The Best Little Arts Town in Pennsylvania
A beautiful young woman with shoulder-length brown hair, propane-flame blue eyes, clothed in shorts and a tank-top, flip-flops down Main Street where she is, for a moment, arrested by the sight of her favorite musical instrument. It harkens back to days spent after school, stiff-backed, her nimble fingers scurrying over eighty-eight sharps and flats.
There stands a piano, more colorful than the blue sky and its accompanying cotton-ball clouds, begging people to sit and play a few notes, maybe chopsticks, maybe something far more sophisticated.
Pianos, one with the inscription, “Without great solitude no serious work is possible,” line Wellsboro’s main drag, pianos painted by the theater group Hamilton-Gibson Productions (HG), founded by Thomas Putnam and now celebrating its twenty-fifth year.
And in a town of barely more than 3,000 people, on a street lined by pianos, shops, and galleries, like the hub of a bicycle wheel, rests the Deane Center for the Performing Arts. Here, in a tiny town burrowed into the tree-lined mountains, is showcased an arts culture every bit as vibrant as the biggest cities in the state.
And the woman—standing, not seated—lets the neural connection of muscle memory dance over the keys as Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” sing from within.
Those notes drift into the nearby Deane Center, an intrepid paean to the arts. A million-dollar endowment handled by the trusted hands of lawyer Lowell Coolidge was the seed money that broke ground on Main Street, but the Deane Center, the hub for what could be one of the greatest little arts towns in the Keystone State, is just the next iteration of an evolution that began decades ago with another museum whose commitment to high culture echoed far into the future.
Arthur Gmeiner, born just nineteen years after the end of the Civil War, was a businessman and fledgling painter, and like most artists opted for the steadier tack of a career that paid. He was, in a sense, a conformist.
Gmeiner, in a certain bout of manifest destiny, moved to Denver, Colorado, where he bought the Parks School of Business and trained thousands of students in the ways of industrial capitalism.
But Gmeiner always had that artistic itch, so when he sold the school and moved back to Wellsboro, his everlasting goal would stand as a tribute to the arts. (It’s impossible to entirely divorce his ego, as this was a way for him to display his art, too.)
But that parenthetical digression stands in stark contrast to the true meaning of the Gmeiner Art & Cultural Center as stated by Gmeiner at the dedication on October 1, 1969: “I present it to you in sacred memory of my father, mother, a sister, and two brothers, all of them now departed. It is all yours. From here on, the benefits to be derived from it will be in your hands...”
Gmeiner had a vision and saw Wellsboro for what it could be: an artistic scene for residents and tourists alike. With the help of his cousins, Ivah and Harold Deane (whose own largess to the town was still to come), Gmeiner’s eye was always toward the future, a future that would far outlive him.
Coolidge recounts, “He was a forward-looking guy, he had just bought some corporate bonds and ventures that wouldn’t mature for twenty years. He was in his nineties. He probably thought he’d live well past 100.”
As Coolidge sees it, the Deane Center, in many ways, is an extension of the Gmeiner separated by a distance easily covered in a few hundred strides.
The Deane Center, at last, opened in 2012 and it was, more or less, the new kid in school, muscling its way into the consciousness of Wellsborians and tourists alike. Four million dollars of privately raised money announces with a certain degree of authority who the new alpha dog in town ought to be.
But it was just outside the orbit of the already established art scene. What it needed was greater gravity to draw others to it. It was clear to Kevin Connelly, the new executive director of the Deane Center, that there was a disconnect.
“At first the Deane Center wanted to be another separate arts organization,” Connelly says, “doing its own theater, its own music. It became apparent there was a lack of communication between the organizations, I think, almost cannibalizing each other’s business.”
Connelly erased that confusion. He brought his business background to the forefront of the Deane Center. The North Star or guiding light was right in the name: Deane Center for the Performing Arts. A stroll through the Deane Center doesn’t just reveal the Lowell & Lynne Coolidge Theatre, the black box with its chameleon potential. It reveals the hub into which all the spokes could attach.
He ensured that the Deane Center would have a four-pronged attack. One, it would host dance classes, music lessons, and vocal lessons. Second, it would produce or host performances like the History Comes Alive words of Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln. Third, it would work with the Endless Mountain Music Festival (EMMF) and Hamilton-Gibson Productions to host their events. And fourth, it would offer space for public hearings, business meetings, baby showers, graduation parties, proms, and wedding receptions, as the black box theater is a blank canvas that can be decked out in any fashion.
“This place wouldn’t be here without the community, so it’s for the community,” Connelly says.
And with the EMMF entering its tenth year of existence, Wellsboro has proven that it’s not just a local commune for artistic expression, but a truly global exposé for the best musical talent on the planet.
Standing at the center, or, more appropriately, at the podium of the EMMF is Stephen Gunzenhauser, a world-renowned conductor, who sought to bring the world’s best musicians to Tioga County.
“I’m just flattered,” Gunzenhauser says. “I think that Wellsboro, just being a beautiful town, every musician I’ve brought here has fallen in love with it.”
