By LYNNETTE HINTZE
The Daily Inter Lake
BIGFORK (AP) - The show must go on.
Bigfork Summer Playhouse owners and producers Don and Jude Thomson have lived and breathed that sentiment for more than four decades. A career in theater brings with it occasional unintended drama.
There was the time, the Thomsons recalled, when a portable stage floor began rolling away during a show under the weight of several male dancers. Someone crawled underneath and strong-armed the set, holding it in place as footsteps thundered atop.
The show must go on.
There was the time a young woman fell through a platform that was missing at the top of a set of makeshift stairs. She fell through and delivered her lines without a hitch.
The show must go on.
And the Bigfork couple hasn't forgotten the young actress with pancreatitis who had to be replaced during the summer season. Later, her replacement had to be replaced.
The show must go on.
Those nerve-racking moments make for good stories, but they're overshadowed by decades of crowd-pleasing productions and a passion for theater that has shaped the lives of hundreds of aspiring musicians and actors who have packed their bags and headed to Bigfork. Many have returned for several summer seasons.
It was the summer of 1964 when then University of Montana Department of Drama/Dance chairman Bo Brown hired Don to design and build scenery during the playhouse's early years. Jude joined the crew as musical director in 1965, the same year she married Don.
The two had met at the university in 1964 when Jude was watching a band rehearsal in the University Theatre and noticed a student building a stage set. The young man was perturbed that his progress was being hindered by the rehearsal under way. That disgruntled student was Don.
They've been in the theater ever since.
After completing his master's degree in theater at UM in 1966, Don was offered his first job in Kearney, Neb., where he taught at Kearney State University in the drama/dance department for six years.
He fondly remembers the road trips from Nebraska to New York City with theater students to watch Broadway shows. Back then, it only cost $100 a person for transportation and show tickets, an immeasurable bargain.
''If kids get the opportunity to see professional theater, it's such a learning experience,'' he said.
Bigfork lured the Thomsons back each summer. Jude noted that her big production during the 1967 season was the birth of their first son, Brach. Her time as a faculty wife was full. In addition to caring for her son, she was a member of the Mother Singers, a parent-teacher association group for which she played piano. Their second son, Gavin, was born in 1971.
After that, it was on to Great Falls, where Don taught at C.M. Russell High School for six years.
The playhouse continued to beckon them, and they answered.
In the mid-1970s they decided to devote their lives to theater and bought the playhouse. The Bigfork Fire Department later deemed the building unsafe for theater productions, so the Thomsons donated it to the city. It was bulldozed to make way for a new playhouse in 1988.
Don grew up in the small town of Harlowton, where Don's parents and grandparents encouraged his interest in theater. He's tackled every aspect of the playhouse - actor, producer, director, set builder and teacher.
Jude, a Kalispell native, has focused her efforts on music, as musical director and piano player for the theater company.
The offseason is anything but down time for the Thomsons. They plan and prepare for the summer productions - four musicals and two comedies - and travel to regional auditions to find the 45 to 50 people they'll need to round out the summer crew. It's a mix of singers, actors, dancers and technical staff.
The auditions are competitive, and it's not always easy to lure young actors and musicians to northwestern Montana. Some fear they won't get enough exposure in a place like Bigfork, but usually they fall in love with both the playhouse and the community.
''When their parents come to visit, they're blown away,'' Don said. ''Some of them buy property'' before they leave town.
''We've seen a lot of talent,'' he added. ''We've been fortunate to have good kids. What they've brought with them has enhanced the theater.''
The Thomsons have well-deserved bragging rights. Thirty playhouse alumni have appeared on Broadway, 10 of them with leading roles.
J.K. ''Kim'' Simmons is one of the most well-known alumni. He's appeared in several movies and is ''on his way up,'' Don said. But every year, he returns to Bigfork for the annual softball game between the theater and the ''townies.''
About half of the crew returns for more than one season. The percentage has gone down a little; the loyalty playhouse owners saw in the 1970s and '80s isn't there anymore, they noted, a trend not isolated to the theater industry.
The Thomsons operate the playhouse as a for-profit business, although a nonprofit children's theater was added four years ago. A scholarship program is an avenue for local theater supporters to donate money.
It hasn't always been easy to make a living running a summer theater, they admit. Jude taught piano lessons to help make ends meet. Over the years their tireless dedication paid off.
This year's lineup includes the musicals ''Chicago,'' ''Grease,'' ''Crazy For You'' and ''Anything Goes.'' The season kicks off with ''Bullshot Crummond,'' a farce set in the 1930s. It's a takeoff on the old ''B'' detective movies and has everything from plane crashes to car chases to sword fights.
The fall production is still undecided, and may give way to renovating the playhouse.
Forty years of summer productions have yielded some great performances. A few of the Thomsons' favorites are the 1977 production of ''Brigadoon,'' the 1982 production of ''Sugar,'' ''Paint Your Wagon'' in 1984 and last year's production of ''Cats.''
"'Cats' was extremely good,'' Jude said. ''It was difficult to do, but it ended up very well-received.''
Knowing how tough it can be to make a living doing summer theater, the Thomsons told their sons to ''stay out of the arts.''
But they couldn't stay away. Both have moved back to Bigfork with their families. Gavin is the playhouse's technical director; Brach directs the children's theater and puts together the music for those productions.