By Joyce Rorabaugh
History is no more than individuals working together toward a common goal. Over the years hundreds of volunteers have put their all toward the goal of making the Cumberland County Playhouse a state landmark. As the Playhouse approaches its 50th anniversary, the Cumberland County Archives and Family Heritage Center is honored to present the Helen Byrd Cumberland County Playhouse Collection, with restoration and preservation in memory of Grace Harrison.
Helen (Cummins) Byrd (1912-2001) was a fixture at the Playhouse almost from its inception, raising the bar on volunteerism to new heights. In fact, the Playhouse features an award in her name for "outstanding volunteer service to the Cumberland County Playhouse and its programs." At one time or another, Byrd ushered, worked on costumes, was house manager, scenery painter and "everything in between." She served on the board of directors and was an active proponent of the children's theater program.
She is most recognized for her characters in several plays, including a long standing roll as Miss Mary, one of the pioneer women in Tennessee, USA! She performed in well over 500 performances during 11 runs of the play. Also to her credit are 63 other plays. Byrd was left a widow with a five-year-old son. So she became involved in the Playhouse as an activity they could do together. Son Jack also performed, did lighting and set work and made his own contributions to the success of the Playhouse.
Byrd was also an elementary teacher and a member of several civic organizations.
"We thank Jack and wife, Vivienne, for contributing this collection to the Archives," said Joyce Rorabaugh, archivist.
To learn more about her and her family ties to Cumberland County, visit the Archives to see her collection of scripts, playbills, photos and other memorabilia.
Grace (Worthington) Harrison (1917-2011) was a native of Pittsburgh, PA. She knew from age eight that she wanted to be an artist. Her early career was in graphic arts, starting in Miami, FL, and finally New York City. She met Cumberland County native Arthur G. Harrison, then a young Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, and they married in 1943 in New York. From that time to 1960, she followed her husband and the Navy all over the world. Wherever she was, she managed to study and paint.
Along the way she received several awards for her paintings. They returned to Arthur's hometown in 1960. She had barely gotten settled into her new home here when, in 1963, she became involved with Paul and Mary Crabtree putting on their first local play, The Perils of Pinocchio. She designed the Pinocchio puppet doll on her dining room table, bringing him to life in paper mache.
Grace also helped design the Playhouse. Over the years, her sets became treasures of the Playhouse, renowned for technical design and beauty. She continued her artistic painting, expanded to other artistic mediums. Her other interests were broad and varied, including genealogy and an interest in English and Irish history.
Son Rob Harrison also spent a lot of his youth at the Playhouse, most of it on the lighting board. He was greatly missed when he left to attend Vanderbilt University.
"We thank Rob and Lisa Harrison for sponsoring the preservation of this incredible collection," Rorabaugh added.
Mike Boniol also performed at the Playhouse as a teenager and young man. He has been a volunteer at the Archives from its beginning, and since retiring from the Cumberland County School System, has expanded his hours at the Archives. His knowledge of the Playhouse made him the most appropriate preservationist to handle this huge collection.
"It has taken Mike and a small team of volunteers almost a year to sort, organize and arrange its many parts," Rorabaugh explained. "There is still much to be done, but it is ready to be utilized by those interested in the 50 years of incredible dedication by the many people, like Helen and Grace, who have given unselfishly of their time and talent to make our Cumberland County Playhouse the Tennessee treasure it is."