Make no mistake about it. Rhett Wolford of Cumberland loves Halloween. With the zest and zeal that most people anticipate the holidays, Rhett gets giddy when he talks about creepy crawlies and things that go bump in the night.
His office – located inside a former loge of the Cumberland Theatre and Performing Arts Center on Johnson Street – is a mini museum to the macabre. Above the entry to the door is a ghoulish baby doll attached to the wall that appears to keep an evil eye on visitors. There are vintage and antique Halloween masks and costumes on display here. And a movie poster for the science fiction classic Metropolis is framed behind a desk, piled with sketches and leather bound journals.
This is not staged for a seasonal visit. This is the everyday for Rhett. This is the season in which he feels most creative and familiar. This is the season that has actually been most beneficial in his professional and personal life. It was the Halloween season that introduced him to wife, Lisa. It was just after Halloween that the Wolfords welcomed their daughter, Olive – now nearly three. And it is this creative season of magic and make believe in which Rhett honed his skills in the world of theatrics.
“My daughter loves to come see me at work. She loves to come here and run around and play with all the props and the sets,” he laughs. “She’s me at that age and I think that is terrifying. Nothing scares her. She calls the baby above the door her spooky doll. We had a severed head mannequin prop we have used for a couple of shows and she likes to pick that up and drag it around behind her.”
Many people may know Mr. Wolford as the co-artistic director of the area’s only professional theatre west of Frederick. They may have seen him act and sing in more than a dozen performances over the last few years. But what many may not know is that for more than three years, every set that is designed for the stage here – save for one -- from the minsicule to the magnificent – from the blood thirsty Dracula’s castle debuting later this month to the Pennsylvania graveyards of Night of the Living Dead to the wacky estate of Young Frankenstein, the “background” of each show is sometimes as impressive as the performances themselves.
“I love the set design element of this,” he says. “We added the turntable last year for Noises Off and used it for White Christmas. I literally learned about building turntables from the internet and listening to techie podcasts. I have had a few favorite sets. Streetcar Named Desire was a great set. There was so much to that set. Fool for Love was a great set that we did. Rabbit Hole was a set I loved. I thought the set for Gypsy last year would kill me but haha, it didn’t. I’m still here.”
Rhett wears ripped jean shorts and a T-shirt with “Dracula” dripping in bloody red letters. What other person can dress like this for his “office” job?
“I started out here with the Maryland Theatre Arts Company as a kid and here I am now,” he says. “It’s all come full circle, twenty years later. It’s crazy.”
What is “crazy” is indeed that two decade journey that brought the 31-year old Hyndman, Pennsylvania native to this position in life that he so enjoys.
“I have always done theatre,” he says. “I guess it did all start out in my parents’ backyard in Hyndman. I created haunted houses for the neighborhood when I was 10 or 11. I had one in a tree house once.”
Rhett attended Bedford High School at a time when most children from his hometown were still going to Hyndman. He remembers choosing Bedford because it produced high school musicals.
“At that time, there were about six of us kids from Hyndman who were going to Bedford High School and one Mom drove us all every morning to school and back in her Suburban,” he remembers. “Now, of course, everyone goes there.”
For several years, Rhett even made appearances as an area illusionist – mounting his own Vegas-style act at Allegany College of Maryland in 2013. He also studied musical performance in college at Point Park for one year and then at Indiana University of Pennsylvania for three.
At the same time, he was also quietly working his way up the theatre ladder in Allegany County. His first appearance in local theatre in Cumberland was in the chorus of the musical Shenandoah in 2004. He was a sophomore in high school at the time. He then graduated to appear as an actor in several Cumberland Theatre Shows. He played Brad in the 2010 production of Rocky Horror Picture Show. And he built the puppets for the venue’s productions of Little Shop of Horrors and Avenue Q.
“When I built those, I remember telling Don (Whisted, the former and retired artistic director of the Cumberland Theatre) to let me know if they ever needed even more help,” Rhett recalls. “Don told me he would keep my skills in mind if he ever needed anything. And then at that time, I started doing Haunted Houses.”
The area haunted houses to which Rhett refers are the large scale and ambitious haunted attractions that popped up for five years in locations like Rocky Gap State Park, Mezzos’ and finally inside the former senior center building in downtown Cumberland.
“The downtown Cumberland attraction that year was the Haunted Hotel,” he reminds. “People still remember that one. And that was the craziest one we did. We would open at 7 and tell people as long as they were in line by 11 they could still get in. And we wouldn’t take the last tour through until 1230 or 1. People would wait around the block for sometimes an hour and a half to get into this thing. We would get out of there at three in the morning and then get up and do the whole thing all over again the next night.”
While he has not produced a local haunted house for several years, Rhett admits he misses the adrenalin rush he gets in scaring people.
“The thing about doing a haunted house is location, location, location. I would absolutely do another one if we could do one in a permanent spot and have a permanent home. I miss it and would love to get back into it but only if it’s a place we could use forever.”
Are you reading a theme yet in the cornerstones of his life? The setting never changes.
Rhett Wolford does get a romantic glint in his eye when he talks about producing Halloween themed haunted attractions. And there could be good reason for that. As eluded to earlier, he did meet his wife at one.
“Lisa was an actor and a volunteer at the one we did at Rocky Gap,” he says. “She was lying in a coffin with a skeleton mask on with all this hair attached and I took one look at her and said, yeah, that woman is going to be my wife. Isn’t that funny?”
At the same time he was producing haunted attractions, Rhett also worked as the district manager for Worldwide Photography, handling the appearances of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny at more than 13 malls on the east coast – including the Country Club Mall in Lavale. He hired his fiancée to assist him as a photographer at many of those events and Lisa fell so in love with photography that she opened her own business and now is one of the area’s sought after portrait and editorial photographers. It is her work that accompanies this feature, in fact.
And then, at the tender age of 28, married and with a baby on the way, Rhett decided to apply for the job of artistic director when Don Whisted announced his retirement. He and Kimberli Rowley were hired by a committee to split the duties. It’s an arrangement that Rhett said over the last three years has worked out better than he imagined. He is able to allow Kimberli to handle talent, scheduling, bookings and public relations while he focuses on the technical aspects of the management of the theatre.
“We share this mission to make this place a destination and we are doing that,” he says. “I am pretty happy with the ways things turned out and our hard work is definitely paying off. I love this area. It’s a great place to raise a family and I can be as creative as I want here.”
“My job now is just an added layer of the insanity that is my life,” Rhett Wolford adds. “I guess you could say it’s a controlled insanity.”
The Cumberland Theatre and Performing Arts Center presents Dracula, the staged production written by Steven Dietz, based on the original novel by Bram Stoker, October 10-27, 2019. For tickets and information, visit www.cumberlandtheatre.com. The set alone is worth the price of admission.