Mar 10, 2011 03:00AM
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"She's an initiator. But she stays with these projects and continues to support them," says Sharie Valerio, a longtime actress with Colonial Players.
All of these roles come naturally to a modest woman whose love for the stage—and for Annapolis—drives her desire to work with others in service to the community. "I am grateful for the talented, skilled people I've worked with in Annapolis," Whaley says. "You never do anything by yourself."
Beth Dowling Whaley grew up north of Providence, Rhode Island, the youngest of four siblings and the one with a love for art. Her siblings had other talents. "My sister Kay would get neighbors to pay a nickel to see me perform. I would dance and sing or recite poetry. She made money off me, enough to buy ice cream cones anyway . . . it was just in her to be an entrepreneur."
But it was in the young Whaley to be an actress and an educator. She attended Rhode Island College of Education and graduated in 1948 to begin her career in education, teaching elementary school children. While attending college, Whaley was performing for the Drama Club and at the Barker Playhouse in Providence. After graduation, she joined a summer stock company in Wickford, Rhode Island, where she played seven different roles in 8 weeks. In 1951, she married Richard Whaley and the couple moved to Annapolis, where he was working with the Chesapeake Bay Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.
"Annapolis was a sleepy town," Whaley remembers. But she soon found a small, 2-year old community acting group: Colonial Players of Annapolis. Her first role with the fledgling group was the lead of Evelyn in the play Guest in the House. The theater group served as a creative and social connection that helped to make her new town feel like home. "It became a really warm environment for me," she recalls. "It was small enough where you knew enough people to make you feel a part of the town."
As a member of the Colonial Players board of directors in 1953, vice president from 1960 to 1962, and president from 1962 to 1964, Whaley saw the small theater group grow from a small circle of actors working on temporary sets in the city's recreation building on Compromise Street to an Annapolis institution in its own building at 108 East Street. "She's spent so many years bringing the arts to Annapolis through Colonial Players, her dedication is admirable," says Mayor Ellen Moyer, also credited as a Maryland Hall founder. "She's a neat lady."
When Colonial Players first moved to East Street in 1955, Whaley starred as Eliza Doolittle in the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion. There was little money for props and costumes, so many actors and actresses made their own. Whaley used her own wedding dress to make Eliza's transformation into a lady complete. "I still have the basic dress and the lace they took from it," she says. Of all the roles she's played, Eliza stands out as one of the most satisfying. "She metamorphoses," Whaley points out. "That, and the language in that play is so beautifully wrought."
In the 1960s and 1970s, Annapolis was going through its own changes and the city's arts community was beginning to flourish. In 1962, during her first term as Colonial Players president, Whaley founded and chaired the first Annapolis Fine Arts Festival. The 3-day event held at St. John's College gave a collective boost to visual and performing arts in Annapolis and drew approximately 1000 people with its displays of art and photography, poetry readings, dance, and dramatic performances. Although she was excited about the collaborative efforts of arts in Annapolis, Whaley wanted a wider audience.
"We could see we had to do more than that if we were going to capture the town," she says. Also, using St. John's College as a community arts venue had its limitations: buildings could only be used when the students weren't there. The move to City Dock, proposed by Joan Baldwin, really gave the festival the momentum it needed.
Although the opportunity and funding for a more permanent home for the arts didn't appear right away, that idea was still on Whaley's mind in 1978 when she was a part of Governor Marvin Mandel's commission to study the feasibility of an arts center in Annapolis. Another member of the commission, artist Joanne Scott, wanted to make sure that a performing arts center would give due emphasis to the visual arts. At that time, the Annapolis High School building, originally built in 1935, was scheduled for demolition. But Jack Ladd Carr suggested the facility might be usable as an arts center if the Board of Education would agree. Scott offered to act as chair to organize a steering committee to look into that possibility. Whaley realized that the committee would need seed money. She procured $10,000 from the Fine Arts Festival Foundation that she had started in 1963. County Executive O. James Lighthizer responded to Whaley's request for funds with a promise of $50,000. The county also supported the installation of a necessary elevator. Then the team was ready to address the Board of Education. Whaley wrote the proposal, listing all the proposed teachers and their classes, and she and Scott presented the proposal to the board. It was accepted unanimously. The old Annapolis High School was soon to be reborn as a center for the creative arts.
