As a relative newcomer to the community, I was pleased to accept the gracious invitation to attend Ouachita Little Theater’s Benson Award Ceremony Saturday night at UARM’s Ouachita Center.
What I got in return was an entertaining and enjoyable evening, but more importantly a deeper sense of the remarkable asset the OLT is to the community, the passion of our local talent, and the many lives OLT touches and influences in a positive way.
For those not familiar, the Benson Awards are held every two years to recognize and celebrate the productions and performances and honor volunteers for their work both onstage and backstage. The awards are named for the OLT’s first president and founder, Leda Benson. The OLT was founded in 1979, and in the early years the productions were staged at Mena Middle School auditorium. The Old Lyric Theatre, built as a movie house in 1923, became the permanent home for OLT in 1985. In 1993, the back third of the auditorium was destroyed by the devastating tornado that swept through Mena’s downtown area. The building was repaired but not restored. Since that time, OLT has functioned and tried to make the most of this diminished space.
This year, the Benson award ceremony expanded to also function as a fundraiser including table sponsorships and a silent auction. There are significant costs to maintaining a facility and staging productions of the scope regularly done at OLT. The royalty fees alone for some of shows exceed $2500, so there is constant need for donor and patron support. The OLT board and organizers intend to establish and build this fundraiser into a regular Mena event. But their goals are bigger than simply generating the critical operating funds needed for each new and exciting season of plays. The long-term goal and vision is to restore and reclaim the back third of the structure that was swept away by that 1993 tornado.
That’s an extremely ambitious goal, but if you hear the passion and commitment of the countless volunteers who produce, act and stage the performances at OLT, you feel it is not only worthy, but possible.
It was also clear from the beginning of this night that the Mena community has a special relationship with the OLT. Polk County Prosecuting Attorney Andy Riner served as the lively master of ceremonies, introducing each award presenter, virtually all of whom hailed from local businesses, government or our educational institutions. Many of these individuals made eloquent statements of the importance and positive impact of OLT in their own lives, or their students, or the community. These presenters included local downtown business owners Jennifer and Mitch Schubbe, among others. I was most moved by the words of Assistant Superintendent Paulette Scherrer from Mena Schools and Tammy Young from Ouachita River Schools.
The evening also featured displays of singing talents regularly seen at OLT including Alex Atchley and Lana Gail Coogan, who will be appearing in the Patsy Cline production at OLT later this summer. Recording artist Kassie Moe of the OLT’s Moe family (OLT Family of the Year) also entertained the audience as they prepared for dinner, provided by Papas. Local young writer and Acorn High Schooler Justin Richmond was recognized for his precocious and award winning playwriting work, and legendary OLT figure, Roy Vail was also honored with the LEDA award. As OLT executive director Rudi Timmerman said (and many other also stated during the evening) the awards all represented shared and collaborative efforts, so everyone who volunteered and contributed to these shows was in turn honored and celebrated.
As for our community, there is much to celebrate that our town has such a place, and so many people dedicated to it. Tom Byrd can be reached at email@example.com.