After 60 years, shows may change; the cause does not

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Seniors taking the stage for their Variety Show tonight will bring something to the annual show that has been missing for some time: The singing of the alma mater.

“I went in just to direct the alma mater,” said James Colonna, who taught music theory, band and worked with the Variety Show in one way or another every year he taught at PAHS, “and then I got really into it.”
The return of the historic alma mater to the Variety Show program is indeed warranted, as this year marks the 60th anniversary of the annual show.

The participants and shows change every year. The material has shifted from Broadway tunes and sketches to lip-syncs and “Bieber Fever.” But perhaps the only constant element about the Variety Show is that half its proceeds toward the Margaret C. Boles Foundation, which provides scholarships to college-bound students in need. The other half goes toward the seniors’ all-night party after commencement.

According to Kim DeChurch, who is co-advising this year’s show with Keith Hughes, the first Variety Show — in 1951 — raised about $941. These days, the show collects about $20,000.

Boles, who never married, was born in Denver, and came to Punxsy in 1916, teaching until her death in 1949 at age 56.

Betty Philliber, who began teaching in 1957 in the Punxsy district, had Boles for English class, recalled that because of Boles’ teaching, she was excused from taking freshman English when she enrolled at Shippensburg University.

“She was very nice. When I was in high school, she was in charge of drama at the former high school,” directing plays by the former Thespian Society, Philliber said.

But she was serving students outside school, as well, saving funds and providing them to students seeking college educations, yet had little money to do so on their own.

After Boles’ death, students began to talk about her generosity. The only stipulations were that the money be repaid to her, and no one was to know of her generosity while she was living.

The teachers’ association and local civic leaders then discussed ways to perpetuate Boles’ generosity, and Dec. 4, 1950, the Margaret C. Boles Scholarship was established, and continues to aid college-bound students today.

• • •
Philliber, who retired from teaching in 1979, advised the 1958 Variety Show with her husband, Bob, who taught history. Prior to teaching at the high school, she taught at Jenks Hill and West End.

She advised only one Variety Show, she said, because, “I think they couldn’t get anybody else.”

A program for the Nov. 21-22, 1957, show provided by Marge (Shenosky) Davis illustrates the music and humor of the times: A drill team titled, “No Time for Sergeants,” “Do I Love You” from “Cinderella,” and a piece sung by Davis and Kay Johnson, “On the Street Where You Live,” from “My Fair Lady.”

“That was the music back then,” DeChurch said.

Davis — who now serves as one of Mrs. Philliber’s caregivers — said the show didn’t have quite the preparation of today’s shows, for which rehearsals run several weeks. She also recalled Mrs. Philliber’s frequent stage directions for performers.

“I was the director of the kids, and I said, ‘If you’re going to sing, sing louder,’” Mrs. Philliber said.

Colonna, who began teaching in Punxsy in 1956 and retired in 1993, said the tryouts could be intense.

“We had tryouts for specialty acts. We would have 15 specialty acts, and maybe pick six or seven,” he said. “It was really competitive then. We tried to work in the skits, and do ones about school life, and the kids still did the scripts.”

Just as today, advisors seek to make sure the material students are writing maintain good taste, and “that nothing would hurt anybody,” Colonna said.

Aside from faculty advisors, the Variety Show has always been a student-generated event. While not every student may perform on stage, he or she has important duties backstage, as well, such as committees for scripts, make-up, tech and, a traditional part of the program, fudge.

“When I came here, we were staying after school with the kids packing fudge,” Colonna said. “Some of it was so bad, you had to throw out.”
Back then, there were also ushers and students assigned for parking detail.

“We tried to get as many kids involved as we could,” he said.
The Variety Show was first performed during the late fall after football season, Colonna said. But after students and staff moved into the then-new Punxsutawney Area High School in 1959, it was decided to move the show to spring, “because we thought more kids could work on it.”

S. Thomas Curry, who taught art at PAHS, said when he was recruited to advise the Variety Show in the early 1970s, he was all for it.

“I didn’t hesitate,” he said. “I always had an interest in the stage, stage design and those kinds of things. It was a natural thing, and I was still young enough to relate to the kids.”

