History of the Charleston Light Opera Guild
The Charleston Light Opera Guild was founded in 1949 by a group of vocal teachers and talented amateur performers who sought an outlet for musical talent in the Kanawha Valley. Leonard Stocker, the moving force in founding the Guild, had come to Charleston in 1948, after 15 years as a professional singer and actor. A voice teacher at Mason College of Music in Charleston, he was joined by music teachers Margaret Hope Samms, Annie Laurie Leonard and Marguerite Palmer in forming the Guild. The initial offering was Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore which played to a standing room only audience at the Charleston High School Auditorium. Throughout the 1950’s the Guild continued to produce popular operettas. Stocker, the first artistic director of the group, was succeeded Lila Belle Brooks.
In 1957 the Guild weathered its first financial crisis when a production of Where’s Charlie at the Municipal Auditorium failed to attract anticipated crowds. The group decided to reproduce the royalty free HMS Pinafore. This began the Guild’s second era. Shows were presented at the United Fuel Gas Company’s Auditorium and played to packed houses. With the emergence of the Civic Center Little Theatre, Tom Murphy who had become director in 1959, reasoned that it was time for a change. Oklahoma! in 1960 introduced the Broadway musical. In those early years the Guild did not have a permanent home and rehearsed in churches. By the mid 1960’s they purchased a Charleston east end workshop where rehearsals were held, costumes stored and sets were built.
The Guild weathered a second crisis in the late 1960’s when the roof collapsed on its workshop. Board members decided to produce one show that season. Some summer offerings were presented at Pipestem to help offset bills. With the 1970 production of Showboat at the Civic Center Little Theatre, the Guild was back on its feet. The official summer theatre program was started in 1971 and then put on hold until 1975 when summer productions were mostly presented at the east end workshop (In the summer of 1991 the revival of A Chorus Line was presented at the Culture Center).
With the purchase of the Weekley Memorial Methodist Church in 1995, the Guild took another giant step forward. Using significant portions of its own funds, together with various contributions, the Guild turned the church into a workshop and theatre. Numerous summer theatre youthful productions, as well as, alternate smaller produced musicals and operettas have been held at the Guild Theatre.
In 1983 Nina Denton Pasinetti, Guild choreographer since 1971, took the reins as artistic director. The group introduced its first African-American musical, The Wiz, in 1986. The Guild received the 1996 Mayor’s Award for artistic excellence. Louis Husson, Nina Denton Pasinetti, John Marshall and Roger Lucas have each received the Mayor’s Award for individual artistic achievement. Both John Breed and Bud Lutman have received the Mayor’s Volunteer Award.
The Guild began its golden anniversary year with its May 1999 production of Follies. Three of the performers in that show, Louis Husson, Betty Agsten Hamilton and Shirley Annand were charter Guild members. During the summers of 2002 and 2003, the Guild collaborated with the Charleston Stage Company and Kanawha Players to produce the Charleston Theatre Festival at the Guild Theatre.
In the fall of 2003, with a production of The Music Man, the Guild became the first community group to mount a production at Charleston’s Clay Center and has returned to that theatre many more times to mount co-productions with the Clay Center. In December 2005 an endowment fund was established in honor of Louis Husson’s 80th birthday. In December 2006 Guild members appeared in a concert version of South Pacific with Tony Award winners Brian Stokes Mitchell and Lillias White at the Greenbrier Resort in honor of Guild charter member Lawson Hamilton and his wife Jeanne’s 60th wedding anniversary. The Guild has presented productions during FestivALL Charleston since 2005 and has been a headline event of the FestivALL since 2009.
To date the Charleston Light Opera Guild has produced over 200 shows. The group continues to present a mixture of new and classic shows at the Civic Center Little Theatre, Clay Center Maier Performance Hall and Charleston Light Opera Guild Theatre. Summer theatre continues as a training ground for high school, college age and young adults. Many working professionals in music theatre, television, film and dance including Kathy Mattea, Ann Magnuson and Jennifer Garner have graced the Guild stage during their formative years.
© 2013 The Charleston Light Opera Guild