To hear Phil Hoagland tell it, the Seneca High School Senior Musical might have been one of the defining moments of his life. And if you ask around, you’ll find he speaks for a good number of the school’s alumni.
“Seneca, for a long time, was the place in Louisville to go see musicals. Before there was an Iroquois Amphitheatre or a Broadway Series or even the Kentucky Center.”
Beginning in 1961, with “Annie Get Your Gun”, and continuing until 2009’s performance of “Oliver!”, Louisville’s Seneca High School was one of the city’s main sources for quality musical theater. For over five decades, the senior class performed classic Broadway standards such as “West Side Story,” “South Pacific!” and “Grease.”
Traditionally, the musicals were staged the Friday, Saturday, and Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving, with the final performance routinely drawing hoards of delighted alums.
C. Eugene Stickler, a focused and demanding educator, beloved by his students, served as the school’s drama teacher until 1989 and directed the majority of the school’s 49 senior musicals. In honor of his accomplishments, Seneca named its school theater after Stickler upon his retirement.
But then in 2010, a senior musical was not staged for the first time in close to 50 years. Due to a lack of funds, as well as statewide curriculum changes that made it more challenging for students to fit in electives such as drama, the decision was made to let the Thanksgiving tradition fade away.
Says Hoagland, “It needs to come back for so many reasons.”
Years after performing in the 1988 production of “The Wiz”, Hoagland was asked to return to Seneca as the school’s drama instructor. He held the position from 1994 to 2010, with hopes of teaching others how much impact a simple school play could have on their lives.
In addition to basic stagecraft and acting skills, Hoagland learned, “life skills like working together to achieve a huge goal, and the value of hard work and friendships.”
Added Hoagland, “If the experience is a good one, it will enrich [the students] lives in ways they can’t possibly imagine now and won’t fully appreciate until twenty years down the road.”
Along with Hoagland, Bob Seifert, who graduated from Seneca in 1989, performed in the school’s production of “The Wiz”.
“I remember Stickler telling us a lot of the audience didn’t even know who the cast was. They just came out of tradition. He said they weren’t there to see us, but to see Seneca’s performance. I think that was his way of saying we were a part of something bigger and the school’s reputation depended on it.”
Growing up just a few blocks from the school, Seifert remembers the support the community provided. Whether it was the local Gatti’s pizza decorating its walls with student designed posters or the ease at which local businesses donated money.
To raise money, students were required to sell ad space in the play bill. Said Seifert, “We realized the locally owned dry cleaners, barber shops and even bars were willing to shell out $40 as opposed to the national chain stores.”
But it was the opportunity to perform that really inspired Seifert.
He recalled, “The most important aspect was to afford a public school kid from a very ‘cultural-less’ family an opportunity to get on a stage. The senior play was the first and last theater production I was ever involved in – and one of the most memorable times of my life.”
Linda Ford Braun graduated from Seneca in 1962 and participated in the very first musical, “Annie Get Your Gun.”
“We silk screened all of our posters, built all the scenery, and printed all of our own programs.”
A few years later, Braun returned to choreograph a number of future musicals, including, “The Music Man”, “Can-Can”, and “No No Nanette.”
“One of my fondest memories was ‘No No Nanette’. The seniors and I worked all summer tap dancing. One of the senior boys really stood out. I finally asked him if he had ever tapped and he said his mom had made him take lessons as a child! He was one of the football players!”
Braun continues to marvel at how much time and dedication the students gave of themselves, always “working their butts off” and never missing rehearsals.
“It was a different time then when the play was “The Thing” and they were all so proud to be a part and make it the best play in the Jefferson County school system.”
Fortunately, there is good news on the horizon. According to Harolynn Harris, who took over the school’s drama department in 2011, work has already begun on a spring musical.
“Guys and Dolls” will be performed April 3rd through the 6th, with the final show scheduled to be a gala event, celebrating the school’s 50th musical as well as honoring Stickler.
Said Harris, “The cast is going to be amazing. I’m not sure they know how much work it’s going to be. Plus it will be wonderful to bring it back to the community.”
Speaking as an alum (“Li’l Abner” 1989), I look back on that experience with a sense of pride and reverence. When we’re young, we tend to over inflate certain moments and experiences, easily turning the mundane into life altering triumphs or tragedies. As adults, we find ourselves surrendering to the nostalgia, reliving and reinventing those same former glories
Yet, like so many past Seneca grads, I don’t think we’re guilty of either charge when we reflect upon our senior musical memories. It truly was a profound moment. Like our own John Hughes movie, or even “Glee” with a more likeable cast. A stage full of actors, actresses, dancers, singers, jocks, dopes, prom queens, and dungeon masters. The popular and the unpopular. All united for a common purpose. Because it was Seneca, and that’s what you did.
I remember watching one of our most accomplished athletes, after much convincing, take on the lead role of Li’l Abner, and then knock it out of the park. He seamlessly stepped outside of his comfort zone to be part of something special to that school. Because it was Seneca, and that’s what you did.
I remember a very shy student agreeing to take on a speaking role, a role that consumed him with terror prior to each performance. But when that spotlight hit him, he got those lines out every night, thanks to a few well-timed cues and whispers from those who shared the stage. A group of vastly different teenagers, rooting for and encouraging one another. Because it was Seneca, and that’s what you did.
I remember being head over heels for a girl in my class and using every solo I had as a personal appeal to her heart. We went on our first “date” on Thanksgiving, the day after the final performance. Dating one of the actors is not Seneca, and that’s not necessarily “what you did”, but that tiny success eventually taught me what it was like to fall in love for the first time. That’s pretty cool I guess.
The Seneca Senior Musical was one of those local traditions that has made living in and returning to Louisville so special to so many people. The tradition may not be what it once was, but there is hope that a new one will immerge. Because that’s Seneca, and that’s what they do.
Photo: Seneca High School