“I think I got carried away in some way,” he said. “I’d also been the art teacher, and I was really good for staging individual acts and skits. It was more of a challenge, more work to be done, what looked like a higher level of stage props around. I was satisfied with what the kids were doing, with effects and props.

Curry also said that behind the scenes, advisors and the community knew that any program to benefit the Boles foundation should be respectful — of the foundation, the cause and the audience.

“We understood Margaret Boles and what it was about, so we didn’t want to cause any embarrassment in light of who they were honoring with the Variety Show,” he said.

“I remember on TV in the 1950s, the great shows, great entertainment,” Curry said. “That’s what we hoped people would get out of it.”

• • •
As soon as a Punxsy student hears about or sees a Variety Show as an underclassman, the show serves almost as a light at the end of the tunnel of the high school career: One day, a student will finally be a senior, and he or she will be able to take part in a Variety Show.

Some students plan sketches or performances weeks or months in advance. Others, such as Russell Bishop ‘92, who now teaches math in the Punxsy district, got caught up in it by accident.

“I probably had no plans, but this girl in the band, Anne Armstrong — who I had sat with for years — said, ‘Will you do this?’” he said about the trumpet-piano duet, “Flying Free,” they performed. “For some reason, I agreed. That’s just how it happened.”

“It was really neat,” he said. “I was glad she talked me into doing it. I’m glad that I did it. It was well-received.”

• • •
Some students want to perform, but then there are some students who want to be on the stage for most of the evening.

Those students generally audition to become emcees.

Jeremy Limerick, a 2001 graduate, saw his older sister, Nikki Laska, serve as an emcee in 1993, and decided “it sounded like a lot of fun. We always thought about our class coming together during the senior year.”
Limerick was among 34 people who auditioned for an emcee role, chosen by a panel.

“We did it in groups,” he said. “I think there were 10 or 11 groups of three, and they picked you as an individual. I think I tried out with four people; two were picked, two were not.”

Emcees in 2001 for “One Last Time” were Limerick, Dana Rowland, Andy McNeil, Kristen Cherico and Greg Renwick.

“Two of the other emcees, I knew, but I didn’t know the other two real well, but everything wound up working out,” Limerick said.

Emcees and directors — who, in 2001, were Ivy Pete, Erika Klingensmith and Scott Powers — worked on ideas for the show together.

“It wasn’t one person,” Limerick said, adding, “The directors would also be more of the smarter people, more organized. The emcees were more free-spirited.”

As the years passed, so did the content of the Variety Shows. Students still perform solo or group musical numbers, but there are more original sketches based on student life and/or pop culture.

“That’s how our’s was, like ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Limerick said. “It was a good time. We practiced a lot — six weeks, every night, so it was a lot of work.”

Just as times and shows change, so does content — sometimes tighter than past shows.

“There is a lot more restraint,” said Limerick, who saw his younger sister, Angela Laska, perform in her class’ Variety Show last year. “It seems every year, it’s getting a little tighter. I think they need to let the kids cut loose. It’s one night. It’s their senior year.”

• • •
“I just remember in sixth grade, I saw the Variety Show emcees and thought, ‘I want to do that,’” said Nikki (Osikowicz) Mashoob, a member of the Class of 1992 who now teaches sixth-grade social studies and science in the Pine-Richland School District. “I still remember the emcees I saw when I was a kid.”

Mashoob was a co-emcee with her best friend since pre-school, Nathan Ivey.

“We auditioned as partners,” she said, adding that she also performed with a dance group, and he performed with a band in the 1992 show.

Mashoob said she saw the Variety Shows as an underclassman, but noted that until a senior really takes part in one, he or she may not understand the finality of it all from just watching from the audience.
“Everyone cries at the end,” she said. “The song is always something about saying goodbye or moving on.

“It as fun; it’s embarrassing looking back now,” she said. “It was a last laugh, a last hurrah with your friends.”

The Punxsutawney Area High School Class of 2011 will present its Variety Show, “Long Live Our Dreams,” starting at 7 p.m. tonight and continuing Friday and Saturday evening in the PAHS Auditorium.
Tickets will be available at the door.
Proceeds will benefit the Margaret C. Boles Memorial Scholarship Fund and the seniors’ all-night party following commencement.