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VOL. 40 | NO. 26 | Friday, June 24, 2016

Let's put on a (big, original, really ambitious) show!

Rookie playwrights rally their adopted hometown

By Tim Ghianni

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COOKEVILLE – “Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!” Well, the same sentiment – if not those specific words – that guided Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and the rest from gloom and into the world of entertainment is pretty similar to what’s going on in Cookeville these days.

Particularly out at the Brookwood Drive home of Valerie Connelly and Hal Alpiar – a self-described “committed couple” drawn together by words, show biz and dogs – where the play’s the thing that’s been driving them for years.

The big differences between the old Rooney movies and this story is that, in this case, Valerie and Hal are hardly kids. And rather than enlisting their peers, they’ve reached out to people and businesses all over Cookeville to help present the world premiere of “Fearless! The Golden Love Musical,” which will bring a cast of approximately 40, a bicycle and at least two puppies to the stage of the Cookeville Performing Arts Center stage July 7-10 and July 14-17.

And just because it is starting in Cookeville, this Boomer-flavored musical is doing just that: Starting in Cookeville, with eventual aspirations of The Great White Way.

Yep, Broadway dreams are at play out at the Connelly-Alpiar home, just outside the Cookeville city limits in one of Putnam County’s ever-expanding forest of subdivisions that chomp away at the small-town feel.

All 20 of the compositions are by Valerie, with Hal contributing to the basic script itself, which really wasn’t much of a task, he admits.

Hal Alpiar and Valerie Connelly have brought Broadway excitement to Cookeville’s normally sleepy summer with “Fearless! The Golden Love Musical.”

-- Lyle Graves | The Ledger

The dialogue is sparse as the songs connect the characters and action. It’s sort of the Putnam County equivalent of “Tommy,” but without Roger Daltrey singing about a deaf, dumb and blind kid.

Instead, Valerie has written tale-telling songs about aging, about love, about self-deprecation. About “pancake boobs” and other things recognizable to aging Baby Boomers.

Hal is pretty blunt about his literary contributions to “the book.” “She asked me if I could add some humor to it,” he says. “She said she wasn’t very good at writing humor.”

Valerie – who has inserted plenty of wry humor about the stages of love and life into her compositions – explains why she really isn’t a humor “writer.”

“I’m very literal,” she says, admitting she doesn’t understand one of Hal’s wisecracks with the interviewer.

Hal isn’t just the guy with the funny bone and quips. He’s, of course, chief cheerleader and lover of the woman who created this musical play.

But, more importantly, he’s been using his skills learned as an ad man, a business professor and a consultant to become chief “recruiter” in the community, gently coaxing donations of objects and money to both decorate and stage the play that both think will eventually make it to the slice of Midtown Manhattan where the neon lights are bright and there’s magic in the air.

“I like this guy (Hal) that came to see me. He said they were putting on this play and using certain props in some of the scenes that were from local businessmen,” he explains, noting that he is loaning lamps for the play as well as “I wrote a check for $150 or $200 to try to support it.”

In exchange, he says, there will be lamps that will easily be identified as being from his third-generation business – the company opened in 1939.

“I was just trying to be involved as a community member in attempting to promote this play.”

He adds that the pleasant guy who came to visit was “very humble” when describing his idea for the play, but the fact that Broadway dreams, at least, are flourishing at CPAC was reason enough to hook Williams’ participation.

“My business has always been a strong community partner,” he says.

“We want to contribute because the community supports us.”

Roy Williams, who has to be one of the proverbial “nicest men in town,” is pretty straightforward about why his Williams Wholesale Supply – an electrical and plumbing distributor with a lighting showroom – at 250 Jefferson Street got involved in “Fearless!”

“For a musician, the dream is always Broadway,” says Valerie, taking a break from composing her work and printing out scores for the orchestra: There will be a full-scale, 24-piece orchestra in the pit in front and below the Cookeville Performing Arts Center stage.

“Whether I get there or not with this musical or any other is out of my hands,” she says, smiling readily and brightly as she talks about the pitfalls of pursuing that dream.

Valerie also has stepped in to take over the lead role due to the illness of the woman who had been cast.

