The male voice on the phone that evening in February 1971 said, “This is Slim Callis. I’m putting together a production of ‘Our Town’ at the Presbyterian church in Brownstown, and I wondered if you’d play the part of Dr. Gibbs.”
That call was my introduction to Arvil R. “Slim” Callis and the start of what would be a 50-year friendship.
Slim had produced “The Glass Menagerie” in 1969 at the Presbyterian Youth Camp (Pyoca) just outside of Brownstown, where he was camp director for 16 years. That play is viewed as the birth of what would evolve into Jackson County Community Theatre.
The 1971 production of “Our Town” was a huge success, and like many of those who would fall under Slim’s tutelage, I was excited about the opportunity to be involved, having assumed my acting days were over when I left college.
The following year, Slim produced “The Miracle Worker,” the story of Helen Keller, also at the Presbyterian church. And already, a small group of interested citizens were beginning to share Slim’s dream of an ongoing theatrical entity.
He cast his plays through a combination of seeking out those who already had the “acting bug” and by figuratively twisting the arms of some reluctant performers who found it hard to tell him “no.” He seemed to know everyone in town and where to find any kind of prop, furniture or materials he might need for a show.
Meanwhile, the informal group that had been working with Slim created an interim board with the goal of creating an “official” community theater organization. That group included Don Clodfelter, Ed Boley, Donna Brown, Molly Ferguson, Bill Prentice, Joe Persinger and Larry Spurgeon.
In the spring of 1973, Slim convinced the county commissioners to let him use the courtroom in the historic Jackson County Courthouse to stage “The Night of January 16th,” a courtroom drama by Ayn Rand. Cast members had to learn two different endings, and each night, a jury of 12 audience members would find the defendant guilty or not guilty, and the cast would respond with the appropriate ending.
Of course, it was another hit, partly because of the “reality” of being in the actual courtroom, partly because of the drama itself and partly because of the “jury’s” participation.
That same spring, Larry Spurgeon, secretary of the interim board, reported that Don Clodfelter, with legal assistance from Judge Robert R. Brown, had received certification of the Jackson County Community Theatre Inc. as a nonprofit corporation.
Its purposes, as expressed in the articles of incorporation, included “establishment, maintenance and management of a theater company for the cultural improvement of the community by producing stage plays and related activities.”
The corporation’s first annual membership meeting was held April 16, 1973, and included election of the first official board of directors. They included several of those who had served on the interim board: Don Clodfelter, president; Joe Persinger, vice president; Larry Spurgeon, secretary; Molly Ferguson, treasurer; Bill Prentice; Edwin Boley; and Donna Brown.
At its first meeting, the board voted unanimously to name Slim Callis an ex-officio member of the board with voting rights and to appoint him as artistic director.
While the group had been working to create an official organization, Slim had been looking at various buildings that could serve as a home for the production of shows. He entered into successful negotiations with Kenneth “Bock” Ball, owner of the Royal Movie Theater, to rent that building.
Many volunteers, overseen by Slim, who also did much of the remodeling, worked long, hot hours to clean up the theater, which had been used only for storage for many years.
Slim and Mary Sue Spurgeon had been discussing possible names for the theater, and she came up with “off-the-square,” which has a vaguely Shakespearean sound.
At one of our meetings, Slim then suggested the name Royal Off-the-Square, explaining that it referred both to the building’s location just half a block off of the town square as well as to the idea that “theater people” are sometimes seen as a little off kilter. It was unanimously approved.
A major milestone was the first production in the theater — three one-act plays under the umbrella title “A Day in the Park.”
In those early days, Slim selected — and directed — most of the plays, but as time went on, new volunteers appeared, and Slim encouraged newcomers as well as some of us who had been involved from the beginning to take on directing responsibilities.
Because of his duties at Camp Pyoca, it was difficult for Slim to spend a lot of time at the theater during the summer. In 1975, we were doing “Arsenic and Old Lace” to be performed during the Watermelon Festival on Labor Day weekend in September.
Slim appointed me director, which was a bit of a subterfuge. I would work with the cast Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and we’d make some progress. Then Slim would come in on Friday evenings and take them much farther in one night than I had accomplished all week. It was pretty amazing to watch him work. He was a wonderful teacher and mentor.
Slim also enjoyed playing the guitar and singing old songs, so we had a lot of fun at all of our cast parties, especially after a midnight performance of “Count Dracula” on Halloween night 1978.
In 1980, JCCT launched a successful fundraising campaign that enabled the organization to purchase the theater building. In years since, two major expansion and remodeling projects have been completed with the generous support of JCCT members and patrons.
Since those early days when Slim Callis first inspired a small group of local residents to share his dream, hundreds of volunteers have contributed thousands of hours to keep Jackson County Community Theatre going — and growing. And their work continues today.
But none of it would have happened without the vision, determination and talent of one man.
Arvil R. “Slim” Callis passed away recently in North Carolina, where he had been in the care of his daughters, Jennifer Hamm and Becky Aelick.
He was a native of the Boonville area, where a service in his memory will be held at 11 a.m. July 29 at Fletcher Chapel United Methodist Church with visitation at 10 a.m. Memorials may be made to Jackson County Community Theatre, P.O. Box 65, Brownstown, IN 47220.
Starting in 1971, Joe Persinger was active in JCCT for more than 40 years, appearing as an actor in at least 25 productions and serving as director or assistant director for several others. He served on the board of directors and as president at various times over the years. He has always appreciated the fact that JCCT not only provides entertainment for the community but also offers opportunities for actors, singers and dancers that they otherwise might not have in a small rural community. Send comments to [email protected].