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O'Reilly Theater: Not-so-hazy Hazlett memories warm hearts as new memories await

Sunday, December 05, 1999

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Finally, I adjust the rear-view mirror. Then I floor it ..."

With the closing line of Paula Vogel's "How I Learned To Drive," actress Kay Walbye, in the central role, left her troubled past behind and throttled ahead with a new life. With the same words, the Pittsburgh Public Theater put its 25-season Hazlett phase in park and floored it toward Downtown and a new life at the O'Reilly Theater.

It was an inauspicious final performance Nov. 14 -- a Sunday matinee marked only by a brief concluding statement by managing director Stephen Klein and an invitation by the Post-Gazette's Chris Rawson for audience members to share their favorite Hazlett memories during an informal champagne toast in the lobby. Clear plastic cups in hand, many lined up to tell their stories.

Sisters Barbara and Mary Visconti shared a Hazlett Theater moment they say they'd "never forget for the world."

"When the theater started out we had old seats upstairs, but then we were so happy to get moved to front rows seats," said Barbara. "The show had soccer players and there was a miscue and one guy backed up and landed right in our laps."

The Viscontis have front row seats at the O'Reilly, but Mary insists, "We're not waiting for the soccer players to come back."

Leonard Gripp recalls the closing of a show due to a case of "rodent-interruptus."

"The first time I came to the Public I brought my two teen-age sons to 'She Stoops To Conquer,' " he said. "We bought tickets at the last minute and sat in extra folding chairs. The show started and the lights went out. Apparently there was a squirrel in the transformer. They had to cancel and my sons said, 'Hooray!' because they'd already seen the actors in old-fashioned costumes. We got our money back, but we came back later to see the show and they loved it."

Ten years later, Gripp watched the Reduced Shakespeare Company take a shot at the classics, but he says, the performance was all wet.

"Word got around that [they] used water pistols in the show," he said. "A guy sitting near me brought his own water gun, so we all got drenched."

Carole Roberts, an usher for 10 years running who will show patrons their new seats at the O'Reilly, remembers being moved by the way the elaborate stage sets were so pertinent to the shows. Fellow usher Rick Eisenmann's first show was "Tom Jones" -- not an easy assignment, he recalls, because some subscribers' seats had been moved to accommodate the show's unusual stage arrangement.

"I was seating people in the balcony and a tall guy kept walking back and forth, up and down," he said. "The house manager came to ask me how I was doing and I said, 'Everything's fine except for this guy who looks like the White Shadow.' "

It turned out Eisenmann was right. The impatient patron was "The White Shadow's" Ken Howard, brother of the late Don Howard, who was in the play.

Rob Zellers, the Public's director of education and outreach, reminisced after the final show about the Hazlett's "theater ghost." Staff members say the apparition haunted them on "strike nights" when the set was being removed at the end of a run.

Zellers said his daughter Alexa "grew up in this theater." But after a glimpse of the monster in a chilling production of "The Mystery of Irma Vep," "she wouldn't walk backstage for a full year."

Agnes McAllister, a longtime patron and former usher, says she was haunted by more personal specters at the company's final performance at the Hazlett. The show brought a tear to her eye, she says, when she was visited by "memories of all the dear friends I used to come to the theater with who aren't here anymore. I used to usher here with Esther Delle Donne, and I think of her every time I come here."

McAllister doesn't know if the sense of loss will follow her to the O'Reilly, but she says, "I want to take [Esther] with me to the new theater."

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