To say that Alpiar has visited every Cookeville-area merchant might not be an understatement.

-- Lyle Graves | The Ledger

Hal has a more business-like view of the couple’s challenges and aspirations.

“We know we’re going to have to have a couple of legitimate theater stops after this (the CPAC). Maybe Branson. Maybe TPAC in Nashville before we can aim to Broadway,” he adds.

It’s the kind of no-nonsense approach that this former Madison Avenue ad agency guy, professor, author and consultant in the health care business world brought with him when drawn here by love for both his talented partner (a former French teacher and Chicago nightclub chanteuse) and the wide-spread arms of Cookeville’s “most wonderful people.”

He’s been spending the last year or more cold-calling businesses in one of Tennessee’s retirement hotbeds and asking for donations of goods, materials, money or at least some goodwill, as in window space for posters, so the play can be staged this summer.

Neither member of this cordial couple – she’ll be 69 on the day the play closes July 17 and he’s pushing on 75 (“I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody else that”) – is shy about proclaiming their aspirations.

“Fearless!” – the title of the play – also could be used to describe their attitudes as Valerie concludes the score and auditions local “theater folk” and winds up and pitches backers.

“We love Miss Valerie Connelly. We know and love her. We helped her purchase a home in Cookeville.

“She had a tea that Heather (broker Heather Skender-Newton) and I both attended. She told us about the play and the story behind it. She was so excited about using local musicians and local talent.

“It was a dream come true for her. ... We listened to her dream and we wanted to support her in it.

“She really wants to get local businesses on board and promote local businesses she loves. In one of the scenes one of the buildings will have our (real estate) sign on it. Everything costs money and we wanted to help with production costs and (we made) a monetary donation.

“We’re going to be sitting front and center. We are really excited.”

 – Stacey Wells, who refers to herself as “director of first impressions” (administrative assistant) at Skender-Newton Realty, 316 Broad Street

“Broadway-Bound….” is a promise on the top of the flyer that Hal distributes around the community as he hits restaurants, hardware stores, hotels – “just about any place that might look interesting” – to request help in getting this play staged.

“What’s being born right here in Cookeville, with the help of so many people, so many companies and volunteers, could end up on Broadway,” explains Hal, of the hyperbolic fearlessness he doubtless learned during his Madison Avenue Ad Agency days when he bought his share of the American Dream by concocting the “Armour Hot Dog Theme” and other cultural high-water marks.

“It was me, a musician and a creative guy working well into the night. We really were burning the midnight oil,” says the now-retired ad executive. That’s when it struck him that the ideal song was right there in his head.

“Hot dogs, Armour hot dogs

Valerie Connelly wrote the play and the score at this modest workstation in the rural Cookeville home she shares with partner and collaborator Hal Alpier.

-- Lyle Graves | The Ledger

What kind of kids eat Armour Hot Dogs?

Fat kids, skinny kids, kids who climb on rocks

Tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with chicken pox

love hot dogs, Armour Dot Dogs

The dogs kids love to bite!”

“That’s had a pretty good run. It’s been on television for 30 years,” he says of the jingle that could be judged politically incorrect in many contemporary quarters. “Unfortunately, in the ad business on Madison Avenue, when you write something, you sign over all the rights.”

If he still owned that song, there’d be plenty of royalties and tons of wieners arriving in the mail every day.

And he was no Madison Avenue one-hit wonder. He also teamed up with the late Shirley Polykoff and others in her Foote, Cone and Belding agency as they concocted Clairol’s double-entendre-dripping “Does She … or Doesn’t She” campaign.

His gift for hucksterism fuels him as he tirelessly pushes this play across the Cumberland Plateau.

Cookeville is a long way from Madison Avenue, and on this day, Hal is continuing a string of seven-day weeks, driving from place to place, politicking for donations and promotions for the play.

“I really believe in this play,” he says. He also believes in Valerie. And loves her, of course.

“It was a cool idea,” she says, of the community sponsorship, product placement, donations and participation pitch.
She says she was immediately taken by Hal Alpiar’s gentle-pitchman persona.

