Boone-based outdoor drama “Horn in the West” occupied 1952. That's when the play first premiered, at “the beautiful new Daniel Boone Amphitheatre to the accompanying plaudits of press and public,” according to the Watauga Democrat's July 3, 1952, edition.
Don Stevenson remembers it well. The assistant stage manager at that first production almost 60 years ago, Stevenson returns Saturday with other Horn alumni, back to where it all began.
“I started, actually, in the winter of 1951,” he said.
Working in what was then the “new music building” between Appalachian State University's cafeteria and administration building, Stevenson helped build the set and props, things such as fake rocks and tables.
“We used a lot of canvas,” he said. “We built wooden frames and stretched canvas on it and painted the scenery.”
He remembers “snow flying.”
“But we didn't stop,” he said.
Stevenson, 19 and an ASU student, helped stretch the underground cable for the lights, footlights and intercom system. He was also in charge of props and sets, a responsibility he called “interesting.”He can still remember the day a photographer from Life magazine came to the Horn.
“It was a nice, bright and sunny day, not too hot, and we had a dress rehearsal during the midday period and the Life photographer set up his equipment in the first few rows of the theatre,” he said. “I shot pictures over his shoulder with my camera.”
That dress rehearsal was documented in the June 25, 1952 issue of the Watauga Democrat.
“Most of the photographers, accompanied by Hugh Morton …. arrived in Boone Sunday night from the “Singing On The Mountain at Grandfather Mountain,” the story reads. “After a country ham breakfast at the Skyline Restaurant as guests of Raleigh Cottrell, the photographers and reporters adjourned to the theatre, where they took picture after picture as the cast of ‘Horn in the West' went through the play, stopping whenever a cameraman requested ‘Just one more picture' of a particular scene.”
Stevenson remembers more than he should, he said, partly due to some misplaced priorities.
“The play turned out to be such a busy thing that I didn't do very well in school,” he said.
He can still remember Horn's first Daniel Boone, Ned Austin.
“When things were kind of slack and Ned had time, he'd go to the dressing room, get his flat top guitar, get out there and play a few tunes,” he said.
Soon came opening night, a Friday.
“It was standing room only,” Stevenson said. “They had to stop it. There were young people … they had climbed up into the oak trees in the back of the theatre and they were up in there, probDSably twenty feet from the ground.”
The July 3, 1952 Watauga Democrat confirms his observations.
“The near-capacity audience of first-nighters from twenty states variously estimated at 2,200 to 2,500, sat enthralled for two and a half hours as a superb cast brought to pulsating life the author's vibrant story of the fight for freedom,” Watauga Democrat writer Virgil G. Rollins writes.
A covered dish bought you a ticket that first night, Stevenson said.
Stevenson's only and last stint at the “Horn” was that summer in 1952, but over the years he's been back, playing his latest role: audience member.
“There's some things about it that are much, much better and there are some things about it that are not,” he said, citing the rotation of longtime cast members as something that's hard for an “old cast member” to watch. “There's a lot of room to move your feet around in somebody's shoes.”
But throughout the “Horn” generations, one “haunting” scene keeps bringing him back.
“In the first year, it was done with the organ,” he said. “It's the horn, blowing in the west. There's something haunting about that closing scene. The first year, I think it had a spell on people who were sitting in the audience to the point where they wanted to return.”
Rollins' Democrat story would agree.
“To say merely that the offering was well received would be an understatement,” he writes in 1952.
“The enthusiasm of the acclaim was genuine, and the sincerity of the remarks unmistakable.”
Saturday marks “Alumni Weekend” where cast and crew of years past will gather to watch the 2011 edition. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit horninthewest.com.