Ban on peanut-tossing at ‘Gold’ marks ‘passing of an era’|[03/31/07]

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 31, 2007

&#8220Boo!” and &#8220Hiss!” sounded from the audience as Richard Murgatroyd made his entrance at Friday’s performance of &#8220Gold in the Hills.” But, no peanuts?

The ill-fated villain had been the target of fists full of the roasted snack since the play began in 1936. But now that &#8220Gold” is back home at Parkside Playhouse after being displaced by a fire last June, the curtain has closed on peanut-throwing.

It was a decision made during renovations to the now 30-year-old Iowa Boulevard theater. When taking down smoke- and water-damaged ceiling tiles, contractors discovered a 10- to 12-foot &#8220stock pile” of peanuts, which had been made into rats’ nests, said Vicksburg Theatre Guild member Mike Calnan.

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&#8220The presence of rats creates a potential public health hazard due to the rat droppings. The rats also attract snakes, who like to eat the rats,” he said.

A foot-long rat and several dead rat snakes were found in the walls along a hallway behind the theater’s stage, Calnan said.

&#8220Gold” made its peanutless return earlier this month and, while audience members may miss the chance to toss them on stage, the tourist-driven production is still going strong.

&#8220Not having them has not seemed to affect the audiences,” said Terri Booth, who has been involved in the production for close to 30 years.

But 13-year-old Drake Martin, who traveled 3 1/2 hours with fellow students from Janet Ligon’s eighth-grade class from Marvel, Ark., was dismayed that he couldn’t pelt the villain.

&#8220I was bummed out. I wanted to go home,” he said.

However, like the other 19 students who heard from Marvel Academy students who have been coming to Vicksburg for eight years to throw peanuts, it didn’t take Drake long to get into the spirit.

&#8220It’s awesome,” he said.

Finding another way to involve the audience is something that has been on VTG members’ minds.

The play’s director, Earlene McCleave, said the group is open to suggestions. &#8220There are a lot of things we’ve been thinking about that could take the place of peanuts.”

Jim Miller, who has played Murgatroyd for more than 12 years and was also involved in replacing the theater’s electrical system after the fire, said he’s actually happy to see the peanuts go.

&#8220I think it’s a great thing. Now that we don’t have peanuts, we have to do a better job of acting,” he said.

When &#8220Gold” was first forced from its home after last summer’s fire, performances were moved to Vicksburg High School. The nuts were put on hold then simply because the school didn’t want the mess.

Booth, who said she was hit more than once by a poorly aimed peanut, has mixed feelings about the nuts’ demise.

&#8220It was kind of a pain to bag them and clean them up, but, on the other hand, it made it fun for the audience,” she said. &#8220It’s something we were known for.”

Her son, 18-year-old Zach Booth, who has been involved in &#8220Gold” since kindergarten and played the hero John Dalton on Friday, said he can remember being a peanut-bearing audience member.

&#8220You always hear that secret voice, saying, ‘Hit them really good,’” he said.

Whether it’s erasers, mints or ping-pong balls – just a few of the suggestions from the crowd – the days of throwing peanuts will always be remembered.

&#8220It’s the passing of an era,” Miller said.

Parkside Playhouse reopened in November. The fire wasn’t the first to cause its players to relocate. A April 1974 blaze destroyed the Sprague, a sternwheel towboat that was the stage for &#8220Gold” in the 1960s and early ’70s. Bowmar Avenue Baptist Church on Bowmar Avenue then was home to the play, noted in The Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s longest-running melodrama, before it went up in flames.

Productions, however, had already begun at Parkside Playhouse, which was built as the guild’s first state-of-the art home in 1977, with the first performance in 1978.

The spring season of &#8220Gold in the Hills” comes to an end tonight at 7:30.

Performances will crank up again in a few months, with shows every Friday and Saturday night from July 6 through July 28 at 7:30.