“I did give some money donation toward the play and part of it is they will use our logo on different props,” she explains. “I think they’ll have the ‘Outdoor Experience’ logo on a garden apron and on a bag …”
Of course, come merchants loaned their wares for product placement. She said her merchandise just didn’t fit.

“As for loaning gear, well, this play is fairly urban in perspective,” adding that she’d be more than willing to loan her wares “if a need comes up for some outdoor gear.”

Heather Call, owner of The Outdoor Experience, a backpacking and outdoor gear and clothing retailer at 124 East Broad

On a bright, late-spring afternoon, the couple’s “blended family” of dogs frolics outside among the flower beds and near the massive 5½-by-60-foot garden, where Valerie grows this year’s vegetable crop, flash freezing what can’t be eaten immediately. When the canines tire, they amble through a large doggie door that opens from the back yard compound into the dining room.

Gracie, a certified short-haired pointer, is Valerie’s “garage sale dog” – “I got her at a garage sale up in Chicago for $100,” she says – seems to be the leader of the pack.

Well, right at this very moment, that pack of three is down one, as Shadow, the black lab rescue, has escaped briefly from the yard. “She’ll come back. She always does,” says Valerie, who is proven right a few minutes later when Shadow ducks through the doggie door.

“This is something to help the community and get our name out there,” he says. “That’s what we’re getting from it.”
While perhaps furnishing a play is a bit out of the ordinary, Witt and his cronies are used to a different type of “staging.”

“We do put furniture into homes that are being sold to get a vibe of what’s going on there. But this is the first play that I’ve been a part of that we’re doing.”

Mark Witt, a sales associate at Shaffield’s, a furniture store at 450 Jefferson Street, which is loaning some furnishings

The third dog in this blended canine family was Hal’s companion for many years. Hal brought Breezy, the cavachon (a cross–breed mixing Cavalier King Charles and Bichon Frise), with him when he moved to Cookeville.

Breezy had been Hal’s comfort for years before he packed up his Delaware house.

Hal displays his life’s souvenirs on the walls and shelves of his office on one end of the house. His proud collection includes ­– among other things – a couple of photos of the beautiful young woman singing in Chicago clubs.

“That’s Valerie.” There’s also an NBA basketball, the partner of a hoop out in the driveway. “I used to love to play softball, but to play, I have to drive all the way to Crossville for senior’s softball.”

So he turned elsewhere for his exercise, with hopes to become the subdivision’s senior and secret Steph Curry, dribbling and launching his Wilson to release anxiety and work out his heart.

A well-thumbed stack of 150-plus business cards occupies a corner of his desk.

“These are all the people I’ve either called on or that I’m going to go back and visit to talk to them about the play,” he says, adding he’s already signed up more than 100 of them to participate as show sponsors.

“I’m working product placement,” he says, as he shuffles the cards, figuring out where he’s going to go calling on this afternoon.

“I was so surprised by the people who have gotten involved,” he points out.

“We’ve got all kinds of sponsors, every kind of business and some individuals. And it’s growing every day.

“It’s exciting because they are working together,” he says of the many contributors, some of whom are competitors in Cookeville business circles.

In addition to cash donations, which get businesses ads in the program (and for $500 allows them to have their logos projected above the stage during the play), he also is soliciting goods and services.

For example, Shaffield’s – a local furniture store – will provide the living room furnishings for the set.

Magical Muse art gallery is decorating the walls with its wares.

Office Max is providing a computer work station that will hold a computer loaned by Cardinal Computers, with that company’s logo – the “wallpaper” on the computer screens.

Williams Supply is providing the lamps.

Then a smile brightens Hal’s face. “The cast party is going to be at the Clarion Inn, and Budweiser of Cookeville is donating 10 cases of beer,” he says, noting that nothing here is costing the play a penny. Del Monico Winery in nearby Baxter is providing a touch or two of the grape.

“The Clarion was going to provide all the food, but Rib City, out by Interstate 40, learned about that and said ‘we’ll set up a rib table.’

“Outback found out about it, and they are providing a table of blooming onions.” (Outback also catered a sponsors’ dinner that was held June 15 at First National Bank downtown.)

Also for the cast party, World Foods, a local grocery-deli, will have a table of Mediterranean food, and a new business in town, Kneaded Together bakery is providing a cupcake tower for desserts.

