STANDISH – In 1988, Hank Beebe, a musical theater buff who had had a successful 26-year career in New York City before moving to Maine, was searching for a new outlet to show his newly written musical, “Hold On, Molly!”

Beebe and his wife, Nancy, who had brought live theater back to the Biddeford City Theater and State Theater in Portland, as well as having revitalized the former Thomas Playhouse in Casco, were looking for a permanent home that could be used not only for theater, but also for instruction in the performing arts. They settled on the former Standish High School, also known as the Johnson School, near the corner of routes 114 and 35 in Sebago Lake Village.

The Beebes toiled long hours with a group of friends to convert the former school, which had been shuttered for five years, into a usable theater, and held their first musical, “Hold On, Molly!” to an appreciative crowd 25 years ago.

Fast forward a quarter-century, and come Thursday, April 11, Beebe, now 86, and Nancy will be guests of honor at a final dress-rehearsal launching of the theater’s 25th season, which begins with Beebe’s “Hold On, Molly!,” a story about a dramatic and true rescue in 1756 of a Freeport girl who had been captured by native Americans who sold her into slavery in Canada.

Beebe, who still resides in Portland and has written dozens of musical productions for Broadway, off-Broadway and community theaters, is proud of Schoolhouse’s longevity.

“I think it’s a miracle it’s still there because it’s a very difficult thing and the people are all volunteers. The people on the board serve without pay, and everybody does it for the love of the theater. And once you’ve got that bug, it’s a thing that you find ways to express. So I consider it miraculous,” Beebe said.

Beebe was sold on the schoolhouse since it was such a large building and had ample parking. He set out to build a theater and convert classrooms into spaces to give acting and music lessons. To this day, the Schoolhouse Arts Center lives out its creators’ vision of developing the performing arts in Standish.

“When we first saw the schoolhouse in 1988, it was called Johnson School, and it had been closed for five years. We were looking for a place, and we got the idea that the schoolhouse not only would make a good theater for us but be a good arts center, particularly for the performing arts, because it was a place with classrooms to teach in and a gym to make a theater out of,” Beebe said. “And the most important thing to me was the fact that it had a baseball field where you could park the cars. One of the biggest problems for theaters is where to put patrons’ cars.”

Beebe leased the building at first, and within a few years the nonprofit Schoolhouse Arts Center took ownership of the building, and have managed it ever since. It’s a big job to take care of the building, said general manager Terri Plummer of Limington, who’s been involved with Schoolhouse for nine years, ever since her kids and she took part in a musical as a family.

“It is doing well,” Plummer said. “We had a very good year last year because of the shows we picked and because of important volunteers and some fundraising activities we had. We’re not out of the woods yet. Things are good right now, but there is still so much more that we need to accomplish and that’s mostly capital improvements.”

Top priorities include paving the parking lot, painting the building, dealing with some structural issues in the floor of the theater and replacing windows.

Several years ago, the Schoolhouse board of directors made a conscious effort to increase the number of shows in hopes of drawing more patrons to the theater. That effort has yielded more proceeds for the arts center, but “not enough,” Plummer said. “We still have work to do.”

Plummer said she is typical of the many longtime volunteers involved with the arts center. She sees the benefits of a volunteer-run community theater.

“I really enjoy working with the people down there. The creative energy is exciting; it’s fun. It’s challenging to start a show from nothing but a bare stage and build it from there, with or without resources. It gives you a great sense of accomplishment when you can go from nothing to this magnificent production that you’re able to put on, and working with other people to make that happen,” she said.

Another longtime Standish resident who’s been involved with Schoolhouse as a board member, director, teacher and actor is Bruce Avery. Avery, who is directing “The Music Man” this summer, was elected to the board in the mid-1990s and says Schoolhouse is an essential community gem.

“To me, it’s to help people realize that they’re capable of more than they think they are,” Avery said of the confidence-boost acting can give young and old alike. He has many stories about people he’s directed who have busted out of their shells and found freedom and confidence in acting.

“To see kids and see people realize a potential they have and overcome a fear of being on stage, to see them change, that’s what it’s all about, and that’s what Schoolhouse does,” he said. “Seeing people’s lives changed by being introduced to the arts and finding out that they can sing, they can dance, they can act – there’s no bottle, no pill, there’s no other place where you can get the high you get from performing on stage and having the accolades come from the audience. It’s a feeling like nothing else. And unfortunately, it’s as addictive as any other drug out there because once you feel that you want more of it, but it’s just wonderful,” Avery said.

Keeping a community theater and performing arts school like Schoolhouse open can be a challenge, however, especially through a recession.

“It’s very hard. It’s extremely hard,” said Beebe. “It’s only done by people who are extremely dedicated and love the theater. It’s one of the most difficult things you can imagine, because you have to be aware of so many things at the same time. I say, each show is like a political campaign, with so many moving parts, and you build each production just like you build a political campaign.”

Helping guide Schoolhouse Arts Center in recent years is an 11-member board of directors, with president Kristen Watson of Gorham at the helm. Watson said things are turning around.

“I hope we continue to move forward,” she said. “We were struggling quite a bit when I took over as president of the board and so far we’ve got out of debt and we’ve got grants and we’ve been really moving in a forward motion, and the board we have now is just fabulous. So I predict more good things from them.”

Watson said she got involved in 2010 with a production alongside her daughter, Sophia Sturdee. That experience got them hooked on community theater. Her goal is to get the word out about Schoolhouse’s programs for budding actors, as well as Schoolhouse being a place for audiences to experience high-quality productions at an affordable price.

“I want the community to be proud of us and take ownership in Schoolhouse. It’s not my Schoolhouse, or the board’s Schoolhouse. It’s the community’s,” she said.

A spring-cleaning operation brought members of the Schoolhouse Arts Center board of directors and other volunteers to the attic of the historic building last Saturday to deal with props and set materials collected during 25 years of operation. From left are Diane Ruecker, Ellen Stanley, Terri Plummer and Neil Ruecker. Photos by Rich Obrey
Schoolhouse Arts Center, in Sebago Lake Village, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season, kicking off with a replay of “Hold On, Molly!,” the first musical ever produced at Schoolhouse. Its creators, Hank and Nancy Beebe, who are the founders of Schoolhouse Arts Center, will be in attendance.

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