The Walpole Footlighters are 84 years young. The group began in 1924 when Frank Mansur, principal of Walpole High, called together 12 people who were already known on the local stage for their work in the teachers' play or in shows put on by other organizations. They were Michael Downing, Adele Eichler Ernst, Marguerite Maguire Hynes, Harry Newell, Marion Mansur, Malcolm Mars, Marguerite Fox McDonald, Mildred O'Leary, Mabel Park, James Stoddard and Grace Hall Percy. The group decided to join forces and thus have more control of the acting they were obviously going to be doing anyway. They became the "Original Thirteen" when Billy Anderson of Norwood was called in to help with the staging in the first production, The Dover Road, on the problem-laden stage of the Town Hall. (The only way to get from left to right backstage was out the fire escape into the cold night and back up the other side.) This first production met with such success that they immediately began to plan for the future.
Thus began the Walpole Footlighters in the "Town Hall Era" of their history. Finances, or the lack thereof, were always a problem. The treasury, for example, ran a balance between -$2.00 and +$2.00. Whenever it was on the plus side, it would be expended for lumber, nails or other essentials of set construction. Among other difficulties was the fact that the group, determined to have professional direction, would travel to Boston to get it one night each week from Mrs. Florence Evans. It was physically impossible to build scenery at the Town Hall, so the work was done at Charlie Bean's barn on Common Street. Later, the basement of the old Methodist Church was used, although materials had to be placed carefully, as the basement flooded during every heavy rain.
There were early triumphs, however. Community support was enthusiastic. The group succeeded at ambitious plays such as The Goose Hangs High and Shaw's Arms and the Man. And Frank Mansur not only acted in all of the first 14 plays, but also wrote three of the plays himself -- original, successful works.
After five years in the Town Hall, the group entered its "High School Era" for the next ten years. As that stage was available only for two performances and one dress rehearsal, the latter sometimes lasted as late at 3:00 AM before things were smooth enough. Stage construction at this time was done in the Old Red Mill where the dam now is in Plimptonville. The building had been restored, and Footlighter meetings were held upstairs and the scenery built downstairs. These were depression days, and tickets were sometimes hard to sell, but even if it meant going door-to-door, the members got out and sold them and the group survived.
The time came when the members felt that the hardships involved in traveling to Boston, usually by bus, two or three times a week for rehearsals at the director's studio were not justified. John Goss had appeared regularly as an actor in Footlighter plays, as well as designing and building the sets. In 1935 this talented artist would become the new and permanent director of Footlighters.
It was John Goss who enabled the Footlighters to enjoy their third "era," this one in the Lewis Farm Barn. He persuaded Mrs. George Plimpton to graciously give Footlighters permission to use the Barn. With a hired boss carpenter to direct them, members pitched in and did the hard physical labor of putting in a stage. The Barn was almost like a home to the group, and the wonderful pictures on the walls made it a delightful place, although drafty on a winter night. Footlighters had already begun giving three productions a year, and at the Barn they were able to expand to six performances of each play.
During the difficult days of World War II the group continued to operate, although they had to scale back the number of productions. With gas rationing in effect, members would often walk great distances to get to rehearsal. But the show managed to go on.
After the war, the Walpole Footlighters continued to grow in membership and subscribers. Performances were not limited to Walpole, as the group would take productions throughout the state. In 1955, as an outstanding regional theater group, they were invited to present their production of The House at Sly Corner at the Boothbay Playhouse in Maine.
By the time of the pending sale of Lewis Farm, the Footlighters were in a position to look for a permanent home. Again John Goss' dedication and efforts led Footlighters to eventual success. The financial problems were staggering until Charles Sumner Bird presented the group with a warehouse on the edge of Bird Park, and thus began the Walpole Footlighters fourth "era".
The place in no way resembled a theater. There was much work to be done. A financial drive among the patrons was conducted and, combined with the Footlighter savings of thirty-four years, things got off to a good start. But it was the mental and physical labor of members and friends that made the difference and resulted in the present Footlighter Playhouse. A stage had to be built, the floor had to have concrete poured, lights had to be purchased and hung. The work was often dirty and difficult, even down to the details of scraping gum off the seats obtained from the old Guild Movie Theater in Norwood.
It was during this era that the mantle of John Goss' leadership would be taken on by Walpole's John Ryan. A Harvard graduate and chemist by profession, Ryan would fill John Goss' shoes and continue the dedication to good theater. A consummate director, actor and a master of stagecraft, he would lead the Walpole Footlighters into the new, more challenging and competitive times to come.
After presenting three productions a year for over fifty years, the Footlighters added a fourth play in the 1999-2000 season and added Sunday matinées to all productions in 2002-2003. The fourth play was removed from the season in 2006 due to declining audiences, but "special events" have been added, musical or comedy performances for a single weekend in November and March.
Aware how fortunate they are to have their own theater, the group is constantly making improvements and upgrades to the facility. Recent improvements have included major roof repairs, a new, more efficient furnace, upgraded wiring, a catwalk for installing and operating lighting instruments, a new air conditioning system, and installation of seats donated by General Cinema. In 2007, they completed a major renovation of the lobby to build new restrooms and add a fully accessible bathroon. Computerized lighting and sound equipment enhance every production. The group's costume loft contains a fine collection from various periods.
But when a community theater group not only survives, but flourishes for over 80 years, it's the people who have made the difference. At the Footlighters' 75th anniversary kick-off celebration in September 1999, fifteen members were recognized for over twenty-five years each of membership in and service to Footlighters. Two hundred fifty people attended the gala and the program listed over fourteen hundred people who have been members of the group over the years. The group is further supported by a loyal group of subscribers from Walpole -- and throughout New England -- who make this record possible.
In honor of "The Original Thirteen," the Town of Walpole has proclaimed April 13th as "Walpole Footlighter Day" in perpetuity, as Footlighter members, patrons and friends look ahead to the next seventy-five years.