It’s been more than 25 years since Don Spickler hosted the Northeast region of the National Association of Conservation Districts and chose the Washington County Playhouse as the evening entertainment for those from Maine to West Virginia attending the conference in Hagerstown.
The group filled the dinner theatre for a performance of “The Fantasticks.”
“Everybody was impressed. We got a lot of good comments. That was our beginning. We’ve been involved ever since,” Spickler said.
Don and his wife of 54 years, Mary Jane Spickler, both 74, became season ticket holders, eventually purchasing season tickets for both the opening night and closing night of each production.
“Just to see the progression of the cast as they go through the process,” Don Spickler said.
Back then, Don was working as a dairy farmer and the dinner theatre provided an evening out. “It was a good value — dinner and a play,” Spickler said.
In 2004, the couple left the farm and moved to Williamsport.
While the Spicklers prefer being in the audience now, they were both in several productions at Clear Spring High School when they were students there. Both graduated in 1956.
They started dating in their junior year and in their last performance senior year in “One Foot in Heaven,” Don was cast as the pastor and the then-Mary Jane Spielman, played his wife.
Don said at times he’s thought it would be fun to return to the stage, then he remembers the commitment required for learning the lines, and the anxiety.
Instead, he was happy to make a cameo appearance at Washington County Playhouse.
“The theatre group has become family. It’s a nice spot where you’re known. It’s part of our social life,” Don Spickler said.
The waiters and waitresses for the dinner are the performers in the show and the Spicklers enjoy that interaction.
“I really appreciate and like the relationships you build with people here who have talent. I envy people with talent,” Don Spickler said.
They also regularly attend productions at many of the other live theatre venues in the region.
The downturn in the economy in the past few years was hard on small local businesses like Washington County Playhouse, as they struggled to sell tickets.
When the playhouse’s owners, Jeff and Loretta Czerbinski, announced there might not be another season due to poor ticket sales, Don Spickler rallied the season ticket holders and called the effort the VIP Pass.
They were all encouraged to invite friends and family to the playhouse, in hopes they would buy season tickets. New ticket holders were allowed to pay as they go, instead of in a lump sum.
“Another season is under way,” said Don, and there are plans for another.
For his efforts and unwavering support of the playhouse, the stage was dedicated in Don’s honor, with a plaque posted near it, referring to it as the Donald L. Spickler Stage at the Washington County Playhouse.
“Well, he’s done so much for us. It’s about the only way to give back,” Jeff Czerbinski said.
Don rallied support, despite his own fight with pancreatic cancer, which was diagnosed in May 2012. The day before the stage was to be dedicated, June 23, Don was hospitalized for severe stomach pain due to dehydration from chemotherapy. He wasn’t feeling well, but Mary Jane managed to get him to the playhouse.
“I was quite impressed and honored,” Don said of the stage dedication.
“They wanted to show their appreciation,” Mary Jane said.
When it came time to plan their 50th wedding anniversary several years ago, the Spicklers tossed around a few ideas, but chose to celebrate with friends at the playhouse.
“They treated us well. It was a real fine evening,” Don said.
The Spicklers take it a step farther and as a Christmas gift, bring choir members from the two churches where Mary Jane is the organist and choir director.
Their commitment isn’t just to live theatre, but to the community. They said they try to support other businesses in Hagerstown, like the Hagerstown Suns and community concerts at The Maryland Theatre.
“We support the Suns and downtown, just to try to keep the place alive. Enjoy yourself, support the community and have fun,” Don said.
Their two adult children also have an appreciation of live theatre, Don said.
“We’ve got some great talent here. I’m impressed with the amount of time they put into it. It’s a labor of love,” Spickler said.