‘Variety’ show returns to Walterboro on film

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The Colleton County Arts Council hosted a showing of Variety ’76 at the Civic Center on March 12-13.

For years, Colleton residents and local amateur performers showcased their talent at Hampton Street Auditorium. For a $1-$5 ticket, you could see your friends and neighbors dancing, singing, acting and engaging in standup comedy.

Some of the performances were filmed and televised on Beaufort’s WJWJ-TV Channel 13 and on Charleston’s Channel 5. SCETV also filmed several of the events, saved them on reels for the big screen and donated them to the Colleton Recreation Commission.

While going through a file cabinet, Colleton County Arts Council staff found the reels and thought it would be fun to show them to the community. The reels were sent to St. Louis to be remastered, the event was planned, and tickets sold. The audience who attended the showing enjoyed every minute.

Mark Warren, a member of the Colleton Arts Council, remembers going to the Variety shows. “I attended and performed in a few of the Variety Shows, and it’s great to revisit the old memories.”

In the mid-70s, Charlie Tuna, aka Tony Nuzzo, was a local disc jockey from Virginia who worked at WALD radio station in Walterboro. He came up with the idea of Variety ’76 and went to John Caldwell, then-director of the Recreation Commission, Richard Price and Richard Spencer about having a show. Nuzzo volunteered to write, stage, act, choreograph, direct and serve as master of ceremonies with a budget of $2,000. He was just 24 years old.

Auditions were held for ages 12-80 and over, and for people of every color and nationality. At any time on stage, school principals, plumbers, electricians, secretaries, housewives, students, clerks, telephone technicians, salesmen, retirees, contractors and merchants showed audiences their talent.

Trips were made to Florida for sound equipment.

Three months of rehearsals were endured and then the weekend performances began to produce two-and-a-half hours of music, dancing and comedy led by Nuzzo and his assistant Cass Moynihan.

It’s hard to imagine that almost the entire town pitched in to design settings, costumes and auditions.

In that first performance Principal Spencer Moorer sang “They Call the Wind Maria.” Other singers and performers were Celeste Rogers, Terry Handegan, Mary Ester Crook, Colvin Stuart, Chuck Moyer, Angie Kempson, Pat Bilka, Bob Rifkin, Steve Carnie, Nancy Breland, Heidi Moyer, Amanda Fulton, Letty Mocha, Karen Jernigan, Suzanne Sheffield, Ike Eichorn, Julie Floyd, Gigi Floyd Bonnie McLaughlin, Kay Huffines, Randy Pruitt, Audrey Bailey, Danny Dewitt and John Street as pianist, just to name a few.

Judy Foley, David Smalls, Jimmie Sue Starks, Chuck Moyer, Nancy Breland, James Breland, and Susan Shera sang and danced in Variety ’77. Denise Culpepper and Linda Davis performed an aerial ballet, suspended 30 feet above the auditorium.

Variety ’78 was fun, but Variety ’79 topped the previous years. Nuzzo had recently returned from Las Vegas and plunged the entire community into frenzy as they prepared for a Vegas-style show. Soloists and performers were Denise Davis, Randy Pruett, Cathy Downs, James Breland, Sheri Polk, Terry Thompson, Mark Dandridge Nelson Howe, Madelle Elliott, Mary C. Bennett, Elizabeth Duck, Gary Brightwell, Letty Hinson and Jackie Dowdy. Judy Pilch sang “God Bless the Child” and “Bubblin’ Brown Sugar” while Gerald Polk led the Variety orchestra along with Karen Price. Bob Scott and Lester Jordan performed comedy routines for the huge crowd.

In the first few shows, some of the 100 elaborate costumes were sewn and designed by Evelyn Crosby, Judi Smoak and Lucy Owens, while others were borrowed or rented. Stage crews moved elaborate sets quickly, and not a minute was lost as every second was filled with talent.

In later years, Variety entertainers performed “Carousel,” “Music Man” and “Lil Abner,” featuring directors Ed Robbins and Doug Renfroe with actors David Buchanan, Amanda Fulton, Jenny Robbins, Beverly Pournelle, Jo Barry, Janice Kinard, Gary Gallman, Glenn Nixon, Karen Price, Max Whitehurst, Glenn, Davis, Nelson Howe, Donald Davis, Steve Davis and Sue Keith.

The shows were not a literary work of art, but they did give residents something to do, enjoy and look forward to.

Not only were the shows enjoyed by residents, but they were featured in newspapers across the state, on WCSC Channel 5 in Charleston, and filmed by SCETV.

Last week, since the Colleton Arts Council was showing the old reels, David Smalls came to the viewing of Variety ’76 to relive old memories.

“I loved it! I was a teenager then, and I remember that the whole community came out. Everyone was involved! Even people from outside of Colleton County came to see the show that went on for five days. It was incredible,” said Smalls.

Henry Hiott was also there to see the viewing. “I was an audience member back then, too,” he said. “We figured that New York’s Broadway knew about Variety and there was a level of mutual respect,” he said jokingly.

Also there to see the viewing was Matthew Hiott. “I was in the audience for every Variety production. It was great,” said Hiott.

The director of Variety for many years, Ed Robbins, was also present at the March 13 viewing.

“I think this is tremendous. I hope they show all the Variety productions. I started with the show in 1983, and directed Variety from 1984 until 1988. There is not another single entertainment venue or show today as big as Variety was. We used to put between 100 and 120 people on the stage every night. Nothing has touched it since,” said Robbins.

“We would practice for three to four months every year, so it was exhausting. I remember sitting with Tony Nusso after rehearsals until two or three o’clock in the morning, tweaking and revising the show. If we didn’t do it here, we would go to Hiers Grill and eat salads or scrambled eggs and work on details of the show. The production was in addition to my regular job,” Robbins said. “It just got to be too much for me, but for those years, we lived it. A lot of people put a lot of work into it over the years.”

Around 1992, Variety was no more. Whether the town lost interest, folks were fresh out of ideas, or people had no time to devote to the productions, the shows simply stopped after 16 years.

But thanks to the Arts Council’s Variety reels, Colleton residents can enjoy a little nostalgia and remember some of the best times of their lives when they sang, danced and acted, and when the town was famous for something really unique and special.

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