The Hippo


Jul 17, 2019








Bittersweet end
Leddy Center does Willy Wonka, founders retire

By Angie Sykeny

 After 43 years of producing community theater shows, Leddy Center founders Elaine and Bruce Gatchell are retiring on a high note with their final fall production, Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, opening Oct. 20.  

Based on the classic 1964 children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the musical tells of a poor boy, Charlie, and his Grandpa Joe, who win a coveted opportunity to tour the elusive chocolate factory run by the eccentric chocolate maker Willy Wonka. 
“When we finally decided to retire, we knew we wanted to exit standing up and wanted our final year to be as wonderful as every other year,” Elaine Gatchell said. “So we picked a big one — Willy Wonka, a crazy, fun show with a big cast and amazing music and so many creative things in it. We thought that would be a great way to go out.” 
The Leddy Center has produced a variation of the musical, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, several times before, most recently in 2009. This year’s production, however, will have a new special effect: a real working “Wonkavator” that carries Charlie, Grandpa Joe and Willy Wonka through the roof of the factory in the dramatic final scene. 
To design and build the Wonkavator, the Gatchells recruited their friend Wayne Merrill, a retired mechanical engineer from Derry who had previously helped build the system that allowed actors to fly in the Leddy Center’s 2008 production of Peter Pan. 
“[The Gatchells] wanted to do something better with Willy Wonka, because the one they did before was much more limited, so they asked me to help them out,’” Merrill said. “I said, ‘Sure. Sounds like a fun job.’ I enjoy designing and building things. It was a fun project right from the beginning.” 
The Wonkavator is a self-contained unit on roller wheels and is made from a light plywood material. It’s open at the top, with a platform that’s about 4x3 feet and a door on the front where the actors will step inside. It will lift the actors about six feet off the ground. To build it, Merrill modified a hydraulic engine hoist, like the ones used to lift an engine out of a car, with a powered electric pump so that the Wonkavator would ascend in a smooth continuous motion. It’s operated by the push of a button, which will be concealed behind the stage curtain during the scene. 
“It was a bit of a challenge designing it, but so far it’s looking really good,” Merrill said. “We see it in practices, but I’m very anxious to see the whole show — how this thing that I’ve worked on really appears in the show.” 
Willy Wonka will be the Leddy Center’s second to last production; A Christmas Carol will follow as the theater’s final production in December. 
The Leddy Center started out as the Epping Community Church Players, holding its first show, Guys and Dolls, in July 1975 as a church fundraiser. Elaine Gatchell, who was the church choir director, continued to produce and direct one fundraising show per year until 1984, when the players were gifted permanent use of a performance space in the historic Leddy Brothers building on Main Street in downtown Epping. At that point, the Epping Community Church Players changed its name to the Leddy Center and began expanding its programming to include more shows, a concert series and performing arts classes and private lessons. In 2008, it moved to its current location, a 215-seat modern theater set on 93 acres of farmland along the Lamprey River in Epping. Since then, the Leddy Center has produced four shows a year, including Broadway classics like Annie, The Music Man and Fiddler on the Roof, and A Christmas Carol every December. 
“I had no idea when I started this that it would last 43 years, but every year it grew and grew,” Gatchell said. “It’s been a wonderful journey.” 
After retiring from the Leddy Center, Gatchell said she has plans to continue sharing her passion for theater in another way. 
“I personally would love to do some prison work and show people in the prisons how to develop a character, and hopefully enrich their lives,” she said. “That’s always been a desire of mine, and I’m hoping to work toward accomplishing that.” 

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