By David Slone
WARSAW – When the Wagon Wheel opened and was just a theater under a tent in 1956, Max Poorman was there.
When it moved into its current facilities, Poorman was there.
When the Wagon Wheel Theatre became the Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts, Poorman was there.
He’s been there for every production of “Big River,” “My Fair Lady,” “Brigadoon” and over 400 more. In fact, Poorman has never missed a summer season show at the Wagon Wheel since he started attending in 1956 – the year the theater began. He attended the theater for over 50 years with his wife, Mabel, and now attends with his oldest daughter, Arlene Emrick.
On Thursday, July 7, at the end of intermission of “Brigadoon,” Wagon Wheel Executive Director Lakesha Green and the theater recognized Poorman, a World War II Army Air Corp veteran, for his faithful attendance with a birthday cake and a card signed from everyone at the Wagon Wheel.
He turns 99 on Tuesday. The near-capacity audience gave Poorman a standing ovation and sang “Happy Birthday” to him.
Due to traffic, he and his daughter arrived late to the Wagon Wheel, which is why he was honored during intermission instead of at the top of the show.
“There was no building. Just a tent. That’s how they started,” Poorman said about Wagon Wheel’s start in a brief interview during intermission. “And it was outside. And that was back in 1956. And there hardly was anybody here. They worked outside. They had the tent. And I was here!”
He couldn’t remember off-hand the shows of that first season, but he said he remembers “some of these shows were really good. Really good. They didn’t have much of a building to work with, it was a tent.”
There was no air conditioning and the tent was over a small area where the theater is now, he said.
“What chairs they had, it wasn’t much,” he said.
There was a chicken coop and the chickens made a bunch of noise during the shows, Poorman recalled. “I remember that. It was outside really and they kept bringing in things, and it worked out pretty good.”
He said they had come to North Webster with some family to ride the Dixie. He came up with the idea to come over to Warsaw and that’s when the Wagon Wheel was starting up. He had never heard of theater-in-the-round before coming to the Wagon Wheel shows and was concerned that the actors would have their backs to some of the audience members.
“We were concerned about that, but it worked out pretty good,” Poorman said.
Living in New Haven, he said they kept coming back to the Wagon Wheel because it was “amazing to see what they were coming out with. One thing after another, but it was something to see.”
He said he never imagined the Wagon Wheel would become what it is today.
Poorman remembered going on trips to London with the former artistic director, Tom Roland. After Roland, there was Roy Hine, followed by current Artistic Director Scott Michaels.
Poorman said there’s been so many shows he couldn’t pick a favorite one, but he remembered shows like “Big River.”
“They’ve put on some beautiful shows,” he said. “It’s really nice to be able to be here and come back here.”
He said they’ve come every summer to the Wagon Wheel since their first show in 1956.
“It’s just amazing what they’ve done. Truly amazing,” Poorman said.
He said living to be 99 is a long time and he’s enjoyed it all.
“I’ve enjoyed it and the wonderful people,” Poorman said, adding that Green was a “dandy.”
Before Poorman arrived at the Wagon Wheel, Green explained why they were honoring him.
“First of all, Max Poorman has been here since 1956. Since the existence of the Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts, so to not honor him would be a disservice to all. And just the fact that he has never missed a summer season ever since 1956, he has made an investment into the Wagon Wheel for all these years and it’s a privilege and an honor to have met him, to just being in his presence alone. He is an amazing guy, he really is,” she said.
Green said she met a 1957 patron, but Poorman is the only one that the Wagon Wheel has documented, that they have been tracing, that’s from 1956.
“I have met ’57, I’ve met some ’59s, but he’s the only ’56,” she stated. “He’s at every show, even the Christmas shows. He’s vested into the Wagon Wheel. It’s been ingrained into his life since 1956! Just think about the historical presence of that. The fact that we still have him here is amazing. And he’s turning 99 on July 12.”
Thursday was Poorman’s show day at the Wagon Wheel and he likes to sit in his favorite front-row seats of section 4.
“Just keeping that tradition, that just really shows what the Wagon Wheel is – the tradition that’s embedded in families, so I am so excited to have him here,” Green said.
For Poorman’s 100th next year, Green said, “We’re going to go all the way out! It’s going to be a big party like it’s 1956. That’s what we want to do for next year.”