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Our '911' Dinner Theater Show- We will Never Forget

It’s hard to believe it was so many years ago today that the Riddlesbrood Touring Theater Company performed a silly western comedy called Mark Twain’s Rootin’ Tootin’ Silver Dollar Saloon. The show was being performed in Smithville, New Jersey, at a little dinner theater called the Showbarn and it would have been nothing out of the ordinary except for the fact that terrorists had just smashed several jets right into our forever changed lives.

Our cast of the (11 Dinner Theater Show
The Show we did on 911

It was around 11 a.m., and I remember calling the owner of the theater franticly to check if the show booked that afternoon was cancelled. The proprietor, Matt Custer, was trying to get in touch with the senior group to see if they were still coming, but the phone system was only working sporadically due to the high volume of calls. We all assumed that the show would be cancelled, considering the shocking images that we were seeing on every channel. The sizable group was also from New York and they were supposed to have 160 people attend the show that day, surely given the situation they would want to be with their families. However, by around 1p.m., we realized that we had a big problem. The group had come down the day before and was staying at a secluded campground that had no radio, TV or phones.

Neither the bus company nor the booking agent could get in touch with them, and after many failed attempts, I was told to assume that they were coming and that we had to be ready to go on. Stunned, I began calling the actors, letting them know that the show was not cancelled and was to go on as scheduled, wondering if they would even bother to call me back. Some of us carpooled the hour drive from our black box theater in Collingswood to Smithville for the show. This was more difficult for some of the actors, especially Dean “Woody” Duncan:

“Being a volunteer fireman for many years in Fort Lee, NJ,” Woody recollected, “I strongly contemplated racing north to NYC to help. Then my higher sense kicked in. I knew lower Manhattan would be like a war zone…I opted to call the captain of my former fire company to see if they might be called to assist NYFD.” Woody remembers his surprise when he got my voice mail telling him the show was on. He thought, “How were people going to react to a cowboy comedy and was it the right thing to do under these dire circumstances?!”

Chris Taylor, who ran tech for the show recalled. “As I sat in my living room watching the horror unfold live on television I heard a beeping coming from my backpack…I was told…that I was to be at the theater in 30 minutes to run the board! I didn't know if the show was happening or canceled, so I got back in my car and when I reached the theater, sure enough, there were buses in the parking lot, and people shuffling inside. “

Much to our surprise, the buses pulled up and the customers playfully started walking into the theater. The outrageous truth quickly dawned on us - they had no idea what just happened! Whether the bus driver did not want to break the news, or whatever the reason, they joked and talked as if it were any other day. However, within only a short while, the joking became a low murmur and then a tense clamor. The inconceivable rumors sweeping the room were becoming unbelievable fact. People were upset; a long line began to form at the front desk to use the only phone in the theater. The few wait staff that managed to make it in huddled in the kitchen not knowing what to say or do. The actors were backstage just hoping that I would tell them to go home after all, but that wasn’t going to happen. Alan Stewart, a new actor who was playing the part of a silly Mexican bandit remembered,

“I just turned 19 years old, moving away from my parent's house to live with complete strangers... it was my first paid professional gig…and I was nervous enough as it was! Part of me said, as I was watching this unfold, ‘we're going to fail and we haven’t even said our first line yet’. But we had no real choice. They had paid and were there eating, and the tension in the room was disturbingly thick and unpredictable.”

Scott Roffman, who was understudying Tex the Marshal, recalled,

“My…immediate reaction was to cancel. But the show runner suggested otherwise, and felt what everyone needed…a distraction. A chance to forget temporarily. A chance to smile and laugh and be entertained. Fortunately, he was right.” We decided to start the show with a speech and sing the national anthem, to which the whole audience dutifully participated. I was playing Mark Twain, and opened the show with a monologue. I was the first one to have to go out there, and a botched line or a mumbled word would have made the audience feel even more apprehensive.

The Venue we were performing at that Day- Smithville NJ
The SHowbarn- 2001

I remember the heat of the spotlight on my face when I stepped out on stage alone. I knew that I could not make any mistakes. Unbelievably, the tension actually helped, for when I strolled out purposefully toward the audience with a serious and hushed voice, I had their full attention. I proceeded through my lines, knowing that the serious parts of the speech were ending and the stupid jokes would soon begin. Then the first silly pun rolled out, begging for a laugh. It caught them off guard. Then the next two jokes jumped out, one after another…eliciting a slight chuckle. The audience and I took a deep breath knowing now that humor was still permissible on this terrible day. The curtain opened, the music started playing, and the actors started singing and the audience, for an hour or so, could pretend it didn’t happen after all. Amanda Gallagher Speer, who played Belle Star, recalled,

“I don't even believe we knew at this point how many thousands were killed or how life-altering the tragedy would be… We had a job to do. Make the people laugh, make them forget about the world outside and...That's what we did.”

This article was originally written in 2011 by Suzanne Cloud


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