Minstrel merriment a family tradition

January 19, 1998

Minstrel merriment a family tradition


Staff Writer, Chambersburg

GREENCASTLE, Pa. - What started out as a mere fund-raiser for the local fire company 63 years ago has become a long-standing tradition in the town and for generations of families.

Practices are in full swing every Sunday afternoon until the cast of the Rescue Hose Co.'s annual Minstrel Show is performed at 7:30 p.m. March 12-14 in the Greencastle-Antrim High School auditorium.

Before the three-night public showings, the musical comedy made up completely of local talent will go on the road with performances at four local nursing homes.


"Back in the 1920s, minstrel shows were a big thing. Every small town had one at one time. This evolved from that," said Frank Mowen, mayor of Greencastle and a so-called premier end man in the show.

Mowen got involved in the show around 1944, at the age of 16, as a chorus member along with his brother, Ray. At the time, their father was cast as a premier end man, a character who sings, performs jokes and skits during the show.

The family's third-generation minstrel show performer, Mike Mowen, also started at the age of 16 and is now an end man. His 6-year-old son can't wait to be involved, he said.

"It's been in my family ever since it started. I guess we like to make fools of ourselves ... I guess it's in my blood," Mike Mowen said.

Greencastle's minstrel show started in 1929 and was produced every year except one during World War II and in the late 1950s. The show started up again in 1963 and has been running consecutively ever since.

Though it's not the fire company's main fund-raiser, the show brings in between $2,000 and $3,000.

Cast members no longer have to be members of the fire department, which has opened it up to people from all over the Tri-State area.

"It's fun. Plain and simple, it's fun. These traditional things are great for communities," said Gregory Hoover, elementary school principal and chairperson and director of the show.

Hoover, 42, got his break in the minstrel show at the age of 15 when he stepped in as the show's drummer, replacing the one who got sick that year.

At one time his grandfather, once president of the fire company, was involved in the show.

"It goes deep into family traditions," Hoover said.

Bud Wolfe and his son, David, play the bones, actually made of ebony wood, to help keep the rhythm of the music during the show. The family tradition started with Wolfe's father, who also played the bones in minstrel shows, though not in Greencastle.

Playing the bones and performing in minstrel shows "is a family thing just passed down," Wolfe said.

This year's performance will be the 36th for Russ Clever, a born comedian and the minstrel show's second premier end-man.

Clever's wife, Dody, joined the show when they opened it to women again in the late 1980s.

"We just love to make people laugh and the camaraderie is wonderful," Russ Clever said.

The hour-and-a-half practices, like the shows, are relaxed and there's plenty of good-natured joking among the cast of about 50 people.

But some admit, even after performing for years, they still get nervous on show nights acting in front of sold-out crowds made up mostly of people they know or see every day.

"If you don't have that little bit of butterflies, then you've lost the zest. If you're that good, or you think you're that good, you might as well get out of it," said Tom Sellers, who's performed for 30 years.

Tickets for the minstrel show cost $3 and are available at the door.

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