FORT LEE, Va. (April 1, 2010) – Before the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation program and the U.S. Army Soldier Show, there was the For Lee Special Services Entertainment Office.
It was home to many talented performers whose mission became entertainment.
The group, known throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s as the Fort Lee Players, produced plays and musicals based on the music genres of the time. During an era when there was more entertainment in the community than on the television, Soldiers and community volunteers performed at various venues throughout the post, including the Fort Lee Theater and another post playhouse named Theater No. 5. They also took their show on the road with a bus called “The Showmobile,” that was rigged with a full stage for performances.
A group of the Fort Lee Players alumnus arrived from as far away as California on March 23 for a reunion and a tour of their old stomping grounds. It was a homecoming and a chance to reminisce, as it was not only a place they spent many hours but also to a time they remember fondly.
“It was the best time of our lives, but we didn’t know it then,” said Arthur Panousis, a longtime Fort Lee employee.
“They were just the most amazing shows you can imagine,” Ron Lundmark said of the productions. “Many of the players were drafted and went on to become stars in Hollywood and on Broadway.”
Lundmark was a member of the drama team and the organizer of the reunion.
“The talent was superb,” said Panousis, the former director for special services at Fort Lee. “Fort Lee led the world-wide Army entertainment. We were the top installation and many of the programs throughout the world were modeled after the program here.”
During a drive-through tour of the Base Realignment and Closure construction projects, including the new Ordnance School Campus, the performers noted that many things had changed but some had not.
Theater No. 5, where many of their smaller musical productions were staged, was replaced with a parking lot. The Entertainment Center had also passed into history as the installation changed and grew.
The group found their way to the Fort Lee Theater where construction crews were working to install seating and flooring as well as finishing a four foot addition to the stage.
Mike Kretvix, Centennial Contractors project superintendent, allowed the group a peek into the metamorphosing facility. They were delightfully surprised when they were told the original film projectors were one of the vintage elements remaining in service.
The 35 millimeter projectors have been updated with modernized components and will project movies when the curtain rises at the newly renovated theater later this spring.
Panousis, who spent many years working at Fort Lee, was not surprised to see the installation’s growth. He said the leaders at the time foresaw Fort Lee’s growth including Lt. Gen. John McLaughlin and local businessman and later congressman Normal Sisisky, who worked to bring more military to Fort Lee.
“They could see where Fort Lee was headed in the future,” Panousis said. “We were here at an optimal time, when things were large enough but still small enough (for leaders) to have a personal interest in people. It’s too fast today, the whole world has changed.”
When the Fort Lee Theater is completed soon, the Army and Air Force Exchange Services will show first-run movies and the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation in conjunction with the Theater Company at Fort Lee will continue to produce main stage and children’s productions.