CLIFTON FORGE — Appalfolks of America Association, a nonprofit arts/education organization based in Clifton Forge that was founded by M. Ray Allen in 1985, completed its 35th year of community service on Dec. 6.
After receiving the Historic Stonewall Theatre (circa 1905) as a charitable donation on Dec. 20, 1991, from Irwin R. Cohen, the theatre’s owner, Appalfolks formed the “Save the Stonewall Committee” that was instrumental in recruiting volunteers and raising the necessary funds to restore the twin-cinema to its original function as a performing arts theatre.
“The Historic Stonewall Theatre’s appraisal in 1991 established the theatre’s value at $125,000 for its historic value and $75,000 for its commercial value, and with the help of the ‘Save the Stonewall Committee,’ more than 100 volunteers and financial donors worked for four months with Appalfolks to complete the restoration work needed to hold the grand reopening of the theatre in May of 1992,” Allen said.
The Announcers performed a benefit concert to reopen the theatre, a concert that drew a large audience that included such dignitaries as “Bo” Trumbo and Bob Goodlatte, a candidate at the time who was soon to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where he served for 30 years.
Soon, Appalfolks became the most prolific art producer and presenter in the Alleghany Highlands by staging original works of local, regional, and nationally known playwrights, by presenting nationally prominent acts, and by producing its own outreach programs’ productions.
“Wilma McClung volunteered to serve as the director of our newly formed Stonewall Children’s Theatre and directed numerous plays, including such classics as Romeo and Juliet and Brigadoon,” Allen recalled.
During the summer of 1992, Appalfolks formed the Stonewall Players, a troupe of 10 performers from the Alleghany Highlands and Roanoke that performed “A Musical Tribute to the Railroad.”
Written and directed by Allen, the two-act musical production featured many retired railroaders who sang “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” as they filed down each aisle with their dinner buckets in hand to start the show.
Among the performers who made their debut as actors in the musical was Jana Allen, a sixth grader at the time, who has to date performed in more than 20 movies and television productions and serves as emcee and vocalist for the Virginia Opry.
The Virginia Opry that made its debut as an Appalfolks outreach program on Oct. 17, 1992, has become the Official Opry of the Commonwealth of Virginia via the passage of Senate Bill 283 that State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds filed on Jan. 8.
The bill passed the Virginia Senate by a 40-0 vote and a 93-6 vote in the Virginia House of Delegates. Gov. Ralph S. Northam signed the bill on March 31.
“I appointed Ray Tucker, a singer, songwriter, and guitarist from Selma, as director to form the Virginia Opry, and he did so by recruiting nine other performers from Virginia and West Virginia,” Allen noted.
The Virginia Opry will complete its 29th performance season on Friday, Dec. 18, at 7 p.m. on stage at the Historic Masonic Theatre without an audience.
Due to COVID-19, “The Virginia Opry’s Alleghany Highlands’ Christmas Show” will be streamed live and free of charge on the Historic Masonic Theatre’s Facebook page.
For the past 29 years, the Virginia Opry has presented many nationally prominent performing artists and country music groups, including the late Dan Seals.
Acts such as The Lonesome River Band, the Darrell Webb Band, The Farm Hands, Michael Hoover, and the Freight Hoppers, regular performers on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion,” have graced the stage as guests of the Virginia Opry.
After 12 years of owning, operating and restoring the Historic Stonewall Theatre, Appalfolks donated the theatre to The Town of Clifton Forge in exchange for a role in future productions at the theatre and an office in the building.
The theatre has featured productions by Lime Kiln Arts of Lexington, Theatre IV of Richmond, Poetry Alive of North Carolina and the Mid-Ohio Valley Ballet.
In addition, it has hosted more than 100 productions that featured a variety of area talent such as regional dance troupes, bluegrass bands, country music bands, folk musicians and many famous performers and groups such as Bill Pinkney and the Original Drifters, Robin and Linda Williams and Their Fine Group, John McCutcheon, and Mike Seeger.
From 2003 until May 2, 2019, Appalfolks continued to have its headquarters in the theatre that the town of Clifton Forge renamed the Historic Masonic Theatre following Appalfolks’ donation, although the theatre closed its doors from 2012 to 2016 for a $6.9 million restoration project spearheaded by the Masonic Theatre Preservation Foundation that leased the building from the town of Clifton Forge.
“After a long history that included making more than $200,000 worth of restoration improvements to the Historic Stonewall Theatre, including nearly $30,000 to bring the theatre into ADA compliance, Appalfolks signed the deed to the theatre over to the town of Clifton Forge which continues to own the theatre,” Allen noted.
STARS (Theatrical Artists Revue and Showcase) was founded by Appalfolks in 1996 as an outreach program to those who face intellectual challenges and physical disabilities.
From the original troupe of 12, STARS has steadily grown to include 29 performers who last performed on March 7, before COVID-19 led to restrictions that have forced Appalfolks to cancel or postpone until 2021 10 of its 12 planned performances by STARS and the Virginia Opry.
Other achievements Appalfolks has to its credit include conducting a creative writing outreach at the Augusta Corrections Center in Craigsville, forming a partnership with TAP (Total Action for Progress) to form the Alleghany Highlands Literacy Program in conjunction with Literacy Volunteers of America, founding of the Performance Series for Students that brought theatrical productions by Lime Kiln Arts, Theatre IV, Mid-Ohio Valley Ballet, and Poetry Alive to the area to provide students with educational enrichment opportunities, including providing hundreds of free tickets to students who could not afford to purchase tickets.
Additionally, Appalfolks has conducted writers’ workshops at Douthat State Park, Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, the Clifton Forge Public Library and Jenny Wiley State Park where more than 100 high school students have benefited, having received scholarships provided by Appalfolks via corporate sponsors.
Ray observed, “I am thankful for the support Appalfolks has received for more than three decades, including donations from out of state donors from California, Oregon, Colorado, New York, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana that represents more than 20 percent of the states here in the USA.”
Recently during the COVID-19 pandemic, Appalfolks received a $1,200 donation from the National Christian Foundation of Lexington, Ky.
The donation topped the $1,000 record-out-of-state donation that Appalfolks had received from the owner of an advertising agency in San Diego during Appalfolks’ quest to restore the theatre.
Appalfolks has conducted more than 30 benefits to help others, raising thousands of dollars in the process for such organizations as The Alleghany Highlands Free Clinic, Clifton Forge Little League, Clifton Forge Public Library, Fishing with Angels, 9/11 Fund, Wounded Warriors Project, Salvation Army and the Christmas Mother.
“Without the help of The Alleghany Foundation, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, the Virginia State Police Association, and many, many patrons of the arts that include local industries, businesses, non-profits, churches, and citizens who have provided financial support to Appalfolks, we could not keep fulfilling our mission of helping the Alleghany Highlands and other parts of Appalachia become a better place to live,” Allen concluded.