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Norm Merrill has probably made more history in Jamestown than most people learned in school, some people might say. Norm would say he built a lot of it one set at a time over the span of the last 100 shows at the Lucille Ball Little Theater (LBLT) as the theater’s long-time Technical Director.
It’s All About the People
A Theater is more than a building and a show is more than sets according to Norm. His life experiences and successes all attest to the fact.
Norm Merrill spent more than 40 years in the construction business after graduating from Delhi College (now a SUNY school) with a degree in civil engineering. “I always wanted to start my own business, but I was blessed with a few good bosses over the years, like Martin Lydell at WCA Hospital, for instance, and I never saw the need to stop working for any of them. I went 40 years without drawing an unemployment check and then I retired in May of ‘98.”
My most recent boss is right here though,” Norm said with a familiar twinkle in his eye. He waved to his wife Helen Merrill, LBLT’s Artistic Director, working in another part of the theater on the upcoming production of The Addams Family. Norm has served with Helen as LBLT’s Technical Director for the last 17 years, though he had already served on the theater’s House Committee since 1959.
Norm is proud of his technical crew, which includes assistant, Jason Dorman from Lakewood, Jason’s wife, Melissa, a devoted handful of very talented volunteers and actors, and even Norm’s sister, Jan.
“Once we built a turntable 22 feet across, more than 20 sheets of plywood, with a 2-storey house on top of it, a stairway front and back and seven doors,” Norm said. “Helen and I collaborate on the set designs, and what she can imagine, we can build… usually,” he added with a wry grin.
Norm Merrill’s talent and drive for excellence, however, have accomplished much more than spectacular stage sets at LBLT over the years. In fact the theater itself owes its existence to Norm.
Rebuilding a Treasure
“I rebuilt this building – the old Shea’s Theater – as you see it, in the fall of 1968,” Norm explained. “In April of that year, after being vacant for about seven years, there was still a foot and a half of ice on the floor from winter leaks at the front of the building. It was like a musty, old refrigerator in here. The ice was melting and running all the way down through into the orchestra pit.”
When Marshall Bahlin, business manager for the theater for more than 50 years, asked whether he could get the old theater, originally built circa 1880 for Vaudeville, up and running again, Norm simply said, “Well if we can get enough money, we can do just about anything.” Sam Palladino raised the money and Norm Merrill got the job done, with a lot of help from many friends who shared a passion for theater in Jamestown.
When asked why he is still so involved in the success of LBLT, Norm once again credits the people closest to him.
“My parents, who lived in Chaffee, were members here long before I ever heard of it. Back then it was The Little Theater of Jamestown. As a kid, I’d get up on Sunday morning and see a Little Theater playbill on the kitchen table. Their Interest sparked mine ater.”
“When Helen and I moved here more than 50 years ago, Helen’s involvement with the Guilders and later in acting at the Little Theater – she played and sang in Mame, Hello Dolly and a lot of others – she got me inspired,” Norm recalled.
“Then, when I started rebuilding this place, I became somewhat attached to it,” he said with the humility that has always made him a good manager. Norm also chose his limits as an engineer and delegated certain other work to others, not needing any more personal credit for the improvements. “This building has eight roofs on it and one is leaking. I don’t know a whole lot about the roofing business, so I depend upon the experts for that. But the longer it takes to fix it, the more the price goes up. I do know that.”
Keeping it Running
“We’ve been in business longer than I ever dreamed we’d be,” Norm told a recent visitor asking about volunteering and other opportunities to support LBLT. “But here we are, years after our previous business manager Marshall retired, and we’re still going. I’ve had a lot of great helpers here.”
“Season ticket holders are a tremendous support, and it’s a great deal for them too,” Norm said. “But we’re also seeing more single show ticket buyers. There’s still a lot to do and we’d like to get more people to the shows. It’s a bit of a financial struggle, but we’re always optimistic.”
The Addams Family
The current production of The Addams family promises a few surprises, according to Jason. “You didn’t hear it here, but Uncle Fester may blast off for the Moon…or something,” he said with a wink. “Just show up and you’ll see.”
“As far as the sets for this show are concerned,” Norm added, “Helen and I kind of understand each other. Whatever she dreams up,” he said with a chuckle, “we can usually make happen.” Asked about mishaps on the set during a show, Norm recalled a set that once broke loose and started rolling across the stage. “But the actors just went with it. They’re that good.”
Norm Merrill, Technical Director for the Lucille Ball Little Theater is a uniquely talented individual among a crew of exceptional people who, along with Helen as the Artistic Director, have been bringing outstanding drama, comedy and music to Jamestown for many years and plan to continue for many years to come…with a little help from their friends.
To learn more of purchase tickets, go to http://www.lucilleballlittletheatre.org/.