The local Papa John’s will be delivering pizza onstage during one of the scenes.

While Hal describes his seven days a week of calling on strangers, glibly turning them into conspirators in his dream, Valerie is at the other end of the house, in her studio, where – navigating two musical keyboards and a computer and some special software – she is composing the entire score and preparing the sheet music.

Trademark Printing, another local company, has given her a tremendously cut rate for the 850 sheets of 14-by-17 paper needed for the conductor’s score.

She continues to work on that score, in a large room decorated by her paintings. In fact, her acrylic work, mostly depicting her former life in Northern Illinois but some depicting her life in the Peace Corps in Togo back in the 1960s, is spread throughout the house. Perhaps the most impressive collection lines a gallery at the front of the house that does double duty as a bathroom.

“I made this,” she says of the water closet studio. “I grew up learning that if you had to wait for someone to do something, you are better off doing it yourself.” Her life’s resume includes other homemade house expansions.

Meanwhile, Hal continues to rattle off places that have helped both by material donations and by monetary support.

“I went into an Ace hardware store, and they said ‘I can’t afford to contribute money,’ and I said ‘What can you do?’ They said, ‘‘I can give you some lumber.’ And I said ‘We’ll take it – after all we need lumber for the set – and then I asked ‘By the way, you got paint?’”

Stores and companies that have electronic billboards out front are chipping in not only with contributions of goods and money but also by putting the information about the play in the rotation of their messages.

Lamar Advertising is turning over two billboards to publicize the play.

And that comes in addition to the previously noted “billboards” above the stage – “We have a high-tech projection system” – on which a company or business can have its logo projected for $500 a night. Eight businesses – First National Bank of Tennessee, New York Life, Carlen Chevrolet, Wilson Bank & Trust, Skender-Newton Realty, Kroger, Outdoor Experience and Ford-Lincoln of Cookeville – have bought in.

“I’ve been selling the idea to them that this is a way to support the community, support these charities, put their name out in front of a captive audience of 3,600 people (during the eight performances).

“It’s a good buy. A better buy than a print ad or a radio commercial. And it sets up a competitive spirit, a fun thing. Everybody is having a good time.”

The goal of all the material and monetary donations – plus the all-volunteer cast (the orchestra is paid) – is for everything, every cost necessary to stage what promises to be a glitzy musical to be paid for before the ticket sales.

That way all the ticket sales proceeds can go directly to the three local charities – Putnam Habitat for Humanity, Cookeville’s Bryan Symphony Orchestra (the “pit crew”) and the Mustard Seed Ranch, a residential facility north of town whose goal is to help at risk youth.

“If we raise $50,000 ahead of time, that’s $50,000 more that will go to the charities,” says Valerie, explaining the simple formula. “I’d feel terrible if we went through all of this and only raised $300.”

Meanwhile, she turns back to her keyboard and computer combination and punches a song up on the screen and the speakers. In full keyboard-produced symphonic sound, Valerie has pulled off something of a “McCartney” (if you don’t understand, don’t worry about it), providing the lead as well as the harmonies and the “orchestra” in a robust, satiric song called “Bingo Wings.”

“Bingo wings are the little flaps of skin under your arms when you raise them to say ‘Bingo!’” she says, explaining the song is about a woman learning to not only cope with but embrace the changes in her body as she ages.

The chorus goes something like: “Turkey neck, pancake boobs, big ears and drooping nose….”

“I’ve written this play from a lot of different parts of my life,” she says, adding that she’s comfortable now as a grandmother with bottle-colored red hair.

“This play is about yesterday is gone, live for today…. And dogs are better people than people.’”

Breezy, Shadow and Gracie sprawl on the studio floor, at the feet of the composer and her partner, the businessman who is helping bring her Broadway dreams to life.

“By the way, in addition to the cast of people, we have a scene where we need puppies. A local veterinarian is loaning us two that aren’t even born yet,” she adds.

When their show biz careers are done, those pups likely will flourish and have good, long and loving lives.

Valerie and Hal are working hard, hoping to be to be able to say the same for the musical being composed in and promoted from this comfortable Putnam County home.

Break a leg.

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