Just four months ago, the four dozen members of Minden High School’s one-act play cast learned they’d be telling the story of North Platte’s World War II Canteen.
Their first response: “What is that?”
They know now. And after Sunday, when their journey ended with a roaring standing ovation at North Platte’s historic Fox Theatre, they know firsthand what the Canteen still means to the people of its home base.
More than 600 people watched director and show writer Jeffrey Horner’s cast present their Class B runner-up show “The Coffee Pot Is On” two blocks south of where the Canteen story took place.
The students’ passion for their region’s 1941-46 tale of wartime kindness blazed throughout their closing performance of Horner’s 30-minute production.
“It’s been amazing looking out into the crowd, knowing how many people know the story,” said Maylee Kamery, who played Canteen “popcorn ball” bride Vera (Winters) Butrick of Ringgold.
Hannah Boehler, one of two actors portraying Canteen founder Rae Wilson, was thrilled to meet a 94-year-old veteran Sunday who was a Canteen customer as an 18-year-old soldier.
“I think it’s amazing just to be able to embody her and tell her story,” said Boehler, who played the older Rae Wilson Sleight a few years before her 1986 death.
She and Kamery were among a half-dozen lead actors who said they had never heard about the Canteen before Horner introduced his show this fall.
“I was surprised because I’m taking a Nebraska history class and it was never discussed,” said Peyton Schoone, who played Rae Wilson in her 20s. “I think it definitely should be taught.”
Horner, who himself didn’t know about the Canteen before a North Platte visit in June 2014, said Monday his group was “overwhelmed with the hospitality, kindness and generosity of the folks of North Platte.”
“I was absolutely blown away with all the amazing personal stories that people shared with me after the show,” he said. “It gives me chills just to think about it.”
Tyler Cronin, a North Platte Community Playhouse board member and Hershey High School’s drama director, invited Horner to bring his show to North Platte after seeing it at the Dec. 13 state contest.
A free-will collection will be split equally between Minden High’s drama department and the Playhouse’s “Cheers to 90 Years” fundraising campaign.
Some 80 Minden family members and friends occupied first-floor reserved seats. They included Marcie Schmidt, who was a Canteen volunteer as a young woman living near Maxwell.
“This was the greatest present,” said Schmidt, who first saw “The Coffee Pot Is On” in November. “They couldn’t have done a better job. It was pretty factual.”
Horner’s cast, which finished two points behind Omaha Concordia at state, started Sunday by touring the Canteen display at the Lincoln County Historical Museum.
Director/Curator Jim Griffin led their guided tour, pointing out one of the actual coffee pots and one home’s kitchen appliances used to help make the Canteen’s birthday cakes for service members.
Some visitors to the exhibit “don’t believe that it happened,” Griffin began his talk. “But it did.”
Horner framed Minden’s show around an interview of the older Rae Wilson Sleight by a 1980s reporter (William Werner) surprised to learn the story.
Key early scenes included Wilson and brother Denver hearing about Pearl Harbor on the radio; the Dec. 17, 1941, stop of a Kansas National Guard troop train that inspired the Canteen; and Wilson writing her Dec. 18 Daily Bulletin “letter to the editor” urging its launch.
Scenes inside the former Union Pacific Depot’s “Canteen room” included the launch and happy ending of the real-life romance of Vera Winters (Kamery), who put her name and address in a popcorn ball given to serviceman William “Woody” Butrick (Jakoby Loibl).
Perhaps the most heartbreaking scene presented the day two soldiers notified volunteer Elaine Wright that her son George had died in action in October 1942.
Anais Sowles, who played Elaine, said she has located her character’s grave in the North Platte Cemetery. “I’ll be bringing her flowers the next time I’m in North Platte,” she said. “George, too.”
Near show’s end, Woody Butrick — who married Vera after the war and died in 1992 — speaks for the 6 million Canteen customers in describing why a 10-minute troop train stop made so much difference in their lives.
“We were on that train, scared out of our minds, not knowing where we were going and not knowing if we’d ever return,” he says. “Well, we went into that place for 10 minutes, and something went away.
“And we got back on that train, and in the middle of the night in France, with mortars coming down on top of our heads, when there was a lull in the fighting, I heard a voice coming from out of the darkness saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we were back in North Platte for five minutes?’”
Horner told the Fox audience that he wanted Minden to make the state contest mainly to tell the Canteen story to the packed house at Norfolk’s Johnny Carson Theatre.
“It has been an honor to help teach such an important moment in the history of North Platte, Nebraska, and our country to so many people who saw our play,” he said Monday.
Sunday’s visit “was a wonderful experience that I am sure will be one of the top memories our students will have of their time in high school.”