‘A true force’: Morton’s contributions to be celebrated at Marblehead Little Theatre

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Rarely has a celebration of life been hosted in a more appropriate venue than the one that will run from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20 at Marblehead Little Theatre.

MLT is the “house that Ginny built,” after all.

Ginny Morton with ‘Toto,’ at a rehearsal for the Marblehead Little Theatre’s production of ‘Wizard of Oz’

To be sure, others were involved in first acquiring and then raising the funds to renovate the old School Street firehouse.

But more often than not, those “others” had been recruited, cajoled and cheered on by Ginny Morton. When Morton asked, you could not say “no.”

“She was a true force,” said Henry Dembowski, the drama teacher and director of many productions at Marblehead High School and Middle School.

Dembowski recalled Morton blowing into a rehearsal for one of his high school productions.

“I need to talk to you,” she explained. “The Little Theatre needs you.”

The next thing Dembowski knew, he was selling bricks for the MLT’s patio, a fundraiser to help get the firehouse building open.

That’s just the way things worked in Morton’s world.

“When she asked you to do something, she convinced you that you were the person to do it; there was no one else,” says Andy Barnett, has been involved with MLT for over 20 years and also built sets for The Revels in Cambridge, which Morton served as producer and production manager.

Even if you saw through these appeals to your ego, you still got with the program, so infectious was Morton’s enthusiasm for whatever project she was working on, Barnett adds.

Morton never barked commands, Dembowski says.

“But you knew if she made a suggestion, she was behind you, and you were golden,” he says.

In addition to ensuring MLT had a permanent home, much of Morton’s prodding was in service of mounting ambitious productions that tested the boundaries of community theater and creating education programs that would infuse scores of local children with a lifelong love of the arts and launch more than a few careers.

Though Morton, at 79, lost her long battle with multiple sclerosis and dementia on July 3, her legacy is sure to endure.

A turn from science

Morton spent her youth in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.

While for many, Morton’s name is synonymous with the arts in Marblehead, her first professional incarnation was as a scientist.

After graduating from high school in her native Longmeadow, where she had been a cheerleader, Morton headed off to Goucher College and then to Northwestern University, from which she received a master’s degree in biology.

That led to Morton working for a time as a cancer researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City. She appreciated the opportunity, but such a solitary life in the lab was not the best fit, as it turned out.

While Morton had a lifelong love of the arts, she first realized that theater could become the focus of her professional life upon moving to Marblehead with her husband, Perry, in 1973.

Married in 1966, Ginny and Perry had two children, Carolyn and Christine, both of whom went on to have successful careers in the theater.

Upon landing in Marblehead, Morton not only threw herself into all things MLT but also co-founded and served as the director of the Arts at Tower summer camp.

Ginny and Perry Morton were married in 1966 and had two children who went on to have careers in the arts.

That is where Janet Sheehan, who was then running Tower School’s drama program, first encountered Morton.

“Right away, I remember her infectious laugh and cooperative spirit as we shared theater resources,” Sheehan said.

That led to Sheehan becoming involved in MLT, where she worked with Morton and Lynda Johnson on between 25 to 30 Children’s Theater musical plays.

The first of these was “The Phantom Tollbooth,” which, as it turned out, would also become the first production to play to audiences in MLT’s new home, predating by about a month the adult show of “Our Town.”

“We were quite a team,” Sheehan says.

In those early days, the building had no elevator. Patrons sat on plywood platforms. Sets, lights and costumes were minimal.

Now, the Children’s Theatre, along with the rest of MLT, benefits not only from an elevator and the full use of the firehouse’s second floor, including a much-needed bathroom, but the production values have risen to a level that is “amazing” for a children’s theater group, Sheehan says.

“Ginny was a wizard at getting things done, finding whatever was needed for the show to go on, whether it was a prop apple cart or food for a cast party for 60,” Sheehan says.

An urgent campaign

The Marblehead Fire Department’s relocation to 1 Ocean Ave. in 1997 left the town with the dilemma: what to do with its old headquarters on School Street.

As the end of the millennium approached, at least outside of MLT circles, it seemed like no one had a better idea than acceding to desires of the owners of the Warwick Theatre to let them take a wrecking ball to the firehouse to create additional parking.

But the MLT, by then four decades old, was ready to end its nomadic existence. There was a financial imperative, too. Fees to rent performance venues and space to store its sets, costumes and props were becoming prohibitive.

Morton’s long-time co-producer Ken Lonergan’s first move was to race into the offices of the Marblehead Reporter and sit down with reporter George Derringer.

“I said, ‘George, we can’t let this happen,'” Lonergan recalls.

Lonergan went onto explain his vision, one modeled after a similar effort in Newburyport to convert an old firehouse into a community theater space.

While still sitting in the Reporter office, Longer called Morton.

“What can I do?” Morton asked.

As it turned out, the answer was “a lot.”

Morton’s star recruit was Doug Hill. Perhaps more than she ever knew, Hill had already long admired Morton from afar.

Hill moved to Marblehead in 1985 and not long thereafter attended his first MLT production. Watching Morton “melt” on stage as the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz,” Hill says he became “starstruck.”

Fan first, then friend: Doug Hill, left, acknowledges he was always a bit ‘starstruck’ around Ginny Morton.

“I thought, ‘Are there no boundaries here?'” Hill says.

Hill jokes that he just presumed that “MLT” stood for the “Morton Lonergan Theatre,” given who represented much of the creative force behind the local theater group.

