Curtain up! Light the lights! They had nothing to hit but the heights!

Nearly 40 years ago, a fun-loving, fast-moving theater troupe took control of local stages and dazzled audiences with music, song and laughter.

The Panther Valley-based Curtain Call Players was a collection of avant-garde personalities who lived the arts and weren't afraid to take chances. Their shows emphasized wild theatrics complemented by a backdrop of laughs. That's because members decided early on that their mission would be a journey of fun.

Each show was devoted to side-splitting antics, each performance spiked with excitement. The result was a string of standing ovations every time they bowed during their elaborate curtain calls.

The troupe staged dinner theater, murder mystery-comedy, skits, theater-in-the-round, and even a short film shot on location at the Asa Packer Mansion, Jim Thorpe. The 1970s Curtain Call Players made an indelible mark.

Seeds sown 1973

The Curtain Call Players (CCP) was formed to address a local need to strengthen performing arts. Initial discussions took place in 1973-74, a time when some described the greater Panther Valley as an "arts-starved" area.

As a result, on Wednesday, May 14, 1975, Lansford restaurateur Howard Sinclair called a meeting of arts supporters hosted at his New Rialto Restaurant. The turnout was overwhelming. The air filled with electricity. Something special was afoot. Close to 100 arts enthusiasts from Lehighton, Summit Hill, Tamaqua, Jim Thorpe, Coaldale, Lansford, Nesquehoning and Hazleton gathered together and formed what became the region's only nonprofit, semi-professional theater troupe.

Among them were novice performers and newcomers. But many others were seasoned veterans, local residents with rich backgrounds in various theatrical disciplines.

Members included vocalists, award-winning thespians, and gifted musicians and dancers. They had studied at places such as the New York Actors Studio and Carnegie Hall. One member had performed on the Tony Awards. Two others came from the Critics Circle at legendary Lakewood Musical Playhouse, Barnesville, and a few others were former Lakewood actors and apprentices. The new group had all of the elements for big success and they came ready to prove that the Panther Valley was brimming with talent and art.

The big debut

Sinclair became producer and Tamaqua's George Miller, resident director. CCP members rehearsed inside the Lansford Youth Center and, in a matter of weeks, the group was ready.

They hit the stage running - literally. Their first madcap show was a three-act British farce, 'See How They Run.' The show debuted Aug. 1, 2 and 3, 1975, at St. John's Byzantine Church Hall, Coaldale.

The show earned standing ovations and rave reviews. Arts critics said the group had set the bar very high. In fact, one remarked: "They're so good, how could they possibly be any better?"

"It will be difficult to top a production like this," proclaimed critic Rudy Bednar of the Allentown Call-Chronicle. But top it they did. Just two months later, the troupe debuted dinner-theater with a musical comedy, 'Deadwood Dick,' in the Viennese Villa's Wine Cellar. Again, the Curtain Call Players brought down the house. This group was special, and everybody took notice.

"It played to a full house for eight nights," wrote TIMES NEWS Society Editor Marigrace Heyer.

Turns out, the CCP was only hitting its stride. In 1976, the troupe scored headlines with an unusual whodunnit dinner theater, 'Any Number Can Die.' It was a Roaring '20s murder mystery-comedy based on Agatha Christie's 'Ten Little Indians.'

The show was staged on six nights over two weeks inside the Crystal Room of Lansford AMVETS. Demonstrating innovation, the performance began with a retro, black-and-white silent film, shot by cast members weeks earlier at the Asa Packer Mansion. Audiences of live theater had never seen anything like it.

"It is by far the most imaginative and brilliantly directed and acted production offered thus far by the group," wrote Heyer. The CCP moved forward with momentum. Their noble goal was to stage eight productions a year.

For America's Spirit of 76, the group was sponsored by the Carbon County Bicentennial Committee. The CCP took the show on the road. They showcased a custom, patriotic production of the musical 'You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.' The show played on a different school stage each night - Jim Thorpe, Lehighton, Hazleton, Palmerton, Weatherly, Tamaqua and so on.

Show after show, hit after hit, the CCP entrenched itself as 'must-see' entertainment for residents of the region. Nothing in the area was flying higher than the Curtain Call Players of Panther Valley. In fact, the CCP membership roster grew so large that the group had its own newsletter.

Then, sadly, after all of the high energy, hilarious comedies, and snappy gimmicks, the CCP came to an abrupt end. A number of members had been forced to relocate out of the area due to employment. In addition, a few key members passed away. Reluctantly, the group disbanded by 1979, storing lighting, gels and stage equipment inside old Coaldale High School.

Their magical run was finished. The final curtain had fallen on their flashy creativity, but not before the CCP had shown that the arts were alive and well in the region. The loss of the CCP was felt deeply in the Carbon-Schuylkill area. But the group left a rich legacy.

"It was the best time of my life," said Mary Zonca, Nesquehoning. Zonca served as stage manager. Over time, members lovingly elevated her to the status of stage mother. Zonca passed away last July.

Ruth West, Coaldale, was a charter member. West appeared on stage and savors the precious memories "of being part of a group of good people and all of the learning that took place. I still have all my photos," she says. There is a strong and lasting bond among former CCP members, many of whom still reside in the area.

The glimmer of the spotlight has faded for the Curtain Call Players. But their wild antics, eccentric characters, and the roar of the crowds, will forever be a shining light on the story of the arts in the Panther Valley.