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Art show hopes to help Smyrna Opera House

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W.T. Stewart has visited 70 countries; has hitchhiked across the country six times (and lost count how many times he has driven across); surfed Peru, Barbados, Australia and New Zealand; climbed volcanoes; and white-water rafted in Belize and Guatemala.

Oh, and he also temporarily stole Elvis Presley’s hat.

But the life he’s chosen for the last 15 years has been one of an artist. The Baltimore-area native is currently showing his art at the Smyrna Opera House. The exhibit, which also can be viewed online, has 20% of the proceeds going toward the facility to help keep it afloat during these dark COVID-19 times.

“I was only 18, and believe me, I was a total knucklehead surf bum,” he said of the time in 1961 when the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll landed by helicopter on Waikiki Beach. Mr. Stewart went up to him and took the hat right off his head. But security chased him down and made him give it back.

“I haven’t missed out on much of anything. I’ve always been a traveler. That’s been my first love — to travel. I’ve always wanted to do it ever since I’ve been a kid. As far as I can remember, I wanted to see things,” Mr. Stewart said.

It was sometime during all of that when art started to appeal to him, and the thought of being an art teacher crossed his mine. But wanderlust got the best of him again.

“I was going to be an art teacher at one time in the ‘70s and was taking art classes at Towson University and working odd jobs and different things,” he said.

“And, in the meantime, I wanted to do some more traveling, and so I developed my own expeditionary business, and I traveled quite a bit in Mexico and Central America, mostly Guatemala, running rivers, doing archaeological tours and white-water rafting and drinking good Mexican beer and going to all the really great archaeological sites. I did that off and on for about four years and got tired of too many rifles pointed at me, and my kids were young, and I went, ‘Well, that was fun,’” he said.

Mr. Stewart says the trips he’s taken have served as inspiration for the fanciful works he creates. He calls himself an “imaginary colorist.”

“I have a real good friend. We went to art school together. He’ll look at my stuff and say, ‘How the heck do you think of this stuff?’ And I can’t answer that. It’s just stuff just comes out, and I do what’s in my mind, and I like colors,” he said.

“I’ve been exposed to a lot of cultures. India was a big influence, Mexico, definitely Central America, South America, and I spent a lot of time in the Caribbean. I lived three years in the South Pacific. So I’ve got all these different cultures from the past, and they blend together. And I guess I just pick out things, different colors and thoughts and just work stuff out and kind of go further.”

Also a writer in one of his many past lives, Mr. Stewart penned a book titled, “Dreamland Express,” where he explores a mythical land called Zomeria where banana sharks, bird ladies and bird spiders live.

These and more creatures and places are featured among his work.

“Through this novel, I’m able to transport myself to this land of Zomeria. And this is where all my traveling comes together. And I’m interacting with all of these different characters and all the strange situations. I have rivers running uphill. There’s a magnetic flow that when the rivers get to the top of the mountain, because of their high iron content, they’re sucked back into the center of Zameria. They come back, and it’s a reverse river flow. So it’s kind of an interesting phenomenon. So a lot of that comes from the Zomerian life that I write about,” he said.

Although he still lives in the Baltimore area with his wife Nancy, his daughter resides in Smyrna, a son lives in Rehoboth Beach and another son is attending Salisbury University and works at Harrington Casino.

The public is welcome to view the artwork in person or see the show on the Smyrna Opera House Facebook page or Flickr. Call 653-4236 to set up an appointment or to purchase artwork.

Smyrna Opera House managing director Brian Hill is thankful that Mr. Stewart has his paintings in the historic venue and is donating some of the proceeds toward the efforts of the theater.

The opera house has been hit by the forced closure over the past year with frequent starts and stops in programming. He says the theater has never carried a debt and had funds in reserve for such an occasion, but it’s certainly been a frustrating time.

“We’re trying to get back going, and it takes a lot of organizing. We’ve had acts signed to play here for the last year and had paid down payments to most of them. Most of them want 50% upfront. So that’s thousands and thousands of dollars that we’ve had out for over a year now,” Mr. Hill said.

“We did do the first round of the (Paycheck Protection Program) grant, and we are going to apply for the Shuttered Venue (Operators) Grant, which is about to be released. We will apply for that, and, of course, we always do our Delaware Division of the Arts grants and things like that to try to stay afloat. But the (Shuttered Venue) grant could really be a lifesaver for a lot of our venues,” Mr. Hill said.

The theater also got a boost from the local community over the course of the last year with its contributions to the Smyrna Opera House COVID-19 Relief Fund, which has added $11,000 to the coffers.

“Our community, it’s not a large community. It’s small. But we put it out on social media and put it out there, and we took a chance, and it really helped us a lot. We have a lot of support behind us, and every little bit helps,” he said.

“Our community has always been huge supporters of the opera house ever since we did the restoration on it (in 2002). We raised all those funds years ago to restore the opera house through grants and much of it through local donations. But to see them step up and when everybody is kind of in need. There’s a lot of people that are still out of work, but a lot of folks still gave to us,” Mr. Hill said.

“We really appreciate the following that we have. Before COVID hit, we were selling out shows left and right. We hadn’t done that for years. So we had the community’s interest again. I think that when this pandemic slows down and people are able to go out and feel comfortable, I think we’ll come right back because people are going to want to get out and do things.”

To that end, Mr. Hill is hoping for a mid-May reopening with a comedy sketch show by the local theater group Stanton’s 4th Wall.

There are many acts such as The WannaBeatles, Sean Reilly’s tribute to Frank Sinatra and a Neil Diamond tribute show that are waiting in the wings to perform, and tentative dates are scheduled.

Philadelphia-based Lights Out, a group of musicians who are University of Delaware grads, has been a big attraction at the Smyrna Opera House, and Mr. Hill hopes to have it back soon. They were going to do two shows over the Christmas holidays, he said. But that had to be scuttled due to increased limitations on capacity.

“We had the Lights Out show coming back with their Christmas show spectacular. Because we could only have 125 people at the time, I asked the guys if they could do two shows the same day. They’re expensive to bring to town. They said they were willing to do two shows to help us out, as we had sold out both shows. And then things changed, and the governor had to change the way things were being done again, and we could only have 50 people in the building. And then, we had to cancel both shows, and we had to refund thousands and thousands of dollars,” Mr. Hill said.

“You just never know what’s going to happen right now. Hopefully, we’ll get through it and keep going here now with the vaccine.”

He said folks around town have been asking when the opera house will reopen, but he doesn’t have any clear answers quite yet.

“We have phone calls every week as to when we might do something, and I see a lot of folks, and they’re always asking me. We have our guild members that usually volunteer for all our shows, and they’ll call the opera house just to check in with us and say hi and we miss you guys,” he said.

“Most of them are seniors, so you know they’re not out and about right now. But they’re still checking in.”

Musical Theatre Lab

The new Musical Theatre Lab at the Milton Theatre is a hands-on exploration into stage performance and production open to all high school students. A combination of classes and rehearsals provide students with a learning environment in two-hour classes for 10 weeks, starting Monday.

Working with professional theater practitioners, students receive training in a collaborative and supportive environment.

Students will explore musical theater techniques from the perspective of an actor, singer and dancer. Activities include acting, singing, dance classes, choreography and staging, as well as master classes in vocal training, audition preparation and industry navigation.

The program runs from Monday to May 3 on Monday nights from 5:30-7:30. There is a $320 program fee with scholarships available.

For more information, visit the Milton Theatre website or call the box office at 684-3038.

Now Showing

New in theaters this weekend is the critically acclaimed, “Nomadland,” and the suspense thriller, “Silk Road.”