"An Evening with Sam Benn" July & Nov. 1988
Original Script by John Hughes, Directed by Gloria Ingram
For several years Gloria Ingram had been one of the principal theatrical directors for the Driftwood Players. Her credits included Pygmalion, Arsenic and Old Lace, Crucifer of Blood, A Christmas Carol and The Majestic Kid. In the production of a play, the director's role is to conceive the staging for the play which includes creating the concepts for the set, the lighting and the sound and to visualize the general style and characterization the actor shall utilize in his interpretation of the playwright's script. The director's responsibility is essentially completed with the opening performance of the play. An Evening with Sam Benn opened for a single performance last summer on July 2. Three days later Gloria died. The Driftwood Players and John Hughes dedicate this production of An Evening With Sam Benn to her memory.
Sam Benn (Father of Aberdeen) 1832 to 1935
(Photo of Picture in Aberdeen City Hall)
Ernie Ingram's portrayal of Sam Benn
(Picture by Alan Stamwitz)
From The Daily World Wednesday, June 29, 1988
Lawyer turned actor stars as Samuel Benn
Last February, during a planning meeting for Aberdeen's centennial, someone suggested staging a pageant.
"Anything but that!" John Hughes pleaded. The newspaper editor said pageants are often romanticized and historically inaccurate. Plus, they take a lot of time and coordination.
"Well, what do you suggest, wise guy?" said reporter Cheryl Barrett. United Way director Lynn Kessler and others in the group chimed in good-naturedly.
Hughes swiveled his chair toward the wall in the city council chambers where the group was meeting and found himself staring into a handsome portrait of Sam Benn, the father of Aberdeen.
"The longer I stared, the more I thought of Hal Holbrook in 'An Evening with Mark Twain,' the one-man play. Then I imagined Ernie Ingram as Sam Benn and I just blurted it out --- 'An Evening with Sam Benn!' Everyone seemed enthused since Ernie is such a great character actor with this presence about him.
"Lynn and I approached him the next day, sort of on tippy-toes, but he was immediately enthusiastic. So were the Driftwood Players. Then I said to myself, 'Jeeze, now you've got to write this thing!'"
That was five months ago. On Saturday night, Sam Benn will come back to life on the stage of the Driftwood Theater as Aberdeen celebrates its 100th birthday. By coincidence, July 2 is Benn's actual birthday.
Curtain time is 8:15, and the show will run again July 8, 9, 15 and 16.
"I've never been so excited about doing a project as I am about this one," says Ingram, the Aberdeen attorney who has appeared in 39 local little theater productions.
Benn, who died at the age of 103 in 1935, was a remarkable man, but Ingram's enthusiasm is also linked to the fact that he was born and raised in Aberdeen to a pioneer lumber family.
After college, there was no doubt in Ingram's mind but that he would come back home to start his law practice.
Ingram also has an avid interest in history and was familiar with many of the colorful tales surrounding the early days in Aberdeen --- the ghoulish Billy Gohl with a trapdoor over the Wishkah River to dispose of his victims, Think-of-me-Hill, the Humboldt Saloon and the great fire of 1903.
Theater-goers will find themselves in Sam Benn's parlor on his 100th birthday. The room is furnished with antiques that Ingram inherited: a Tiffany style lamp that belonged to his grandfather, E. C. Miller; a Persian rug and ornately carved chairs.
Among the other carefully researched details are Sam's fondness for cigars. The set includes a box of "Think of Me" cigars recreated by Bill Garrison, who also did the poster art for the play.
"John Hughes is a wonderful storyteller," Ingram says, "and anyone who likes Aberdeen will find this show fascinating."
The veteran actor says there are two main problems in trying to portray Sam Benn: For one thing, sustaining 90 minutes of lively conversation all by one's self on a stage is a challenge. Then there's the fact that Benn is supposed to be 100 years old, while Ingram is an energetic man in his 60s.
Some who remember the grand old man of Aberdeen, may quibble that Ingram's Benn is too lively. However, Hughes notes that Benn was in remarkable health at 100 and had excellent eyesight and perfect hearing . "He was by no means as animated or talkative as Ernie portrays him, even in his prime, but that's sort of beside the point. The words we put in Sam's mouth are authentic and if we've made him bigger than life, that's theater."
"If I tried to do the character of a 100-year-old man, the audience would be bored to death," says Ingram. "So, the audience will just have to take it on faith.
"Besides, the exact details of the character are not the important part. Sam Benn is telling a story. The important part is the wonderful and true tales that are told."
Even after three dozen roles, Ingram claims he still gets terribly nervous at every show. This time, the Memorization, the rehearsing, the makeup and details have the added advantage of being good therapy, as Ingram's equally talented wife, Gloria, who directed "An Evening with Sam Benn," is seriously ill.
"When their are other cast members on stage you get your energy from them and you can pump each other up," Ingram says, "but it's terrifying to be the only one on stage for an hour and a half."
He finds that his voice gets tired after about an hour, so he must drink plenty of water. There's a crystal decanter on the table in Benn's parlor.
Ingram says he's been getting up at 5 am every day since May and going over the script for about two hours.
"This may sound strange but the theater is my hobby and I love what I'm doing, so I enjoy my two hours in the morning," Ingram says.
There are many interesting and colorful characters enter-twined in the script, which Hughes has dedicated to the late Ed Van Syckle, the man who hired him as a reporter in 1966 and inspired his interest in local history. Ingram's favorite tales are about Billy Gohl and the fire that leveled downtown 85 years ago. The files of Ben Weatherwax, radio man, architect and historian, yielded much new information about the fire, Hughes says.
"What's doing downtown?" is a lead-in line that Ingram's Benn uses as a bridge between his tales. In fact, it was that line that inspired Hughes as he tried to weave together a narrative from hundreds of snippets of information and anecdotes.
The writer came across the line in Benn's obituary. "It was his favorite saying --- 'What's doing downtown?' --- and he mouthed those words on his deathbed. It was touching and eloquent," says Hughes. "I wish I could have known him."
Gloria Ingram, an established director, most recently has worked on "Pygmalion," "Arsenic and Old Lace." "Crucifer of Blood," "A Christmas Carol," and "The Majestic Kid."
Is it hard to work with one's spouse in a creative, demanding endeavor?
"She is highly critical and in this way makes me do it 'til I get it right," Ingram says.
Ernie Ingram began his stage career in 1968 and although there are too many roles to list, several of his most memorable are the father in "Life with Father," Ebenezer Scrooge in five production of "A Christmas Carol" and Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman." He is an expert on Charles Dickens.
Ingram has been awarded Driftwood's Best Actor award three times.
Hughes, editor of The Daily World since 1977, graduated from Aberdeen High School, attended Grays Harbor College and majored in English literature at the University of Puget Sound. He has contributed to several books on Northwest history and "The Best Places" guide books.
During the run of the play, the theater lobby will feature a display of photos from early Aberdeen and Grays Harbor. They are from the enormous collection of Aberdeen photographer Bill Jones.
Tickets for "An Evening with Sam Benn" cost $5 and are on sale at Harbor Drug in Hoquiam, City Drug in Aberdeen, Sagen's Monte Drug, and Captain's Cove at the SouthShore Mall.
Home Driftwood Players Inc.