Clark Mercer thought he was in a movie.
The cinematic state came during rehearsals for this year’s Ashland Musical Variety Show, when Clark and his wife, Kelly, Ashland newcomers and first-time show participants, encountered their first rendition of the “Ashland Song.”
“We didn’t realize there was an ‘Ashland Song,’” Clark said. “The other night when it was getting practiced, we just kind of stood back and watched everybody get into it on stage. It’s almost like something out of some film about the perfect little town.”
The Mercers join a cast this week of 400-strong in “Ashland’s Bandstand: Raise the Roof,” the 17th Ashland Musical Variety Show benefitting the Hanover Arts and Activities Center.
This week’s Thursday, Friday and Saturday night performances at Randolph-Macon College’s Blackwell Auditorium cap off weeks of rehearsals and months of preparation for the biennial production. It’s a tradition that began in 1982 when a group of Ashlanders gathered in Nancy Hugo’s kitchen to figure out how to raise funds for the Hanover Arts and Activities Center. The variety show was born.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” admitted Rosanne Shalf, who was there that day and has been a part of every variety show since.
“It was a very different show than what we have today,” said Sue Watson, the driving force behind the show and its producer.
Between 200 and 300 people signed up to participate in the first production, most assuming that it was a talent show. Eventually, organizers decided they needed to pick the numbers first and allow participants to sign up.
“We didn’t want it to be a show where people came and just shared their talents by themselves,” Watson said. “From the very beginning, our idea was it was going to be a community show, which meant we wanted people to come and sing and dance with other people to put on the show.”
Since 1983, the show has been held every other year as a way to keep the production – and those who produce it – fresh. Community support and participation has helped keep the show vibrant and well-attended over the years.
“We’re told that half the town is on stage and the other half of the town is in the audience heckling the other half of the town on stage,” Clark said.
The Mercers relocated to Ashland from Northern Virginia. After making a few connections in town, the variety show inevitably came up.
“We just heard about it and made friends with a bunch of people in town and everybody said it was a ‘can’t miss’ experience so we were eager to sign up when the chance came up,” Kelly said.
“We were surprised at the number of practices. We thought it would be fun to sign up and then just show up the next week for the performances,” Clark added. “Then we saw the practice schedule; it’s pretty legit, and I’m grateful we had the number of practices.”
Kelly’s only experience on stage came during drama courses in high school. Clark has no such thespian background. Even so, he’ll be part of one of the most anticipated pieces of this year’s show, an all-male synchronized swimming number.
That’s almost the point, according to Shalf.
“You can be tone deaf and still be in a singing number. You can have two left feet and still be in a dancing number. Actually, it’s much more fun when you’ve got a few people like that,” she said.
Shalf also believes that the show brings out the best in its participants.
“My theory is that the shyest people are the best on stage. My husband’s [Jerry Shalf] one,” Shalf said.
She still recalls the number where her husband, dressed alongside two other men as mock ballerinas, pink tutus and all, performed a rendition of “Swan Lake.”
“They went out straight-faced and did these steps and … people were rolling in the aisles it was so funny,” she said.
“I don’t know what it is about costumes and guys, but once you put costumes on them they get really, really silly,” Shalf added.
Another source of silliness comes from a normally serious group. Ashland and Hanover political figures have a long tradition of participation in the variety show.
“We would say that probably this is the only place in the United States that elected and appointed public officials, every other year, sing and dance together, and they do so with people that they might not agree with about things,” Watson said.
This year’s show features the Ashland Town Council, members of the Hanover Board of Supervisors and the entire Hanover School Board.
“It does help that I’m recently retired from that board and at my last meeting I made them all sign in blood that they would show up for rehearsals,” Watson said.
And that’s no small feat, as most involved with the production would freely admit. Weekly rehearsals begin six weeks before curtain call, and the planning process usually starts the summer prior to the show.
For Director Lorie Foley, the variety show process is as much pure joy as it is hard work.
“For many folks, it is a reunion. For others, it is a chance to pretend for a moment that you are on ‘Broadway’ or ‘American Idol,’” she said.
Shalf spoke to the reunion aspect of the show, likening it to a big, extended family.
“It’s like a family gathering in that, in a family, sometimes people don’t get along but they make up,” Shalf said. “When you interact with somebody closely you know their strengths and their weaknesses, their bad sides and good sides, and you accept it. That’s the community building part of it.”
Watson said that the show truly reflects Ashland’s and Hanover’s community strength.
“It is truly a comprehensive reflection of our wonderful community,” Watson said. “Plus, it’s fun. Where else do you get to sing and dance with people on stage and carry on?”
Leading up to Thursday’s opening day, there were rehearsals Monday and Tuesday and a full-costumed run-through on Wednesday. As Foley prepared to tuck away her megaphone until 2015, she reflected on what it takes to make the show a reality.
“It takes hundreds of people to make this show possible, and it all started in a kitchen in the early 1980s with the spark of an idea, ‘lets put on a show!’” Foley said. “From a humble beginning, we are now ready to open the curtain for the 17th show. What a wonderful tradition in a wonderful community!”