by Micah Wilkins, web editor
“When this building opened there was one sewing machine and one spool of thread. So you can blame me for all of this” said Bev Ohler, the head of Warren Wilson’s costume shop, as we walked through what she and others in the theatre department call the “dungeon,” the basement of Kittredge Theatre.
The “dungeon” consists of aisles and aisles—racks of costumes sorted by color and era, dressers (reused from the Sunderland dorm) filled with clothes, stacks of boxes of hats and accessories.
“It’s everybody’s attic” Ohler said.
Taking on the Role
Ohler first came to the college in 1955 and returned for good in 1958. She has been at the college longer than anybody else. She has seen the “dungeon” swell from nothing to a basement full of hundreds of costumes, many of which were made by Ohler and students on her costume shop work crew. She has had a hand in over 160 productions on campus. She watched the college transition from being a junior college to a senior college. She has seen the student body grow from 300 to 500 to 900 students.
Ohler and her husband, Fred Ohler, came to Wilson for a year in 1955, and in 1958, Dr. Bannerman asked Fred if he would return as the college chaplain. He consented, and the Ohlers made the cross-country move from California to North Carolina with a two-week-old baby.
Fred Ohler not only played the role of college chaplain, but he also served as a teacher of theology and math, as a student counselor, as head of the religion department, and as a violinist, playing in the pit of every musical that the theatre put on.
While her husband took on several important roles, Bev decided to take on a role of her own at the college. Before marrying Fred, she studied theatre and art in New York City. Once she came here, she decided to volunteer with and work on improving the theatre department. In fact, before Ohler, there was no real theatre department to speak of.
“The theatre was nothing in 1960,” Ohler said. “David Hempleton, who was a brilliant director and teacher, decided to really make the theatre count for something, so I worked really close with him. We built the theatre up to just the beginning of what it is now.”
Those Early Years
Before Kittredge was built, Ohler and others who volunteered with productions used the Williams Building, which has since been torn down. The building was meant to be a chapel but doubled as a theatre when plays were put on.
“In the old Williams building we had to convert it every Saturday night back into a chapel so they could have services on Sunday morning,” Ohler said. “We had no budget. We had nothing. We had tin-can lights. We had nothing really, and we just built it from nothing.”
In the theatre department’s early years, there may have been a lack of funds, but this was made up for by an abundance of enthusiasm and support coming from students, faculty, and staff alike.
“There wasn’t a seat empty at any performance ever,” Ohler said. “When we put on a play, everybody came. They were hungry for entertainment … Students didn’t have cars in those early years, in the 60s, so we had to provide entertainment, and what better entertainment than live theatre?”
For her first 18 years here, Ohler was dedicated to the theatre department but was not an official employee, just a volunteer.
“Everybody did things they loved in those early years at Warren Wilson,” Ohler said. “If you did something and you were trained to do something and you could do something well, you just did it. Nobody cared about what they were compensated for. It was just a joy to be a part of it.”
When Kittredge was built in 1978, the administration decided to hire Ohler for doing the same job that she had been doing all along as a volunteer.
According to Ohler, probably her biggest legacy to Warren Wilson is her organizing and producing festivals at the college.
In 1967, student John Koegel approached Ohler and others with the idea of putting on a festival, a week filled with art—dance, plays, music, visual art, poetry, and more were exhibited everywhere on campus.
“We celebrated everything,” Ohler said.
The magic about festivals, according to Ohler, was their ability to allow the community to get together and collaborate to put everything on. Everybody who wanted to participate was put to work.
“We would use everybody, anybody who wanted to be a part of it,” Ohler said. “It was so good about pulling the whole community together.”
After coordinating and putting on 16 festivals, there came a time when Ohler realized that the school was getting too big to put them on.
“[Warren Wilson] is too big now,” Ohler said. “We outgrew it really … It’s still a wonderful place … [But] we’re just not that same place in that way.”