That includes a docket of musicians for this season’s ten-year celebration including cellist Gita Ladd (July 26 in Wellsboro), pianists Asiya Korepanova (July 29 and 31 in Wellsboro and Mansfield), Young-Ah Tak (August 3 in Wellsboro), Ching-Yun Hu (August 5), the clarinet-piano Shtrykov-Tanaka Duo (August 4 in Elmira), and harmonica sensation Corky Siegel (August 6 and 8 in Troy and Corning).
Visit YouTube and watch these musicians work and you soon realize what a privilege it is that Guzenhauser successfully recruited them to play in a tiny town far from the cultural meccas where they routinely perform.
He relates how in baseball a good ballplayer can fail seventy percent of the time and be considered a success. These musicians, at least musicians on their level, deliver perfect sound at a success rate of 90 to 100 percent.
“People have this intake of breath. That was a great performance,” Gunzenhauser says. “It can’t be judged like a baseball team.”
Guzenhauser has worked with musicians from Ukraine, Switzerland, Serbia, Israel, Venezuela, Japan, Scotland, the U.S., and Canada, and Ching-Yun and Korepanova illustrate that global presence descending upon Tioga County.
“The festival established a reputation,” Gunzenhauser says. “Ninety percent of players are returning, because of the hospitality and the way in which they’re lauded in the community. You don’t get that everywhere. I want music to be fun. I need to ensure each concert we do at the Festival you walk away saying, ‘Damn, that was good.’”
Katy Frame, an actor who performed in A Streetcar Named Desire, Somewhere With You, and with her comedy band, says, “I think the people of Wellsboro are very lucky to have such a thriving art scene in their town. My experiences performing at the Deane Center with Street Car, Somewhere With You, and with my comedy band have all been terrific. The resources that the Deane Center provides to its performers is certainly comparable with any regional black box theater I’ve ever performed in.”
The catwalk of the Lowell & Lynne Coolidge Theatre is an interlocking grid of platforms where stagehands walk above the unsuspecting patrons below. The sophisticated sound system broadcasts from all angles, true surround sound, not simply blasted from the front.
And in the middle of it, down below, sits Thomas Putnam. Papers, a tablet, a coffee cup, a phone, all cover Putnam’s six-foot long table. He points a finger at an actor standing a few paces before him. In just a few weeks, The Addams Family musical takes the stage. Putnam’s long days feel longer as he draws closer to opening night.
Back in 1990 when Putnam founded HG, he noticed there was no troupe of sorts to bring arts on a community level to Wellsboro and beyond. Like any great entrepreneur, he started his own little company.
“People seemed to love it,” Putnam says. “They found meaning to be part of our mission, to provide a voice for people in the community, acted and produced by people in the community. Boy, I didn’t realize there was this much talent in this town.”
Putnam had taught English in southern Tioga County and saw he could provide a service that would scratch an artistic itch he felt the area wanted. And he wasn’t wrong. Twenty-five years ago he produced The Miracle Worker and the musical The Yearling. HG performed its plays wherever it could find a room: elementary schools, churches, courthouses.
Putnam didn’t know if people would show up to the first performance, but they did and then the next year, more came. “Maybe we can continue this,” he said.
He’s thoroughly reminded of how unique and special his standing is in Wellsboro. When Putnam travels to conferences or festivals and he hands out his brochures, the people who look at them—peers—admire (enviously?) the sponsorships HG procures for its productions. These peers also admire the pure volume of plays HG puts on. With five to seven main-stage productions a year, five drama camps for kids, theater programs for seniors, four youth choirs, dueling pianos, et cetera, it’s a thriving enterprise.
In the early years, costumes were stuffed in boxes and people stored set pieces in their garages. The theater was, in a sense, scattered around Wellsboro. Now the fumes of paint heavily suffuse the air (ADDAMS EDUARDO, The Conquistador, Death by Cherrypit, 1492-1537, reads the tombstone prop leaning against the wall) of the Warehouse Theatre just behind the Deane Center. It’s all contained.
What Putnam has found most encouraging is the new blood that comes through HG. New people build sets, audition, and actors return as well. There’s a hunger in this little town for great art, or just art to fill some part of the soul, a part that craves story, structure, or an illumination of the human condition. It’s all there. It’s all here.
“There’s always some risk and mystery,” Putnam says. “The variety of people I can interact with each play, like Atticus Finch says, ‘You just have to crawl around in their skin for a while.’ The whole cast is empowered by crawling around in someone else’s skin.”
Twenty-five years of Hamilton-Gibson (and counting), ten years of the Endless Mountain Music Festival (and counting), and even a magazine like Mountain Home (ten years this fall), a publication (one of the few) committed to long form reporting and writing the true short story, illustrate the full breadth of artistic range Wellsboro offers.
All of this, the nearly four million dollars raised from private monies (led by the generous Harold and Ivah Deane endowment) to plant a cultural hub tucked into the mountains, the festivals, the plays, the word craft, all of it blossoms in an unassuming place—the greatest arts town in the Commonwealth.