Calnans turn love of theater into community service

Published 10:18 am Monday, July 17, 2017

Mike and Karen Calnan are addicted to the roar of the grease paint and the smell of the crowd.

Since coming to Vicksburg in the early ’90s, they’ve become active members of the Vicksburg Theatre Guild, working in different jobs and participating as actors, notably in “Gold In The Hills,” the guild’s annual melodrama, which at 81 years old holds the world record for the longest continuous running show.

And they have their youngest daughter, Heather, to thank for their attachment to the theater.

“We came here in 1992,” Mike said. “I was active duty Army, and I was assigned to Waterways (now the Army’s Engineering Research and Development Center). Karen’s a school teacher, she taught second grade for 22 years at St. Francis (Xavier).”

When he completed an assignment at the Army Reserves’ 412th Engineer Command in 1998, Mike retired from the Army.

“Our two older kids were in college, and our youngest was 10, and involved in theater and dance, and was at St. Francis,” he said.

“We became involved with the Theatre Guild through our daughter. When Karen retired, we decided to stay here, and she (Heather) got us involved. She was involved in the youth theater. With the youth theater, parents have to help with costumes and set construction and things like that, so that got our foot in the door.

What closed the deal was the opportunity in 2000 to appear as extras in the George Clooney movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” part of which was filmed in Vicksburg at the Southern Cultural Heritage auditorium.

“The criteria was we were going to get our daughter in the movie, so we took her to Jackson to audition, and they picked us up, too,” Karen said. “She was in the little work league singing.”

“That was a lucky happenstance,” Mike said. “Karen was in the banquet scene; she was at the head table two seats over from Holly Hunter. You could see her in some of the little flip clips. I was at the closest table to the stage, and I was very prominent in crowd scenes.”

“Mike also did the baptismal scene,” Karen said.
Mike said all three of them were treated us like actors. “We would go through hair and makeup and costumes and props.”

“And so many Vicksburgians were in the movie, that we still run into people,” Karen said.

“We started in one place and got hooked,” she added.

“That’s how most of the people who get involved with the theater get involved,” Mike said.

“You come in one time.”

And the key to their enjoyment in the theater, Karen said, is the family participation.

“We all feel involved, and we support each other,” she said.

And their involvement extends past just helping out; they have been regular participants in Gold In The Hills, performing as actors and working behind the scenes.

The Calnans appeared as a family in a scene during one production of Gold In The Hills, and Mike has appeared as one of the play’s ne’er do wells. In the 2017 production, Karen played Mrs. Vanderlock for two nights, and Kate for two other. Mike handled the lights for this year’s production. Heather, an occupational therapist at The Bluffs Nursing and Rehab, and a dancer, taught the Can-Can and was one of the dancers on stage.

Mike is also the secretary of the Theatre Guild’s Board of the Directors.

Outside of their work with the theater, the Calnans are members of St. Michael Catholic Church, where they are Eucharistic ministers and Karen sings in the choir and is treasurer for the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Catholic organization devoted to Mary.

She is an intern in the Master Gardener program, delivers meals on wheels and is a member of the Ashmead Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
With her daughter, she participated in organizing the Mississippi Occupational Therapy Association’s Run, Walk, and Roll in Ridgeland.

“I have also participated in the Jacobs Ladder Turkey Trot, the ‘Walk’ Through History (race) and the Warrior Bonfire Race,” she said.

Mike is a member of the board of the Southern Heritage Air Foundation.

“We got involved through Patty Mekus, (the president of SHAF),” Mike said.

But their first love is the theater.

“I’m committed to it, because I think it’s such a great organization for the community,” Mike said. “Not only is it a wonderful venue for entertainment, it’s a wonderful venue for the talent that’s here in Vicksburg — actors singers, dancers carpenters, because we build sets. It’s something I want to see succeed. And I’ll do what I can to help it.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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