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Live Local, Live Small: Long-running production ‘The Lost Colony’ shows the importance of government funding

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“Can anyone tell me why Roosevelt would have been parked in his car to watch the show?” a young man dressed in a G-string made out of a fox asked our tour group.

Waterside Theatre Awaits Cast

Above: Waterside Theatre showcases how government money allocated to the arts can build communities. Photo courtesy Roanoke Island Historical Assoc., Inc.

“Wheelchair,” the woman closest to him responded quietly.

 “Yes,” our guide nodded, “Wheelchair. But it was because of polio.”  

I was on the backstage tour of “The Lost Colony” outdoor drama in Manteo, NC. We had just come around to the sound booth and waved at the stage manager up in the light booth. If the line between the sound and light booths was the hypotenuse of a right triangle, the plaque for FDR was at the exact point of the right angle. 

“Why was FDR seeing the show at all?” seemed like a better question. 

In 1937 Manteo was incredibly remote and difficult to access; ferries, which were not always reliable, were essential because neither the William B. Umstead Memorial nor Virginia Dare Bridge had been built. So FDR, driving his modified car from Washington, DC onto a ferry at the Outer Banks of NC, then parking at the top of the amphitheater hill to watch the show, and then driving home the next day, signifies the project’s importance to him. Remember cell phones didn’t exist; it wasn’t like he could fulfill his presidential duties by talking on a cell phone for the 10-hour drive. 

So why did he take two days out of his life for this expedition? Because “The Lost Colony” and the remote little island of Roanoke was a Works Progress Administration project. In other words, one of North Carolina’s most successful tourist attractions was funded by the federal government. (But we can’t get a tax rebate for filming in NC?) 

The National Park at Fort Raleigh, where Waterside Theatre is located, includes a nature walk through the maritime forest. One of the early signs points out colonists came to an environment completely different than England, and they had to learn how to survive using the resources of the new world. How long do you think you would survive if you had to eat and sleep in the forest?  I had to admit—as I swatted at a flying insect the size of a dime—I couldn’t imagine lasting two days out there. (And I lived in a tent for six months of my life.) The area was desolate. The trail through the maritime forest, which comes out on the beach next to the theatre, was probably where those poor, ill-fated colonists once stood. What is more, I realized I’m less prepared than they were to make it in this wild, untamed world. Manteo needed all the help they could get. 

“The Lost Colony” originally was intended to be produced for one year in 1937. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—the guys who built the Blue Ridge Parkway—erected Waterside Theatre, a remarkably beautiful amphitheater modeled after those of the Greeks. These guys were the original set construction crew for the production, too. The CCC had been brought in earlier that year to fortify the sand dunes in an effort to stabilize the Outer Banks. (Those of us dependent upon beach re-nourishment and who remember the decade of sandbags at Shell Island can commiserate.) Eric Stapleton served as musical director. His inclusion came as part of his work with the Federal Music Project in North Carolina. The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) paid the actors and technicians, and brought in notable professional actors from New York and Broadway. They utilized locals, too. (By the way, the FTP employed Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan, to name a few).

Opening night had a respectable turnout of 2,500 people. Take a moment to visualize that. (For a point of comparison, the main stage at Thalian Hall seats less than 700.) It is estimated that 50,000 people saw the show during its first summer.

Outside of fishing, there was little economic opportunity for Manteo. It had no real industry or manufacturing endeavors, no substantial farming, and it was incredibly inconvenient to get to.  In 1937 Manteo had a population of less than 550 people; not exactly a thriving metropolis to attract vacationers. In 1941 the National Park Service assumed control of the fort and its environs.  As a result of both early and ongoing federal dollars, it has become one of the major tourist attractions in North Carolina. 

Like most small beach towns it has a main drag a couple blocks from the water, which is filled with shops, restaurants and places of lodging.  Even at 4 p.m. the sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians. At the bed and breakfast I was staying, I counted four people lounging on the front porch and enjoying cold tea and cookies one afternoon. The B&B supported a full time staff of two, a handyman and a part-time staff of one. (That’s a lot for a B&B, a business model that usually consists of a family, with at least one adult holding an outside job.)

With bridges and improved roads, not to mention the post-WWII explosion of Americans taking to the open road for travel, Manteo is a much different than it was in the ‘30s. None of what happened would have been possible without the benevolent investment of federal money at a time when it was really needed it. 

We hear a lot of talk about how government meddling is bad, but somehow we forget things we wouldn’t have if not for taxpayer investment. On a more immediate level, public schools come to mind. It’s funded by federal investment as well as property taxes.

 We share a lot with Manteo, including Congressman Walter B. Jones. It was part of the gerrymandering a few years ago that left many local residents wondering who the hell Jones was and how we wound up in the same congressional district as an area four hours away. In addition, we share a tourism-driven economy. (Though not to the extent of  Manteo, as we also have GE, Corning, UNCW, and of course the film industry for now.) We depend on money from our other economic staples to preserve the beaches as the money tourists spend is essential to the area’s survival. It doesn’t just aid a collection of small businesses; it funds our economic system as a whole.

Looking at the daring early colonists, and even more so our Depression Era ancestors who survived the hardest times imaginable, I am awed that the arts were not only part of national recovery but essential to birthing the modern economy of the Outer Banks. As we argue about film incentives, perhaps that is a point we should bring up to our legislators. 

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