Backing Up the Chorus: The Family Who Paints the Scenery for Showboat

By Kaye Bennett

For the past dozen years, Showboat scenery has been painted by three generations of Hardy boys . . . and one Hardy girl.

Since the early 2000s, Mike Hardy, retired Kalamazoo Gazette graphic artist and former Vicksburg Village president, has recruited his sons, Tim, Toby and Tom, and their sons and stepson, Mercer and Wyatt Hardy and Josh Lampe, to help prepare the stage for Showboat.

For the past few years, the only Hardy granddaughter, 11-year-old Issabelle, has provided a feminine touch to the project. Currently growing into the role is four-month-old Jase, Toby and Courtney Hardy’s baby, but it’s practically a given that he’ll be helping someday. The kids get recruited, says Tim, about the time they’re big enough to hold a paint brush.

ImageThe set creation should be time consuming, say the Hardys, but, according to Mike, time is a luxury they rarely have. The Performing Arts Center is so busy, he says, that the stage is rarely available for his family to work on the huge canvases that serve as backdrops for the show.

Each year, Showboat is almost immediately followed by the high school musical, so time to work on the stage is at a premium.

The process itself involves inventing a new backdrop each year to fit the show’s theme. With recent Showboat themes that have included aliens, Egyptians, the Wrong Brothers and the old Vicksburg Hotel bar, the Hardys have had a variety of stage sets to challenge their creative genes.

For years, the family retrieved the old backdrop from the room above Hills Pharmacy, “the Showboat props museum,” the Hardys call it, and repainted it. After many years, the canvas was not only thick and heavy with paint layers, but also had rips and holes. So last year, a brand new canvas was purchased; the Hardys estimate that it took more than 10 gallons of primer to prepare the canvas for the 2013 show.

Mike, Issabelle, Tom and Tim of the Hardy family paint crew, work on the 2014 Showboat props.

The Hardys say they originally tried to paint the drop while it was suspended from the ceiling, but this involved ladders and meant they had to work on a swaying canvas. In recent years they have taken it down and painted it flat on the floor, then hoisted up the finished – or almost finished – product. They need to see the backdrop under stage lights to assess how it will look to the audience, then frequently make last-minute changes after it’s hanging.

One of the challenges of painting scenery is knowing how much audience members will be able to see from their seats. Most things between the floor and about five feet in height are obscured by the chorus, who stand in front of it, and most small details are not visible to the audience.

This doesn’t stop the Hardys from adding a few details that only they and the singers will be able to appreciate. Most years, small pictures – such as Indiana University and Michigan State logos, and personal messages to the men on stage – will be added. Does it matter that the audience won’t be able to see these things? “No,” says Tim Hardy. “We know they’re there.”

In addition to backdrops, the Hardys have painted dozens of flags, maps and other items for the set through the years, and occasionally they’re called on to do three-dimensional projects. They remember the year when they were asked to build and paint Styrofoam cars, which chorus members would “wear” on stage for a car chase skit.

The finished cars were somewhat fragile and, Mike recalls, on opening night, “Ken Blough went crashing across the stage in his car and broke it into many pieces.” So the next day, the Hardys were back at work, piecing together the cars for the second night’s performance. By the last night of the show, it no longer mattered, and the Hardys enjoyed the onstage demolition derby as much as the audience did.

Other tricks the Hardys have learned from experience:

•             It’s a given that they will bang their heads on the bar that holds up the drop… sometimes repeatedly.

•             To keep from tracking paint, they always work in their socks, and they expect to end up wearing some of their paint.

•             They’re probably going to be doing most of their work in semi-darkness, preferable to the heat generated by the stage lighting.

•             The Hideaway is a good place to debrief after a few hours of painting scenery.

The Hardys enjoy the chance to work together on this annual project. Toby says it gives them a preview of the show each year, and the youngsters enjoy being backstage. Wyatt says he likes to see the project come together at the end. But Tom has another reason for fitting the project into his busy schedule: “It’s that old Mercer Munn thing,” he says. “It’s great to do something for the community.”

Editor’s Note: This background story about the Hardy family and the Vicksburg Rotary Club Showboat was inadvertently left out of the March issue. We offer it here as a finale to the show that occurs every March. It is one of the largest community endeavors for the Club during the year, involving volunteers from all walks of life. The considerable funds raised from advertising and the sale of tickets go right back into funding community projects. 2014 was a very good year!

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