of shock therapy equipment, Hugh said it would look great on stage. We quickly became friends. By the end of our first meeting, we were both laughing and talking in an Irish brogue. I quickly realized; if you know Hugh Heiland, you love Hugh Heiland.

I delivered the equipment to the theatre at the Boyd Auditorium. Hugh made sure I had two tickets so I could see his version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” It was my first exposure to theatre in this community and it was, by far, one of the best stage productions I had ever seen – anywhere.

One of Hugh’s theatre students, Mark Heffernan, had the lead role of Randle McMurphy. Mark owned that role. For the part of Chief Bromden, Hugh selected a WC football player. Physically, he fit the role; large, muscled and long hair, but he had no stage experience. Professor Heiland took this untrained young man and converted him into Chief Bromden. The performance was perfect. The audience wept at the closing scene.

It seemed that everything that was produced by the Wilmington College theatre department was near perfection. My respect and admiration for the pure talent that exists in this community began with that show.

A few years later, as part of the Wilmington College/Community Theatre, Steven Haines directed his updated version of the classic “The Wizard of Oz.” That was the first local production that I saw develop from beginning to end.

My son, Danny, wanted to be cast as a munchkin, so I took both boys to the audition. Josh rode along that evening just for something to do. Danny was excited to be part of the play. As it turned out, Josh was cast as a munchkin and Danny didn’t make the munchkin-cut.

We still had to take Josh to all of the rehearsals, so Danny and I would sit in the auditorium watching the magic happen. One evening, I told Becky Haines, the ultimate stage manager, that Danny and I were available if she needed any help.

The next thing I knew we were backstage climbing up into the fly-loft. That is where all the ropes and pulleys are strung that are used to raise and lower set-pieces and large props onto the stage. We also produced the sound of thunder whenever the Wicked Witch appeared. Danny was delighted. His name was in the program as a member of the fly-crew. He loved it.

Few things ever stay the same. Eventually, the Murphy Theatre was purchased by the community and has become the centerpiece of our downtown. Hugh Heiland died in 2007. The Boyd Auditorium at Wilmington College was completely remodeled and the new theatre was named the Hugh Heiland Theatre. Hugh will live on as the heart of every production.

Amazing talent has been revealed in many forms throughout this community; Marty Geisbrecht playing the piano on the Murphy stage during a showing of silent Charlie Chaplin movies, The Reynolds Brother Band rocking venues throughout Southwest Ohio, Robert Haskins writing and conducting music, the incredible set designs of Lois Hock, The Bathhouse Five (average age in their 80s) playing jazz for the sheer joy of it, performances at Wilmington High School that would rival most college productions, outstanding choirs performing in churches every Sunday and combining their talents in community theatre productions and Cantabile.

This community has been blessed with talent from Hugh Heiland to Steven and Becky Haines, Wynn Alexander, Catherine Roma, Robert and Elizabeth Haskins, Timothy Larrick, Bryan Wallingford and countless others, both onstage and behind stage.

If the ghost of Charlie Murphy is still lingering in this community, it is because he knows that more outstanding entertainment is on the horizon and he wants to be sure he has a great seat.

Charlie will always get the best seat in the theatre … right beside Hugh.


Randy Riley

Contributing Columnist