Of course I knew that Milliken and Company was theatrically famous for those marvelous industrial breakfast shows they did from the '50s through the '70s. But I didn't know that Milliken was responsible for something equally theatrical that is still thriving after 75 years.
For back in 1924, Seth Milliken wasn't happy with the movies his kids were seeing while he was summering in Bluehill, Maine. "Let's put on a show," he decided, and soon he and his brood were doing an environmental production ofH.M.S. Pinafore on the family yacht.
It went so well that the next summer, a few other families became involved in The Mikado that was presented in the garden behind the Milliken cottage. Admission was charged, $430 was grossed and then given to the Bluehill Hospital and the East Bluehill Church.
By 1926, the Millikens so loved doing G&S shows they couldn't wait until summer. That May, they presented The Pirates of Penzance in the family's New York home at 951 Madison Ave., where the Whitney Museum now sits. That went so well, the 1927 show, The Gondoliers, got both Manhattan and Maine engagements.
In 1930, the company got the name it carries to this day: The Blue Hill Troupe. John Schieffelin performed that year in Pirates. Schieffelin and Lois Smith (not the Tony nominated actress) met the next year while they were in The Gondoliers. They were John and Lois Schieffelin by the next season's Iolanthe. That's just one of a 100-plus couples who have met and married while doing annual spring productions. Such as Charles and Nancy Morgan, who involved Charles, Jr. in their activities. Today the lad makes his living designing sets for regional theaters. "And I still haven't missed any of the subsequent 47 shows," says the elder Morgan with great pride.
There are many other endearing Blue Hill stories. In 1935, when the company did Princess Ida -- which could, after all, be said to have feminist sensibilities -- all the married women proved to be ahead of their time by insisting on using their maiden names in the program. The 1942 Pirates was such a hit when brought to West Point that, for the next four years, the Army brought the Blue Hill cast and crew upstate in military vehicles.
And they're still talking about that time in 1976 when a few naughty cast members put pornographic pictures in the book that Annabel Bentley would carry -- and open -- on stage. Credit the good Ms. Bentley for not reacting wildly when she saw what was inside. Would that we could say the same for Barbara Erskine, whose uproariously loud reactions are still being savored in the Savoyards. That disgrace, though, didn't keep Ms. Erskine from being elected troupe president in 1986.
Okay, it's an amateur group, but it now and forever holds the distinction of being the first American repertory company to do all 13 G&S shows, ever since it completed the canon with Ruddigore in 1946.
What started as a one-niter has now expanded to a two-week sellout run at the John Jay College Theater. In 1984, the company decided that once a year was not enough, and that a fall show should be added, stressing more modern shows -- the famous (Cabaret and Night Music), the unjustly forgotten (Little Mary Sunshine, The Apple Tree, and Something's Afoot), and even the British musical, Mr. Cinders. Blue Hill also does concerts, which this year took them to the University Club, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and no less than Carnegie Hall, where they did G&S selections with Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops.
But the annual G&S show is still the jewel of the triple crown. And while John Schieffelin is no longer with us, Lois, at 88, still is, and served as honorary chairperson for the gala 75th anniversary festivities with the show that got them started: H.M.S. Pinafore, delightfully rendered with Joanne Lessner as Josephine, Rick Hamlin as Ralph, Win Rutherfurd as the Captain, and Jane Coleman as Little Buttercup. (At least at the performance I caught. There are so many Blue Hillers now -- hundreds -- that roles are double-cast.)
It's all for a good cause. As the Blue Hill charter reads (in Gilbert-like verse), "To prove our motives profitless with no uncertain clarity / Our net returns we always give to some deserving charity." That may mean hospitals (Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat was chosen seven times, Lenox Hills thrice), but not always: God's Love We Deliver and the Fortune Society have been fortunate recipients. All in all, over $2 million has been disbursed lo these 75 years.
"But none," says member Jennifer Zonis, "has profited as much as we have ourselves."
They earn it. From September through January, the Blue Hillers rehearse at various members' apartments for a couple of hours each Tuesday, concentrating mostly on the concert material. But after Christmas, the cast of the musical adds Sundays, and later on an every-night-from-6-to 12 schedule until the show opens in April. Everyone freely gives his services, save for accompanists, musicians, musical and theatrical directors.
"We're lawyers, architects, advertising executives, teachers, and bankers," says Zonis. "Our president, Emily Rafferty, is senior vice-president of development for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But what we all have in common is a civic spirit and these hidden talents. We're living out our Broadway fantasies."
Quite well, in fact. The Blue Hill's audience ranges from blue-hairs to tow-headed children. Each time I've attended, the diverse house greatly appreciated what it saw. Part of that is sheer spectacle: When was the last time you saw dozens upon dozens of people on a stage? But a bigger part is that everyone is doing splendid work.
Betsy King happened to hear about the group in passing 15 years ago -- "while on a Harvard Club admissions interview," she recalls. "Somehow we just got talking about G&S, whom I loved, so my interviewer said I just had to get involved with this group." (P.S.: He let her into the Harvard Club, too.)
Now, after having met Samuel Militello, she's Betsy King Militello, who's worked on costumes and make-up and now chairs the charities committee that determines which worthy group will profit from the company's endeavors. "I ask the other six members to keep an eye out for new charities that may have crossed their radar screens in the last year. About 20 non-profits apply annually, and we review them for strength of organization and project."
This year's beneficiary, The Family Academy, is an experimental school in Harlem that runs from 8-6 PM eleven months a year. Says Militello, "We're giving them seed money (estimated to be around $100,000) to establish their middle school arts program."
And speaking of programs: At each performance, The Blue Hill Troupe hands out a hefty one, so large (200 pages) that the company's name, show, and year are able to be printed on its quarter-inch spine. Inside this year's was a full-page ad from Bloomingdale's: "You're like no other troupe in the world." And who'd disagree with that?
Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com