For decades of volunteering at the Cumberland County Playhouse in a variety of capacities, Rob Harrison has always preferred to be behind the scenes and off stage. However, Saturday, Harrison was center stage as he and the Harrison family were honored by the Playhouse and the Crabtree family for their years of support both financially and through their talents and volunteerism.

The Playhouse hosted its first Founding Fathers Luncheon in which they honored the founding families for their contributions, donations as the non-profit theater approaches its 55-year anniversary.

“I am honored and completely shocked. I thought we were honoring all the families. I mean, there’s a whole room full of people that could be honored. I’m just shocked and so honored they chose me and m family,” Harrison said after the luncheon.

Harrison was presented with a plaque that reads, “Presented to Rob Harrison to honor the Harrison family, whose hard work, dedication and passion helped ignite a fire for the arts still burning today.”

Bryce McDonald, producing director at CCP, welcomed everyone attending the luncheon. 

“We are so excited to see each of you here and to celebrate those amazing individuals that 54 years ago did the unimaginable and created a thriving arts institution in the Upper Cumberlands,” he said. “The Cumberland County Playhouse opened on July 15, 1965. This dream of a theater here in rural Tennessee was accomplished through the work and contributions of hundreds of people, led by a brave band who formed a corporation in 1964, oversaw the planning, supervised the construction and continued to serve for some years to come.”

McDonald paid tribute to Jim Crabtree, consulting producer, as he and Playhouse veteran star actors Britt Hancock and Weslie Webster read Crabtree’s rededication speech from 1990 as the Playhouse celebrated its 25th anniversary.

McDonald said he never got to meet Paul Crabtree but he, Webster, Hancock and Sam Hahn had the pleasure to work with Mary Crabtree and all of the Crabtree children.

“However, we would not be here today if it was not for the hard work, tough love, support and teachings of Jim Crabtree. I’ve always said I’m a graduate of the Jim Crabtree University and I’m so very blessed, lucky, proud and thankful for all the sacrifices made, chances given and lives impacted by the work that Jim has done over the years. We are as a community are so thankful to the Crabtree family for being the inspiration that sparked a flame of passion and ignited a small, rural town by showing them the importance the arts has on communities. We are forever indebted to all the founding families who took that spark of creation and nurtured it into a wildfire that created a theater, a community and family of individuals that touches hearts, open minds and changes lives,” McDonald said.

He invited Crabtree to the podium.

Crabtree said, “Hundreds of families built the Playhouse and have sustained it for 55 years. To name them all you would have to list the entire casts, volunteers, technical crews and supporters of 1963’s “Pinocchio”, 1964’s “I Sincerely Doubt This Old House is Very Haunted” and the casts of “Tennessee USA” for the Playhouse’s first five summers. To give proper credit to the Playhouse’s founders and sustainers, you would have to list every child and parent in every program and the names of every usher who showed customers to their seats. Every volunteer.”

Crabtree mentioned significant family contributions over the years from the family names of Stone, Douglas, Sabine, Bise, Duer, Payne, Merola, Byrd, Stewart, Ervin, Rowland, Simonton, Evans, Hill, Dorton, Brown, O’Brien, Magdich, Nickels, Shanks, and Crabtree.

Crabtree said, “While honoring all of those people, today we honor one key volunteer, board member, and contributor whose family’s service and support goes all the way back tot he beginning. To the original stockholders and volunteers who formed the first corporation, before the Playhouse converted to non-profit status in the late 1960s. The extended Harrison family, with multiple branches of its remarkable family tree, includes many members who have played many Playhouse roles on and off stage. And Rob Harrison, son of the woman I saw setting the stage in 1963 for Pinocchio, Grace Harrison; and also son of Arthur Harrison of the U.S. Navy and Plateau Properties. Rob Harrison has served as Playhouse board member and chairman of the board for what seems like a generation.”

He added that Harrison’s extended family of cousins, uncles and aunts and including Joanne and Roy Stone and family, were crucial to the Playhouse. He said Margaret Keyes Harrison, Rob’s great-aunt, joined Paul Crabtree and Moses Dorton as the original incorporators of the first Playhouse corporation. They then later donated their stock to the non-profit corporation when the board elected to make that transition in the late 1960s.

“Today we salute a remarkable Playhouse volunteer and longtime board member and chairman, Rob Harrison,” Crabtree said.

Harrison smiled and laughed as he came to the front of the room.

“This is a complete shock,” he said as Crabtree handed him the plaque.

Harrison said he was completely honored.

“When I was younger I thought every town had something like this. As I got older and traveled I realized just how much of a treasure the Playhouse is and how fortunate we are to have it in our community,” Harrison said.

Crabtree then introduced his brother, David Crabtree.

“You have always been there in one way or another for the Playhouse, this family and community,” David Crabtree, said. “You’ve given hundreds of thousands of dollars. We can’t ever repay you or thank you enough.”

Crabtree said in honor of Harrison, the family pledged to make a donation of $1,000 per year for his family’s 55 years of service and volunteering for the Playhouse.

Gary Nelson may be reached at gnelson@crossville-chronicle.com

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