Hill would remain a long-distance admirer until getting involved with MLT’s production of “South Pacific.” Morton was not formally involved in that production but would pop into rehearsals to see how things were going.

“It made me want to perform better, to impress her,” Hill says.

Hill also recalls how nervous he became upon learning that they had been seated together at a Danvers fundraiser. He was then relieved when Morton spent the entire event working the room, sparing him from conversation that he is sure he would have stammered through.

So, it was hardly a hard sell when Morton enlisted Hill in the firehouse effort. Hill quickly learned that Morton had a “much bigger vision” of what the firehouse could become. Where he could only see a place to store sets and costumes and put on a few plays, she envisioned a bustling community hub that would host children’s classes along with performances.

Hill would become MLT’s president, Morton his vice president. That’s where the “love affair began” in earnest, Hill says.

“She just had such energy, competence and talent,” Hill says. “You got caught up in it all, and it made you a better person.”

As Lonergan recalls, it took about five trips before the Marblehead Select Board, but finally, in the fall of 1999, the board took a vote.

Technically, the town did not relinquish the building entirely. MLT holds “life rights,” and the building would revert to the town, if the theater company ever winds down.

But in large part due to the strength of Morton’s vision, “winding down” is the furthest thought from anyone’s mind.

Audacious ambition

Standing next to Lonergan at the back of the Nelson Aldrich Performing Arts Center, Morton could only shake her head. Then, she burst into tears.

Lonergan and Morton had just watched a dress rehearsal for their production of “Wizard of Oz,” and it was an “absolute disaster,” Lonergan says.

“I said to her, ‘Well, we have our first bomb. We’ll handle it,'” Lonergan recalls.

But by some miracle, when the lights went up before a live audience, that assessment turned out to be dead wrong.

Ginny Morton found a home, on stage and off, with Marblehead Little Theatre. Here, she poses in costume with Harry Nolan.

“Everything worked beautifully,” Lonergan says. “People went nuts.”

If you suggested something might be beyond the reach of a local community theater troupe, Morton did not want to hear it. That production of “Wizard of Oz” featured a live terrier as Toto, along with live chickens and a horse.

Not only was it a great experience, but the production turned a tidy profit, Lonergan says.

For a production of “Peter Pan,” MLT tapped the services of New York-based Flying by Foy, an industry leader for devising a safe way to propel stage performers into flight.

The intricate rigging was going to cost $65,000, a check that the MLT board was understandably reluctant to cut, Dembowski says.

Dembowski promised to pay the difference if the production lost money. With Morton as his “fiercest defender,” the board relented, and the show became the biggest moneymaker in MLT’s history, he says.

Children a source of joy

To almost a comical degree at times, productions on Morton’s watch also included throngs of children. One production of “The Sound of Music” featured two separate casts of von Trapp children, one blonde, the other brunette.

A certain song in the “King and I” had to be played through to the end twice to finish the march of kids onto the stage, Hill recalls.

To be sure, casting plenty of children was good for business, Hill says. Lots of child actors meant lots of parent ticket buyers. Parents also tended to be more than willing to purchase their child’s costume as a memento, if you gave them that opportunity.

Ginny Morton was in her element working with children, like these participants in the Arts at Tower camp.

But far more important to Morton was giving children what may have been their first exposure to the unique brand of teamwork involved in putting on a theatrical production.

Her friends say Morton was never more in her element than when she was working with children, whether at MLT or Arts at Tower.

Productions of “The Littles,” the 4-to-6-year-olds comprising the youngest set Children’s Theatre students, were often presented in a storytelling format.

Morton would dress as a character – she was the quintessential Mother Goose, Sheehan says – and sit in a rocker on stage and tell the story and move the action along.

Morton also took joy in standing back and watching the older children do their thing.

“Probably the greatest smile you ever saw was when she was watching them perform,” Hill says.

While “curtain speeches” are customary after theater productions, Morton’s after the children’s shows were particularly memorable, Sheehan says.

“I was always moved by the emotion in her voice as she described why we do what we do, the love of these kids, the importance of the inclusiveness of it all, and the sheer joy of making theater together,” Sheehan says.

An enduring gift

To be sure, Morton engaged in plenty of other activities while living in Marblehead, bringing the same level of enthusiasm and quest for excellence to each. She golfed often at Tedesco Country Club, taking home a nine-hole championship trophy at one point.

She decompressed by taking her Snark sailboat out into Salem Harbor. She was a passionate volunteer for the League of Women Voters. She got heavily involved with MHTV in the local cable access station’s early days in the 1980s. A talented writer, Morton contributed columns to the Reporter and also boosted the efforts of Symphony by the Sea and Citizens’ Scholarship Foundation.

But most agree that entrenching the Marblehead Little Theatre as a pillar of the local arts scene, literally and figuratively, is Morton’s greatest gift to a town she loved dearly.

“With her ebullient laugh and and mischievous grin, she was ever optimistic and filled with a can-do spirit that served so well the Little Theatre that was the biggest adventure of her life,” Sheehan says.

Hill is even more succinct.

“There will never be another Ginny,” he says.

The drop-in open house at Marblehead Little Theater, 12 School St., will run from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. There will be a slide show of photos on rotating display, a board where visitors are encouraged to share memories or stories, and of course show tunes will be playing.

Those wishing to honor Morton’s memory by making a donation to MLT can do so here.

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