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Greenville & Hockessin Life

A new tune for the Brandywiners

Jun 29, 2023 10:50AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Ken Mammarella
Contributing Writer

The Brandywiners Second Stage production of “Ragtime” in March was both an homage to the Brandywiners’ founders and a glimpse into their future.

The homage came from the location: the Laird Performing Arts Center at Tatnall School, named for W.W. “Chick” Laird and Frances Tatnall, who co-founded the Brandywiners in 1932.

The glimpse is more complex. Performances were indoors in the spring, on a lesser scale (but still with a full-size Model T) for a group known for big summer musicals outdoors at Longwood Gardens.

“It’s a shift of thinking,” said Jeff Santoro, the show’s director and the group’s president. “Doing just one program a year is not sustainable.” The Brandywiners want to increase their offerings, profile, collaborations and financial support.

Santoro debuted with the Brandywiners in 1994 as a “flashlight boy,” guiding performers safely navigate their way offstage. Since then, he’s volunteered in multiple ways and figures he devotes 35 hours each week to the group as president.

Some of that time is in leadership, using his skills developed as a manager at Nemours Children’s Health System, and before that in multiple jobs at Disney and the U.S. Coast Guard. Some of that is in mundane work, like delivering “Wizard of Oz” costumes to a local high school because the Brandywiners since the pandemic have struggled to find volunteers.

They vowed to do better

The Brandywiners’ origin story involves Tatnall (a 58-year-old who had founded her school in 1930) being disappointed in the quality of an operetta that she had seen and boasting that she and her friends could do better. She enlisted Laird (a 22-year-old college student) to direct “The Pirates of Penzance.” He asked his uncle, Pierre S. du Pont, if they could perform at Longwood.

They stuck with operettas and comic operas until 1954, when they branched out into Broadway musicals with “Brigadoon.” The Brandywiners echoed its concept – it’s the story of a mysterious village that appears for only one day every 100 years – by producing it every 10 years through 2004.

They paused on the encores because attendance for its extravaganzas was falling from a thousand people each night to 400 or 500 because fans of the arts were enjoying a wealth of new and different offerings. Over the last 15 years or so, Santoro said, only four shows have been profitable.

But if “Ragtime” is considered successful, he hopes the group could also add a third annual production, a concert with minimal staging, and he thinks “Brigadoon” would be a great fit for 2024.

Other possibilities include performances downstate, so (there’s a budget for buses to transport the cast of “Oliver!” for popups beyond its July 26-29 run at Longwood)

Members are seeking a multi-use facility that the Brandywiners can lease for classes, rehearsals, performances and other activities.

All along, they have received huge support in ticketing, marketing and logistics from Longwood. “Without Longwood, the Brandywiners would not exist,” Santoro said.

Vision, mission and values

During the pandemic, the volunteers who led the nonprofit thought like a business to craft vision, mission and values statements. They also decided to “take a stand on how the arts can play a positive role in today’s issues,” he said, by, say, making posts on and social media.

Statements involve “live theatre and music for future generations,” “diverse artists,” “year-round programming” and “a social-cause focus to support the broader arts community,” plus commitments to “all three counties of Delaware and beyond” and “collaboration among arts organizations.”

Those future generations include the Brandywiners themselves. Dianne and Ted Meyermann met in the 1966 production of “Kismet,” and their daughter, Carrie Naylor, has also become involved. Jamie Fleetwood debuted with the Brandywiners in 1963, and her “ favorite memories are of sharing the beautiful Longwood stage with my two wonderful granddaughters.”

The history of the Brandywiners is mostly about people, but it also involves animals. Tina Sheing recalls the horse in the 1992 production of “Oklahoma!” and the dogs adopted because they were featured in the 2014 production of “Annie.” Sheing has been involved in more than 25 Brandywiners productions since she debuted in 1987, and she’s directing “Oliver!” this year.

The group already has the Brandywiners Chorale (60 singers presenting 30 concerts a year) and the Brandywiners Notables (a concert choir of 20). Both perform songs from Broadway and beyond.

“Our presence is growing in Delaware,” Santoro said, noting that the audience at Longwood is 65 percent from Delaware and that the Chorale performed for President Joe Biden at a 2022 Veterans Day ceremony near New Castle and has performed at Wilmington Blue Rocks games as well.

The Brandywiners are a Delaware nonprofit, registered out of a post office box in Montchanin. They have an endowment but few physical assets. They rent storage units for lighting equipment and other supplies, and Santoro keeps the temperature-sensitive makeup in his own home.

The Brandywiners have about 700 members, and their 2022 production of “The Wizard of Oz” featured 66 performers and about as many people working backstage and ushering. The $96,000 budget included $20,000 for costumes (traditionally, all costumes that aren’t rented are donated to Tatnall) and money to pay for about 30 people contracted to lead various activities and provide music.

Through its life, the Brandywiners have helped support other local arts and aids organizations, donating more than $1 million over the years. It’s lately been giving away $15,000 to $20,000 a year, Santoro said, and to help with its growing programming and largesse, it has started to apply for grants from foundations, corporations and individual donors.

And all along, they uphold a motto from Laird and Tatnall: “All for fun, and fun for all.”

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