Westernaires appear in the opera "Camelot"
“There's simply not a more congenial spot for ‘happily ever after’ than here in Camelot”
Henry Lowenstein, known as “the Father of Denver theater”, was planning his 1969 production of the Lerner and Loewe musical, Camelot. He invited the Westernaires to be a part of the production with the logic was that “Camelot, after all, is the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.”
Lowenstein approached Elmer E. Wyland, director of the Westernaires, with the idea to have Westernaires somehow take part in the 7-day run of Camelot. Rarely one to shy away from a challenge to perform with a quality ensemble, Mr. Wyland immediately accepted, and the work began.
Opera in the park, Free of Charge
The iconic Denver Opera Foundation’s productions, sponsored by the Denver Post and held outdoors in Denver’s bucolic Cheesman Park, were enjoyed every summer by Denverites from 1934 to 1972 (except for the war years, 1944 and 1945).
Helen Bonfils, wealthy daughter of the co-founder of the Denver Post newspaper, was the creator and patron of this prolific series. These public, free operas brought art to the masses and were lauded far and wide for their quality of execution.
Preparing for “Knighthood”
Ever the historian, Westernaires founder Elmer E. Wyland was a stickler for practical authenticity in all Westernaires costuming. The research kicked-off to make the medieval knight costumes appear as realistic as possible, without having to purchase actual chainmail.
Westernaire parent and design professional, Eileen Griffith, began sketching designs for both horse and rider. She worked closely with the theater costuming and set design staff to come up with a design that would both look authentic and be pleasing to the eye from as far away as possible.
“A couple of the (Westernaire) mothers knit our chainmail. They knitted with big needles and heavy yarn. And then Sharon and I got to spray paint them all silver.” — alumna Debora Easley Emmert
“In general, the research and overall management of the costumes, color combinations, heraldry, etc., was the responsibility of Eileen Griffith. She made the first basic design to work from before having to dash off to the Caribbean on an assignment for under water photography of ocean flora, etc., for a client. When she returned, she didn't get to even unpack her bags for almost a week as she plunged into the work and management of the costume work to meet the June 2nd dead line.” — Elmer E. Wyland, Westernaires founder
Westernaires volunteers create 100% of the costume magic for Westernaires, and this production was no different. Westernaire parent and handyman Jack Moore headed a crew of: Bob Clement, Orrin Curtiss, Mr. Ariki, and Mr. Maholland to create the jousting saddles on old Cavalry saddle trees. Westernaire parents Katherine Brago, Ann McKeage, and Vivian Lowery made the heavy brocaded saddle covers. Bunny Clement headed a crew of knitters: Peg Easley, Hilary Nelson, Mrs. Clem Long, Iola Capelli, Eileen Griffith & Ann McKeage. Bunny Clement made all the rein covers and Alice Stannard made all the jerkins to carry the sleeves of mail. Eileen Griffith made all the tunics, each with a different heraldry design which she also placed on the horses’ saddle covers.
“Approximately 253 hours were spent on the project,” Mr. Wyland noted in the July 1969 issue of Boots and Saddles. “Another miracle of ingenuity, adult cooperation, and a youth group who make their headlines by juvenile decency and ability rather than delinquency.”
Horses and orchestras don’t always mix, or, the importance of Dress rehearsals
By nature of their extensive show and travel experience, Westernaires horses tend to be ready for nearly anything. Camelot’s stage designers wanted the medieval knights to appear to be riding up the winding roads and bridges as they approach the castle, so they built narrow ramps that were suspended above the orchestra pit.
Wyland noted that, “The director asked if our horses could go up a carpeted ramp to the stage 8' above ground level. He was told "OK" if the ramp was at least 4' wide and a gradual grade. Then the stage carpenters decided, that to get the grade, they would have to build a landing and make a right turn.” Navigating these narrow traverses would be challenging for most riders, especially with variable lighting, but the Westernaires horses had no problems with the arrangement.
Alumna Sharon Easley Walker recalled, “We had practiced it, and Westernaire horses get used to pretty much anything. So, going up these hollow ramps that go ‘clank, clank, clank,’ we’d been over them, and we knew we could get across. We practiced (on them), and nobody had any trouble, to the amazement of everybody.”
During dress rehearsal, however, one additional variable was added to the production. Sharon was atop her horse, Yacca. She explained, “So dress rehearsal (comes around), and here we go. ‘Knights, come on in,’ and we were supposed to go up, and stop to pose.” She continues, “They failed to tell us that that was the cue for the orchestra to strike up the big fanfare for the beginning of the musical! And all of our previous rehearsals had been done without the orchestra. All of the sudden (there was this) ‘Boom!’ striking up the orchestra.”
“We were on the long part of the ramp right over the orchestra (when this all happened). We were okay, I mean, not emotionally, but we were okay,” Sharon laughs.
Sharon’s sister, Debora Easley, was mounted on her horse “Chantilly.” She had a bit of a different experience when the orchestra struck its first note.
“Chantilly was on the little square landing. She had come up one ramp, and had turned, but she started backing up (off the ramp) when the music started. Papa Posse – whoever he was – that was right behind her, he grabbed Chantilly’s hind legs and shoved her back onto the platform… You know the adrenaline when you can lift a car? So we all survived.”
That valuable learning experience during the dress rehearsal led to the decision to make a small change and allow the horses to begin their traverse up the ramps after the orchestra had already begun to play.
Each of the seven performances went smoothly and were a smash success with audiences and critics alike.
Watching the historic lunar walk while playing medieval knights
Another historic first occurred during the July 20th performance of Camelot, and these fortunate Westernaires riders were able to witness it. Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans walk the lunar surface on the evening of July 20th, 1969.
“On the final performance of Camelot, during the intermission of the opera, Mr. Rissacher (Westernaire volunteer) had a little black and white TV that he had on the back end of a station wagon, plugged into his car. And so we all stood around the back of his car and watched the moon landing. It was amazing. I get chills thinking about it.” — alumna Debora Easley Walker
Elmer E. Wyland creates another act
Ever the showman, Mr. Wyland created a new feature act for the 1969 Westernaires Horsecapades annual show. Capitalizing on the popularity of the show Camelot, he employed Westernaire rider and professional singer, Melody Mundell, to dress as Queen Guinevere and sing the title song. Knights of the round table circled the arena as she sang the number.
After Melody graduated from Westernaires, Sharon Easley was tapped to take the role of singing Guinevere. Despite her non-singing background, she nailed it.