Cars and buses start pouring into the parking lot about two hours prior to showtime. When the curtain rises there will likely be more than 2,000 people in attendance anticipating the story of Samson and viewing the Sight & Sound Theatres’ mission: Bringing the Bible to Life.
Sight & Sound Theatres is celebrating its 40th year in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. A second theatre in Branson, Missouri, opened its door eight years ago. Walker Talk visited the Strasburg location last fall, just a week before Thanksgiving.
Young and old alike come from all over the country to see productions—and they’re not disappointed. The cast for Samson includes dozens of talented, professional actors and actresses whose performance is enriched by elaborate costumes, towering sets, live animals, amazing effects, and a story told with passion, some humor, and lively song and dance.
Behind The Scenes
The theatre is housed in an impressive 157,000-square-foot building, one of 12 structures that occupy the grounds. The others are home to a variety of important offstage activities.
“Everything we do here contributes in some way to the show and visitor experience,” explains David Albright, facilities & groundskeeper supervisor. “In fact, probably more than 30 different departments are either directly or indirectly involved with productions. The departments include seamstresses who make and repair wardrobes; artists, welders and carpenters who design and build the sets; and trainers and caretakers who work with the animals.”
Albright’s department is not to be left out. The theatre sits on a 63-acre property, six of which are maintained in-house by Albright and two other team members, 21-year veteran J. Petersheim (JP) who operates the facility’s one Walker Mower, and relatively new arrival, Katie Moran.
Since the late 1990s, the grounds department has owned three Walker Mowers. Its current mower, a 25-hp model with a 48-inch GHS deck, is slightly more than two years old—yet already has close to 1,000 hours on it.
“The mower is ideal for mowing the many islands here and maneuvering around trees and other obstacles,” says the 77-year-old Petersheim. “During the growing season, I average about 25 to 30 hours a week mowing, primarily with our Walker Mower. We also have a Kubota for wide-area mowing.”
When asked what he likes most about the Walker Mower, Petersheim reiterates how easy it handles, but then points to the dump box. “The electric dump is a huge benefit,” he explains. “I don’t have to get off the seat to dump the leaves and clippings. It’s a real time and energy saver.”
One can imagine that a single Walker Mower, including its rotary broom and snowblower attachments, and the Kubota are not the only pieces of equipment on site. Six golf carts, an arsenal of snowplows, and an array of other equipment are used to maintain the grounds.
Albright notes that 10 people comprise the grounds and facilities department, and all work in concert, again behind the scenes, toward providing an exemplary experience for visitors.
“Whether we’re mowing, pruning, installing seasonal color or doing other work on the grounds, we’re out of sight by the time the first cars and buses start pulling in,” Albright says. “That’s not a real issue for us since there is always plenty to do behind the theatre and main building.”
As he points out, the to-do list expands dramatically during a 10-week lull between productions, which usually occurs after the first of the year. “If there are any major renovations inside or out that need to be done, that’s when we do them,” Albright relates.
That’s also the time when equipment is repaired and readied for the growing season ahead. Another veteran, John Breckbill, senior facilities maintenance technician, has been with Sight & Sound Theatres for 27 years. His modus operandi is being able to fix most anything.
“Downtime for us isn’t quite as critical as it is for landscape contractors who lose money for every hour their mower isn’t working. But we have a schedule to maintain, too. –John Breckbill
We can repair most anything in-house, but still depend on our Walker Mower dealer, Daryl Weaver of Weaver Turf Power in nearby Willow Street, for support. He’s been very helpful and is an important partner in our grounds maintenance program.”
Both Petersheim and Breckbill were with Sight & Sound when the theatre and all but two of the outbuildings were destroyed by a fire in 1997. “The fire started during an annual changeover renovation after work hours so no one was injured,” Breckbill recalls. “Luckily the animals all made it through, as well.”
As they say, the show must go on. Still, it took 18 months to rebuild—bigger and better than ever.
New productions have their initial run in Strasburg before being shipped to Branson where they are shown two years later. To give an idea of just how much time, effort and material are needed to put on a production, Albright notes that it takes 50-plus tractor trailers to transport a show from Strasburg to Branson.
Last year “Samson” ran from the second week of March through the end of December. This year the story of Jonah starts March 11 and runs through the middle of October. Branson is showing “Moses” for 2017, along with the “Miracle of Christmas” that starts production in November. For more information, visit sight-sound.com or call 800-277-1277.