"In 1979, that was a gutsy thing to do," says Linnell Bowen, executive director of Maryland Hall. "It's a building today because they had vision. Beth was a driving force, along with the Mayor and Joanne Scott. We're a lucky community to have them."
In 1990, Whaley was admitted to the Maryland Hall of Fame at Maryland Hall. Today, Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts is a comprehensive arts center offering performance and visual art lessons to thousands of students. It also hosts resident companies such as the Annapolis Chorale, Annapolis Opera, Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, and Ballet Theatre of Maryland. Watching students develop their craft at Maryland Hall has a special thrill for Whaley, as an artist but also as an educator. "Now, I am tickled to death when I go see what's going on there," she says. "I give heartfelt applause to Linnell Bowen and all the people who have given so much of themselves to make the center so very creatively productive."
Whaley also taught thousands of Annapolis-area children. She began teaching in Maryland in 1951, as a first grade teacher at Glendale Elementary. In 1965, she taught the first Title One kindergarten program in the county, at Eastport Elementary. Over her 27-year career she was a classroom teacher, a vice principal at Lake Shore Elementary, and a reading resource teacher. Although she retired from the public school system in 1987, she didn't stop serving local children. The year after she retired, she designed and implemented an antidrug program, which used actors and puppets, for fourth graders in Anne Arundel County Public Schools. She ran the program directly for nearly 2 years and county schools used it for 7 more.Whaley finds joy and inspiration in her family. "They're a fun group," she says. "They're all musical. When they get together, there's always music."
Beth Whaley and her husband of 55 years, Richard, have four children, seven grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Their son Mark is in construction and his brother Sean is a minister for the Antioch Church in Annapolis. Their son Brian is the choir director at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Baltimore and also teaches music to emotionally disabled children for the state. Their daughter, Karen, is a CPA in Annapolis and owner of her own accounting business, Whaley and Associates. "I am proud of my family. They are using their unique gifts very well," she says.
Her achievements have earned Whaley several community awards, including the Arts Achievement Award from the Anne Arundel County Arts Commission on Culture and Arts in 1990 and the Annie Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts, given by the Cultural Arts Foundation of Anne Arundel County (now the Arts Council of Anne Arundel County) in 2004.
As a collector of memoirs for the Annapolis I Remember Project in 1990, Whaley worked with Valerio to transform the memories of countless Annapolitans into dramatized histories for the stage. Together, they founded Remember, Inc. Valerio is now a teacher and drama coach at Severn School. "Beth has excellent focus and her focus is on the specifics as well as the bigger picture," Valerio says. "It's a wonderful gift to see the big picture and the details to make it happen."
In 2003 and 2004, Whaley was vice president of Colonial Players again and chaired the theater's fund-raiser gala while working on renovations of the theater. She initiated an organization called Friends of Colonial Players to encourage community outreach. Her husband, Richard, still builds sets for Colonial Players and last year she coordinated the renovation and decoration of the theater's green room. So, does she plan to go on stage again? "I would do a role if they had one for an old lady," she says.
But the curtain never falls on a theater in the round, and Whaley is not content to linger backstage. Still a vital part of Colonial Players, she also is an active member of St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Annapolis and volunteers biweekly with the St. Vincent de Paul Society. She is always busy reading books for a book club she belongs to, THE Book club, or The Human Experience, a name she created.
"I like to get things started, but after a while it's important to get out of the way and let others take over. If it's important to the community, it will stay virile."
Ms. Whaley passed away in April 2008.