Among the hats and feathers and wardrobe racks in the belly of the Mallardi Cabaret sits Harry Woods, managing artistic director of the Crested Butte Mountain Theatre—a wizard in his own sort of wonderful Oz. He found himself here at the end of the road, if not over the rainbow, having been hired immediately after his interview for the position during the Ides of March 2012. The board couldn’t have made a better choice. He arrived for the loveliness of off-season in April as the snows receded to promise an early spring.
But every play has an Act I and Harry’s started briefly in Soda Springs, Idaho, but at only three months followed the path back to Cheyenne, Wyo., where his parents originally met and returned after his birth. His father was an innovative and inventive man who came west after the Great Depression. “My dad was an incredible craftsman who planned things in his head,” Harry says, noting that although his father didn’t write down his ideas, he managed to receive a Legion of Merit award for designing a base for a rifle while he was a tech sergeant quartermaster in the Philippines during WWII. Born in 1947, Harry jokes that he was an “alien baby,” since that was the year of all the hoopla about spaceships crashing at Roswell’s Area 51—which might help explain why he fits in so well here in Crested Butte. Growing up in Cheyenne during those simpler times, Harry walked to school from the day he started kindergarten through his senior year. “It was neighborhood living at a time that was a pretty easy and comfortable childhood. We were a middle class and happy family,” he notes of those wonderful Baby Boomer years. “I started working for my mom when I was 12, during the summers. She ran an amusement park called Playland. It was wonderful and had a train, boats, two Ferris wheels, racing cars, a merry-go-round, and a roller coaster that my father built,” he says with the remembered excitement of a kid with a ticket for the next ride. “There was a showboat with a paddlewheel that went around Sloan’s Lake in the middle of Cheyenne, in the middle of Lions Park. I operated the rides, took tickets, worked in the restaurant, which was basically a hamburger and ice cream shack... I peeled potatoes endlessly because back in the day they made real French fries, and I also cleaned up,” he said of the long summer days, doing a job he enjoyed. He added, “It was the cleanest amusement park you’d ever visit. If you got a job in the summer working for my mother you were lucky because it was a great summertime job for a kid. And you had to be on time and polite. I think that’s why so many parents wanted to get their kids to work there... mom was fair and wonderful, but you couldn’t get away with anything!” He worked in the carnival atmosphere until his senior year and graduated from high school in 1965, while the war was raging in Vietnam. He says his hometown of Cheyenne was mixed in religion and political views and he felt he was somewhat unprepared for the reality of the world outside this culture. “I know I was naïve but I was not aware of the amount of prejudice in our country until I went to college. Cheyenne, because of its nature, was culturally and racially diverse.” He describes his neighborhood of many colors and differing beliefs but who all respected one other and lived happily with the diversity. Harry started out at Arizona State studying sociology, then business, then headed into psychology and finally wound up in theatre. He had found his niche, but the world was changing for young men his age. “One of the things that happened was that I was in one of the very first draft lotteries for Vietnam,” he says, adding that if you didn’t get drafted that year, 1971, you were quite fortunately out of the draft system for good. “I came from a draft board that only drafted 16 people. The effect on me of not having to go to war was that I left college, because I was wasting my and my parents’ money. But it freed me up to go do whatever I wanted to. Then the ’70s happened. By that I mean, the ’70s allowed me the time to find out who I was and by 1983 I went back to school to finish the degree in theatre that I hadn’t finished.” He headed to the University of Wyoming in Laramie and graduated in 1986. The University of Kansas immediately grabbed him as manager of the performing arts center and box office, where Harry spent the next three years. “I liked the job. I liked Lawrence,” he says of the liberal arts oasis town, “but I needed to wake up each morning and see the horizon. I felt really confined and longed once again for the wide open spaces of the west.” He was offered a job working for the Wyoming Volunteer Assistance Corporation, which later developed into the Wyoming Community Foundation that funded programs from the arts to business to government and especially non-profits. “It wasn’t theatre but it was housed at the university,” he says. Although Harry was still connected to those arts, he “had developed a good relationship with the theatre and dance department.” For two years he directed and toured an AIDS educational play called “Secrets” in 1990 and 1991. “Wyoming was only the third state to do this production. California was first and Colorado second. The play was geared toward junior high, high school and community college students.” With the AIDS crisis growing, the federal government had mandated that all states had to initiate an AIDS educational curriculum that dealt with the issue of HIV and AIDS from the 5th grade through high school. “States didn’t know what to do so the Department of Education and the Department of Health came together to sponsor the play,” Harry explained. Originally produced by Kaiser Permanente, the production was a huge success and toured for two years. It consisted of five student actors and focused on unsafe behavior rather than the finger shaking you-shouldn’t-be-doing-this attitude. It taught students about the consequences of reckless behavior, and how to avoid the dangers. “Protection was the message,” Harry emphasized. “The actors had no idea of what social conscience-raising theatre could do. The play was 45 minutes long with a Q & A period at the end and this was a perfect venue because the actors did the answering, which was more effective for their own age group. It was very successful. There was a group who tried to get the last show cancelled but the mayor and the school superintendent fought for the show to go on.” In 1996 Harry went to work for the University of Wyoming as coordinator of the fine arts programming for theatre and dance and “did all the publicity and was the liaison between the department and the University of Wyoming Foundation.” Harry started the accomplished four-day film festival event, the Gladys Crane Mountain Plains Film Festival, which ran for five years and brought in filmmakers from all over the country. He was also directing and acting but after nine years on the university staff he was ready for a change. “I wasn’t ready to retire,” he determined and Crested Butte piqued his interest. “Every step of research I did about Crested Butte, from the size of the town to the number of dog licenses, became very intriguing to me,” he says. Even though he doesn’t have a dog, the stats implied that people care about their dogs and to him that was a positive thing that said much about the residents and community. “It also looked as though it had a diverse population financially and socially. One of the things for me about Crested Butte is I came to this theatre with an absolutely open mind and have been overwhelmingly pleased with the level of community, the level of acceptance of me and how I have felt very welcomed. That frees you up and you get to work with and collaborate with people and you enjoy it. I had a feeling right away that there was a talent pool that, for a town of our size, was unparalleled. In that regard, I feel so lucky at this time in my life. I’m surrounded by an art form that I love and people I have enjoyed meeting and becoming friends with, and sharing my life. I find the people of Crested Butte to be very civilized and I couldn’t ask for a greater stimulation at this point in my life. That’s why I feel so lucky.” It’s a symbiotic relationship—Crested Butte is very lucky to have found such a dedicated talent who understands, enjoys and fully immerses himself into the finer and funkier aspects of our little Oz.