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What Works: Flashback to Your Community’s Heritage

On September 30, the recently reopened historic Capitol Theatre in the village of Port Chester in the Town of Rye, in the county of Westchester, founded in the days of vaudeville, beloved by the Grateful Dead, rechristened by Bob Dylan, and just host to Willie Nelson, hosted Flashbacks. 

A musical to the history of the town written by local sisters and educators Camille Linen and Donna Cribari, Flashbacks tells the story of high school students who complete a historical multimedia project and are drawn to the local river that mysteriously produces figures from the town’s past as primary source documents.

The play was performed for all the fourth graders in the public and parochial schools in the village. Hundreds of students walked to the theater in the center of town from their various schools with the police blocking off roads along the way so everyone made it safe and sound.

Town Supervisor Joe Carvin performed in the musical in a non-singing, non-talking role as one of the purchasers of the land from Native Americans in colonial times. He also signed a certificate of community that included the town seal and which was presented to students. The certificate is provides a physical reminder and record that the student participated in the program as a resident of the Town of the Rye.

Port Chester Superintendent Edward Kliszus requested that the performance be in September so during the school year teachers will be able to say: “Remember that scene from colonial times or the American Revolution or the Civil War or the industrial era or the depression or on immigration that you saw? Well, now we are studying it.” Naturally we hope that this performance becomes an annual event for the fourth graders who study local history.

If any of this seems familiar to regular readers of the New York History Blog, it’s because it is exactly what I have been saying should be done to strengthen the sense of place, the sense of belonging, the sense of community among the residents of each municipality. After telling everybody else what I think they should do, I decided I should put my money where my mouth is, and try it in my own town.

With that in mind, I approached the Town of Rye trustees at a regular monthly meeting. (By the way, since these meetings are taped and shown on local cable TV, I strongly recommend that municipal historians at least once a quarter make a presentation to the local trustees on what they have been doing. This serves as a public reminder that you exist and you never know who may see you on TV or what may come of it.)

I knew from our 350th anniversary in 2010 that the musical already existed. I wanted it to be performed for the fourth graders as part of their civics program, but not at a school auditorium. I wanted the performance to be something special, something outside the normal routine, at an unusual location. Many municipalities have old vaudeville and/or movie theaters which have been restored and reopened as entertainment facilities.  Fortunately, we have such a theater right here in my town – the Capitol Theatre.

Following a successful pitch to the town trustees, I approached the village. As I was talking about students taking walking tours of the community I mentioned the Capitol Theatre. One of the trustees said I was in luck, the lawyer for the Theatre was sitting in the row in front of me. Welcome to small town America. The Capitol Theatre folks loved the idea and provided the space for free. They also contributed lighting effects that weren’t available in 2010 during the 350th Anniversary production. As it turned out, one of the highlights of the performance was when the spotlights pointed into the audience in swirling bright whites and reds. The audience of fourth graders went wild. The audience at the evening fundraising performance was more sedate, but we did get our state senator, state legislator, and various school and municipal trustees to attend.

What are the lessons?

1. We need to do a better job reaching out to the school systems as only one of the three in the Town of Rye attended.

2. We need to do a better job of reaching into the community through its civic, social, and religious organizations.

3. We need to do a better job of reaching into the business community for financial support.  The musical mentions four current businesses. Talk about product placement!

4. We need to reach out to the high school drama/theater clubs to participate.

5. We need to provide better photo opportunities, both for the Town Supervisor giving the certificates to each class and for the students with the cast. The students really loved seeing the people on stage up close and personal in costume, even though they already knew some of them.

6. We need to build on this event with additional civic activities including mock sessions in the town and village halls, visits to the county and state chambers, walking tours of the town, and the use of apps with maps, photos, and stories.

By the way, it should be noted that the local performers were quite excited at the opportunity to perform in such an historic setting. They may not have been on Broadway but they did see the Flashback name on the marquee where a week before Willie Nelson had appeared.

So it can be done. Annually. I once wrote that county history conferences were in part high school or camp reunions. We are a storytelling species that loves to congregate, gather together, share the stories of our past and our lives.

The musical did that for the students and the community’s heritage; the adult audience did that with each other. Little did I know that the Town Supervisor once had been a student of the Flashback playwright. Welcome to small town America. Isn’t this the way a community should function?

Celebrate your heritage. Connect your community. Create your glee.


12 thoughts on “What Works: Flashback to Your Community’s Heritage

    1. Thanks Olivia. I look forward to the one in Woodstock. After all, if any municipality can create a musical of its history, you would think Woodstock certainly could. I wonder what event you could use for your big song!!

