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Roswell Community Little Theatre turns 60; History of local theater dates back to 1939 with formation of Roswell Players

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An undated photo of an early production of the Roswell Players, which were formed by Zelma and Paul McAvoy. (Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

Formed in 1939 by Zelma and Paul McAvoy as a touring company, the original Roswell Players produced musical variety shows and melodramas, carrying them from one rural schoolhouse to another via a bus provided by the New Mexico Transportation Co. Playing to audiences in Hagerman and Dexter, Fort Stanton, Lake Arthur, Artesia, Kenna and Vaughn, the original company excelled in song and dance, along with broad comedy and surprises. Portable scenery could be reduced or expanded to fit any stage and folded flat to sail along on top of the bus.

In the 2014 season, Patti Stacy directs “On Golden Pond” starring Louise Montague and Hugh Taylor. “Vonnie (Goss) told me that she and Jim Bignell also played these two parts. She said that it was very hard because in the end the male character dies and that made her cry for real,” Carol Bignell said. (Newspaper clipping courtesy of Carol Bignell)

Between acts, members of the company provided vaudeville entertainment from barbershop quartets and xylophone players to a blindfolded pianist who kept one finger safely planted on middle C as she took requests from the audience.

World War II brought a large portion of American entertainment to a halt, and the Roswell Players was one of its casualties. It was almost a permanent finale. Paul McEvoy was also involved during the war, serving as an executive for the USO.

In 1947, those members of the Players who had returned to Roswell reconvened to produce “You Can’t Take It With You.” The audience loved it, but somehow the excitement had died. The Roswell Players then ceased to exist.

During the intervening years, different interested persons attempted to establish a theater in Roswell. KBIM-TV, then in its infancy, aired live TV programs each Sunday afternoon, produced by a small, but determined, group of local actors.

Zelma McEvoy, who established the Roswell Players with her husband Paul in 1939. (Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

With the influx of personnel into Walker Air Force Base, interest in theater grew and the small group of actors grew with it. The Roswell Community Little Theatre was on its way, shuffling back-and-forth to the Roswell Museum, Walker Air Force Base and Pearson Auditorium as it searched for a permanent home.

Finally in 1962, the loose-knit group formally organized itself and the city provided it with an old building at 1101 N. Virginia Ave.

The building had no restrooms with a low ceiling and minimal space, but the theater members went to work. Over a period of years, they installed a graduated concrete floor, added a foyer and three restrooms, created a meager but livable backstage area, and installed an adequate light booth as well as seating for 149 people.

As the years passed, additional renovations were made. Air-conditioning, heating and a green room were added, and a large metal building was constructed to house the flats, stage equipment, and a large collection of costumes.

Fighting against what sometimes seemed like insurmountable odds, the RCLT has produced some of the century’s finest plays, among them “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “Streetcar Named Desire,” “Rain,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Crucible,” “Tobacco Road” and “Barefoot in the Park.” There have been many more “greats” in more recent times.

Boyd Barrett as Tevye in the 2012 RCLT production of the musical “Fiddler On The Roof.” (Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

A production of Euripides’ “Trojan Women” in 1969 won a national award for the theater group when it placed third among 61 theater entries in the annual competition of the Associated Education Council of Arts, Crafts and Sciences, sponsored by the University of California and New York University.

Innovations include an apprentice program for aspiring directors and an annual awards program.

The apprentice system ensures what the group has always worked to maintain — a level of professionalism. Under this system, no one may direct a play until he or she has first served as an assistant to a qualified director for at least one production.

In the same manner, novice stage managers, set designers, wardrobe and make up artists are trained in their specialties under the direction of experienced theater members.

In 1997, the RCLT began a summer children’s theater. A grant from Target stores helped to start this program. The first children’s theater offering was “Cinderella,” directed by Anne Heider, another RCLT founder. Others have included “Little Women” and “Annie Jr.” Additional summer productions resulted from the collaboration with the UFO’s celebration organizers, including “Ezekiel’s Wheels,” directed by Vonnie Goss and “Roswell, the Musical” directed by Goss and Reece Blake.

Through the years, several productions have been presented to benefit the Roswell Public Library and the Roswell Refuge. The Roswell Adult Center and the Senior Center have also enjoyed RCLT plays.

On this 60th anniversary, since the RCLT wrote its mission statement and restarted after the war, the local actors have devoted much time and energy, making their audiences smile, laugh or cry. We appreciate all the time and effort that has been put into this collaborative form of fine art, just to entertain our community, and wish them the best and much success for the next 60!

Now, for added interest or possibly “the rest of the story,” Paul and Zelma McEvoy were quite active as they headed up all things to do with the arts in Roswell, such as the Little Theatre, Community Concert Association, Service League and Symphony Guild.

While Paul was initially involved with all the plays in Roswell, throughout the war years of World War II, he served as an executive for the USO, traveling extensively to arrange entertainment for our troops all over the world! Although Paul would never say anything about it, there are some who believe his contributions to the war effort were far more extensive and his worldwide travels involved more than just arrangements for USO shows. As WWII ended and after, Paul’s close ties with senior military officials tended to feed the rumors that Paul contributed much more to the war effort. Whenever someone confronted him with such rumors, he would just laugh with that characteristic laugh of his. One thing is certain, though, Paul remained closely connected to senior military leaders for many years and was loved and appreciated by all who knew him.

Editor’s note: For more photos, see page C4 of Sunday’s edition.

Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or by email at jdhist4@outlook.com.