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Publication Date: Wednesday, January 08, 2003

On with the show: Woodside pays tribute to George Sellman, who directed countless community shows, at the auditorium named after him On with the show: Woodside pays tribute to George Sellman, who directed countless community shows, at the auditorium named after him (January 08, 2003)

By Andrea Gemmet

George Sellman may not be the originator of Woodside theater, but as the director of countless community productions and eighth-grade operettas over a span of nearly 40 years, he brought the shows to new heights.

The retired Woodside Elementary School superintendent brought New York musicals, a knack for getting the best out of volunteer casts and crews, and an aura of professionalism to Woodside's amateur theatrics.

"He was a real motivator," says Woodside Mayor Sue Boynton, who served as the producer of five operettas and five community productions. "I just so enjoyed working with him, and I learned something every day."

Hired to teach Woodside Elementary School's eighth grade class in 1957, the Colusa, California, native organized and directed his 39 students in a musical. And then he directed the following year's musical, and the one the year after that, building on the tradition of eighth-grade operettas that have become a rite of passage for Woodside students.

"When the kids now come back for reunions, they don't ask, 'What year did you graduate?' They'll say, 'What operetta were you in?'" says Mr. Sellman.

Mr. Sellman took a few years off from directing when he became the school's principal in 1963, but he soon resumed his role as director, taking on community productions and renewing his involvement in the operettas. Even after he retired in 1986, he continued directing for several years, ending his run with the 1995 eighth-grade production of "Bye Bye Birdie."

Woodside Follies

When he first arrived in town in 1957, he wrote some skits for the Woodside Follies, a show staged by various community groups, says Mr. Sellman.

"It was sort of amateur," he recalls, but they were well-received. So he thought it would be a good idea to do some Broadway shows -- "Charlie's Aunt," "Mame" and "Hello Dolly," among many others, as the Follies evolved into Woodside community theater productions.

Dolores Degnan was a cast member in the community shows, as were her parents before her, and her children performed in the eighth-grade operettas. She remembers the rehearsals that lasted until late at night, and the amount of time and dedication it took to put on the shows.

Mr. Sellman was "a perfectionist," she says. "He did a great job, but he expected a lot of us, and he praised as well when we did well."

The success and popularity of the community shows Mr. Sellman directed were a big part of the reason the school's auditorium was named after him, says Woodside resident Jeanne Dickey.

"They were the greatest things in town, real community theater," she says. "And they'd have the best party in the world afterward."

Mr. Sellman says his love of theater has its origins in his youth, when relatives took him to San Francisco to see musicals. He started taking drama classes while doing post-graduate work at San Jose State University.

"He's one of those very organized people who knew exactly what he wanted," says Joan Rubin, a former stage manager for the Peninsula Children's Theater who worked with Mr. Sellman on seven productions. "My job as stage manager was to make things go right."

A lot of things that didn't go right, Mr. Sellman never knew about, she says. In one show, the scenery was falling off of the tracks, and crew members had to run across the street to the Woodside Village Church to borrow ladders to hold them up, she recalls.

"He'd say, 'Why was there so much movement backstage?' And we'd say, 'Don't worry about it.'"

Despite the occasional backstage foibles, the show always went on. Mr. Sellman's vision and dedication extended to the operettas he directed. He always had a knack for finding shows that would accommodate the size of the eighth-grade class, says Ms. Boynton.

"I think the kids really respected him," she says. "He had a real professional attitude towards directing. They felt like they were in a real production."

Mindy Bowles, whose two children performed in operettas and community shows, credits Mr. Sellman's experience as a teacher for knowing how to get kids engaged in the performances.

"What I liked best is that every kid had a little place to shine. Even people in the chorus would get one little extra line or something," says Ms. Bowles.

Mr. Sellman says it was always great to work with the students. Every student has to try out for the operetta, and a role would be found for each one. In all of his years of directing, there was only one eighth-grader who said he wouldn't go onstage, he says. It was for the production of "Li'l Abner," and the boy was supposed to sing the show's opening three lines. His parents and fellow classmates were worried, but Mr. Sellman says he believed the boy would come through.

"He didn't do it through all the rehearsals, until the dress rehearsal," he recounts. "I just told his parents that I thought he would do it, and he did. I always thought it was one of the best things that I did."

Later, his parents said the boy sang his part of the song all summer long, says Mr. Sellman.

For some students, the productions were not so much a trial but an introduction to the joys of the theater. Operetta veterans who have gone on to the professional theater range from an alumna who spent three years in the chorus of "Les Miserables" to Charles Duggan, who produces shows at the Marines Memorial Theater in San Francisco, to Mindy Bowles' daughter, who is studying theater in New York.

Mr. Sellman is pragmatic about why he ended his long career directing shows, which have ranged from "The Music Man" to "Damn Yankees" to "Brigadoon."

"I decided I'd about done everything I could think of. It was time for another person to be in charge," he says.

Community tribute

The community is invited to the newly renovated George Sellman Auditorium for an open house and tribute to Mr. Sellman at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, January 14.

Fittingly, for the entertainment portion of "Sellman Auditorium: Past, Present and Future," Woodside Elementary School's eighth-grade class will sing a few numbers from their upcoming operetta, and a group of alumni will perform songs from operettas past.

A sizable group of veterans of the Woodside Follies and past community theater productions will sing highlights from "Hello Dolly," "The Music Man," and "Call Me Madam."

The Woodside Village Band, which frequently provided live music for the productions, is also slated to perform.

A truncated version of the tribute will be performed for Woodside Elementary students at 8:45 a.m. Tuesday, January 14.

The Sellman Auditorium is located at Woodside Elementary School, 3195 Woodside Road. Admission to the event is free.


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