  1. Peter,
    Not a thing with which I could disagree.
    Years ago, when the County and City of Albany had their respective 300th annivrsaries and I was County Historian here, I had a program I called “Young People’s History” in which organized youth groups – Scouts, 4H, classrooms, etc., performed an act/completed a project drawing on our local history. I had a special patch made for the County, another for the City, and awarded th patch to those groups upon their proof of project. With each patch, each child received a letter signed by the County Executive or the Mayor – the letters can sometimes still be found framed and hanging in Albany homes. I “awarded” several hundred patches and letters.

    The funding for the patches came from veterans’ groups and civic organizations. Didn’t take all that much.

    Bob Arnold

    1. Good to hear from you Bob. I am sure people have been doing something similar elsewhere in the state. We are a storytelling species so whether it is a school musical or historical society story using its own rooms or “Young People History” there have to be many examples of people going beyond the lecture or docent tour to tell the story of their community or their historic site. If only there was some way to gather these examples and share our experiences.

  2. Your combined essays on making local history count – would comprise the best book in existence on this important subject. Thanks for all you do

  3. Peter, your article is verified by my teacher experiences below, and brought back fond memories of the original historical musical I wrote for my 5th and 6th graders back in the early ’80s. (I was the music teacher, making this “new work” the basis for my Masters Thesis at Lowell University, now UMass/Lowell.) The 100 students who performed in each successive performances over the years of “Spindle City Sisters,” the story of the Birth of the Industrial Revolution in Lowell, MA (Lowell National Historic Park) with the mill girls as the protagonists, STILL facebook about this experience of being “stars” in re-creating history, in musical-storytelling form, a kind of Back to the Future format (BEFORE Marti McFly’s movie hit the screen, btw). These kids are now in their 40s, and many became teachers. I would like to think that others are still “history lovers” from what they themselves have described in super positive terms (included in the thesis, that THIS was the way kids really learn and never forget).
    The BEST compliment this playwright/composer/teacher ever received was when the kids returned from their LNHP field trip–after the premiere– and –when floating down the canal–automatically broke into unified song when the Ranger pointed out the turbines below the original factory. “As the turbines turn…” was the song for each of the four “classes” of Lowell citizens to intro. themselves to the audience in Scene 2. The Ranger was in delightful shock and asked the classroom teacher what he had ever done to these 11 year olds to make them the MOST intelligent and attentive group he had ever guided. The teacher replied something to the effect that the kids had all “lived” back in 1820-1846 Lowell via the interdisciplinary musical that their music teacher had written, as the core of the social studies “From Farm to Factory” unit, and with all the other parts of the curriculum (creating “self-portrait” art, autobiographical stage-identities, etc.) webbing out from the musical.
    This was performed for 2 years by 2 different schools on the enormous stage at U.Lowell music campus with a hydraulic lift orchestra pit where they actors sat and sang the songs, waiting for their entrances “on stage” a few stair-steps away.

    Thanks for the memories from this now-retired teacher, who is STILL
    writing historical musicals or events, under the job description title: “An American History and Music Community Educator.” (I made that one up, too, since I realized that applying for grants under some “title” looked more professional and really DID describe what I could do after retirement–with adults AND kids.)

    1. I had a feeling when I wrote this post that there were other examples of local history performances floating around. In this version, however, the performances were primarily by adults. I do hope in next year’s musical, we can involve the students more. As you point out, the learning experience for the kids can be enhanced by their being not just the audience but the participants. Music lasts and people do remember songs long after the original event. But your comment also highlights the problem: is the musical tradition of local history solely alive as a memory of those students from the 1980s or did it become an annual event? The challenge is to sustain the storytelling.

  4. Unfortunately we don’t have an old theater to resurrect in Highland, but we do have our Hudson Valley Rail Trail. For the past three years, Highland high school students have written and performed local history productions at our annual Moon Walk, when once a year the Rail Trail stays open at night. The students take on characters from local history, write their own narratives, and perform in small groups along the trail, lit only by flashlights and moonlight. The audience walks through the darkness and stops at each station to learn about an event from local history, told from the point of view of individuals – some famous, some regular folk – who participated in or were affected by the event at the time. We all learn from it, both performers and audience.

    1. Hi Donna,

      Good to hear from you. There seem to be two different ways of celebrating one’s heritage here. I wrote about students in the audience for an adult performance; others seem to have students in the historic roles with perhaps the adults in the audience…as in the traditional Thanksgiving plays. Imagine if every municipality put as much effort in celebrating its own heritage as it does the Pilgrim’s.


  5. Thanks Peter,

    Interesting and inspirational story. And you have made some great suggestions and observations!


    Prof. Richard Hull
    Dept. History

    1. Thank you. Perhaps this is something that could be done in Warwick. You have a vibrant historical community.

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