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Museum exhibit: ‘Look Homeward’ to 80 Vagabond years


The Wolfe angel, a trick mummy tomb, several flashy hats and other costume pieces, props, biographical panels on FRP founder Robroy Farquhar and his wife Leona, photos, set design sketches and documents are displayed.It is quite worth the visit simply to see slideshows of FRP plays spanning a half-century. They run continually, looping different images on two monitors lasting several minutes. They illustrate memories of dancing show girls from musicals, romantic scenes, comical tomfoolery and grins, and much more.The tomb (sarcophagus) provided illusion. Its hidden back door enabled actors to slip in and out of it, without audience detection. It was in The Man Who Came to Dinner in 2004, then in The Mystery of Irma Vep in 2014. Also standing out is a decorative column — one of two neon-lit as entrance to a Chinese restaurant. This was in Gypsy, in ’15. Other artifacts include a Mardi Gras-like long-nosed mask from Three Musketeers in ’13, the scenic model from the ’15 debut of Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz, and the original The Vagabond School of Drama, Inc. sign. Programs include from FRP’s inaugural season of 1952, and 1981.Vagabond Players is what Robroy “Robbie” Farquhar called his pre-FRP, touring troupe. He started it in 1937, as a play-reading group in New York City. The Vagabonds performed in Greenwich Village, soon did a summer in Bedford Springs, Pa. then winter in Miami, Fla.Locally they acted in 1940 and ’41 in The Old Mill Playhouse at Highland Lake that sprung out of a rickety old grist mill by Highland Lake Camp. During World War II, Farquhar served under Gen. George Patton. The troupe reformed in ’46. It performed in an old Tuxedo school, the Lake Summit Playhouse, in summer then in St. Petersburg, Fla. that winter.


Hats colorful, ornate and pompous light up the Heritage Museum exhibit. Leona Farquhar, Robroy’s wife, is shown at upper left.

Robroy married his food manager, Leona Fraki, in 1948. They started community theater and radio plays in Hendersonville.He found a larger venue — eight acres in Flat Rock, at the Lowndes House (formerly Rockworth) in 1952. The summer home is on the “great flat rock” that generates the name of the community formed over two centuries ago.This marks birth of Flat Rock Playhouse, and the drama school. Plays were in a rented circus tent for the first four seasons, until the current playhouse “barn” was built and ready in 1956. The tent periodically collapsed during shows, from weight of heavy rain.Farquhar is quoted on a biographical panel, about the ambience: “The location is excellent, the surroundings perfectly beautiful. A more delightful atmosphere couldn’t be achieved anywhere.”FRP officially became The State Theatre of North Carolina in 1961, by vote of state legislators. The 506-seat playhouse remains a premier area entertainment attraction and tourist draw in a nine-month season, along with its newer Playhouse Downtown in Hendersonville.

Liverpool, England, native Farquhar was among the troupe’s earliest actors. He changed his name from Robert William Smith, adapting names of Scottish clan chief Robroy McGregor and his mother’s maiden name. He owned FRP until dying at age 73, in 1983. His late son Robin Farquhar ran the playhouse, in 1980-2008. Robin expanded artistic appeal to musicals, starting with historic 1776.

FRP’s inaugural production was The World of Carl Sandburg on stories, poems, folk songs and quips. Sandburg in 1945-67 lived at Connemara, now the historic Sandburg Home, across Little River Road from FRP’s site.

Look Homeward, Angel remains FRP’s signature production sentimentally, with many sold-out shows over decades. It ran annually through 1984, then once more in 1999. It is based on Thomas Wolfe’s classic autobiographical novel.Its main prop is the large, paper mache “Wolfe angel” that is cranky William Oliver Gant’s prized sculpture. Set designer Dennis Maulden made it, in 1970. The 51-year FRP veteran built it using chicken wire and tin foil. That angel was used throughout the Seventies. His aide Jimmy Ray Ward’s new Wolfe angel was in 1999. It more closely resembled the Oakdale Cemetery angel in Hendersonville, an historic monument to writer Thomas Wolfe of Asheville.


FRP founder Robroy Farquhar started the playhouse, initially as Lake Summit Playhouse.

W.C. “Mutt” Burton and Helen “Casey” Bragdon starred in Look Homeward, Angel as W.O. and Eliza Gant. Celebrities acting at FRP include Burt Reynolds in his one-man show in 1991, and Richard Kind (“Spin City” as Michael J. Fox’s sidekick) in 1993. Rising stars included Kyle MacLachlan (film Dune, Twin Peaks on TV), as Eugene Gant in 1978 when he was 19 and an apprentice.

Scott Treadway debuted at FRP in the same Eugene role, in 1984 also as an apprentice. Above all others, Treadway has been the face of FRP acting for over 30 years. Patrons have seen him grow up, maturing into various mostly comical roles. Natives who ascended beyond their FRP internships in the past decade include Christoph Sanders (“Ghost Whisperer”), Turner Rouse Jr. acting on Broadway, and Broadway choreographer Chase Brock.

A photo in the exhibit shows Treadway with fashionably longer hair, with Barbara Bradshaw. She was by far FRP’s leading lady in the Eighties, and has returned for supporting roles in recent years. That image is part of the running slideshow.For more on various museum exhibits (Civil War, Revolutionary War, later wars, early railroad, early Dana days, Baker-Barber photos), call 694-1619 or check http://hendersoncountymuseum.com/hchm/current-exhibits/.

For more on FRP, check https://www.flatrockplayhouse.org.

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