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"The Wizard of Oz" Makes Magic and Memories at Estes Hills

As Estes Hills Elementary School (EHES) continues to celebrate its 60 Year Anniversary, the enduring themes have been Memories and Traditions. Then in March, the Eagles added Magic to the celebration as they put on the school’s long-awaited theater production, “The Wizard of Oz.”

EHES dorothy and friends The idea for producing a play came from Savada Gilmore, a teaching assistant at EHES, who had long hoped to form a drama club as an enrichment activity for the Eagles. Because no one at the school could remember a time when EHES had such a club, the idea was even more exciting as an opportunity to offer this new addition to students’ after school choices.

It took the continued encouragement of Karen Andrews, a second grade teacher, saying, “Hey, Savada - we need to do this…,” and for him to finally say, “Okay - let’s do it!”  From that simple starting point, to its enchanting culmination, the Eagles put on their production of “The Wizard of Oz” for the community on March 14-16 in the school’s gym.

In September, Gilmore held an interest meeting for fourth and fifth grade students. He started out thinking he would take 25 students, but 42 students came to the meeting. They had already reviewed forms with their parents and agreed to expectations and time commitments. “I was floored by the turnout and level of interest,” he said, “and even though I was ultimately able to bump up the number to 30, it still meant that I had to tell 12 students that they wouldn't be able to join, and that was tough.” Drama club members were chosen by lottery, with a priority for fifth graders. Everyone rolled up their sleeves and were hard at work before Thanksgiving.

Gilmore’s background in theater is extensive, dating back to a passion ignited and nurtured by one of the district’s legendary teachers, Theresa Grywalski, aka Ms. G, his theater teacher at East Chapel Hill High School (ECHHS). “She was the main influence and one responsible for introducing me to the world of theater; she mentored me, and put me on a real stage for the first time,” Gilmore said. “She took the ‘class clown/envelope-pusher’ and channeled my energy and talent into a more creative and artistic form of expression. I have reconnected with her throughout the years, and she has come to support me in my professional endeavors when I've performed or produced locally. She was there on opening night!” He earned a BA in Performance Arts from High Point University, has toured with the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival and acted in everything from Ionesco to August Wilson.

As a native of this community and a CHCCS alumnus, Gilmore called upon a vast network of friends, mentors and relatives to help him develop the school’s production of “The Wizard of Oz.” He also received tremendous assistance from teachers at EHES. Alana Shekelle, a fifth grade teacher, served as stage manager and all-around theater expert, having worked each summer for the Young People’s Performing Company in Durham. Sharla Coleman, another fifth grade teacher, served as costume manager along with her daughter. Jennifer Lange, fourth grade teacher, choreographed most of the dances, and Hunter Pendleton, Information Technology Facilitator, provided technical support. Many other teachers and staff helped as well.

EHES wizard soldiers But the contributors didn’t only come from within the school community. Gilmore’s cousin, professional photographer, Trevor Holman, recorded every step of the way through video and photography. The production’s stunning sets were designed by Justine Grabiec, a geology graduate student from UNC, whose experience in backstage dates back to her high school years. As assistant stage manager, with the help of parents backstage, she organized set changes in between scenes. “It was an absolute joy to be included in the production and the Estes Hills community,” Grabiec said, “and I was thankful for all of the time and effort the parents and children were willing to put into it.”

In keeping with the anniversary celebrations this year, it was fitting and powerful for two former CHCCS music teachers to provide choral direction and musical support, beginning with the rehearsals last fall. Joy Douglass and Pat Beyle taught together in the district in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, and they both now live at The Cedars retirement community. Their former colleague, Desiree Davis-Omburo, chorus teacher at ECHHS, reached out to them to find out if they might pitch in, and pitch in they did!

“Pat and I had a blast,” said Douglass. “We believed our days of working on a musical with children were over, and then got thrust into the middle of an energetic project, at a school where we taught 40 years ago. The children were receptive and willing to work hard. We greatly admired the talent of the director, Mr. Savada Gilmore, who skillfully taught drama principles…everything needed to produce a musical. He created a feeling of trust amongst the children that allowed them to grow and develop, and make life-changing strides. We felt we had been given a gift.”

Beyle said she learned about the invitation while Douglass was traveling last fall, so she sent her a message, saying, “I’ve got a surprise when you get home.” She added, “‘Old teachers never die, they just team up, find a dynamic situation and go forward.’ The reward from working with this Estes Hills talented team could only be measured by those wonderful fourth and fifth grade drama club children and the looks on their faces at the end of that magical weekend.”

During the Sunday matinee performance, the Cedars bus unloaded almost 20 residents, who came to appreciate the talents and hard work by their neighbors, Douglass and Beyle. “All those walkers and wheelchairs!” said Beyle. Each one of the three performances sold out days before opening night.

EHES wizard witch Principal Pamela McCann said, “The production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was truly amazing. This opportunity allowed for so many students to conquer their fears and push themselves outside of their comfort zones. Students took risks and stepped up to the challenge and the results were outstanding!  Through this production, Mr. Savada garnished the help of the entire community. Not only did staff and parents volunteer for endless hours, we also had retired teachers, college students and other members of the community dedicate their time and talents. I am so proud of the work and the dedication of Mr. Savada and Drama Club.”

Marianne Livingston, parent of a cast member, said in an email to Gilmore, “I was amazed by so many facets of the drama club, but what struck me most was how you took a random group of fourth and fifth graders and transformed them into respectful, enthusiastic, and talented performers. Anyone watching the play would have thought that these kids had been acting for years and were destined for a future on Broadway.”

“This club has been the perfect fusion of two great passions of mine,” Gilmore said. “My goal for this year has been to expose and educate our children on all aspects that go into a theatrical production, and then to be able to put that knowledge and those skills into practice by putting on a play. Mission accomplished there! Beyond that, I hoped to lay the foundation or blueprint for our program in the future (I suspect our numbers at next year’s interest meeting will triple).”

Elizabeth Harris, an EHES parent, wrote in an email to McCann, “Mr. Savada Gilmore clearly has a talent and passion that brings people together, and brings out the best in people, too. What a wonderful role model you all provided for our children on how to work together to accomplish a goal. The performance made me feel proud and lucky to be a part of the Estes Hills family.  I hope we can maintain this energy and talent, and dedication to providing an opportunity for children to participate in the arts, here at Estes Hills!”

EHES Savada “What I didn't necessarily foresee in all of this was the positive level of impact this experience would have on our students, as people,” Gilmore said. “Their growth in terms of confidence, spirit, self-esteem, attitude, maturity, ability to work as a team to achieve a common goal - all of those things are what had me choked up on opening night. To know exactly where they were just six months ago, and then to witness the magic that they created and showcased for everyone, really overwhelmed my spirit. Opening night, I witnessed the actress who played our Cowardly Lion, literally find her "ROAR" on-stage, as a human being. Her entire life, she's been known to be quiet, bashful. For months we worked tirelessly to PUT courage INTO that child, and don't you know...she found it! Do the arts belong in our schools at every level? YES, YES, YES!!! They are essential.”

"The Wizard of Oz" was made possible by financial support from the Public School Foundation, as well as the EHES PTA.