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August 24, 2004

A look back at the Masonic Auditorium

For the next column or so, let's look back at the days of traveling theatrical groups and others who performed "stage magic" on the creaking boards of the Masonic Auditorium, which soon will be sold at public auction. We're dealing primarily with the Charles Worthan family, who performed here regularly each year when traveling road shows were in vogue.

Eventually modern trends, including gasoline rationing at the onset of World War II, and perhaps a bit of television, caught up with the travelers and the Worthans became tent players, primarily in the Illinois area. Quine and Bonnie died several years ago. Another brother, Kenneth, now also lives here in retirement. Charles and Sadie Worthan came back to Perry to end their careers as custodians at the Noble County fairgrounds. They were all interesting people who willingly shared stories of their adventures with anyone who brought up the subject. Parents of the Brengle brothers were Quine and Letha Brengle. He was a good-natured clerk at the Perry post office for years. When the U.S. entered the fray, Quine was called up as a reserve officer in the famed National Guard Division, the 45th. When he failed a physical; he was mustered out and returned to continue serving at the post office. Quine Sr. and Letha now are deceased. Don Brengle retired from the Air Force after a career with some of the largest U.S. bombers.

The Masonic Auditorium has not existed for many years. The building has been converted to other uses. The stage, where Perry High School groups also performed before acquiring their own auditorium, is gone. The roll-down movie screen was removed years ago, and the ring of balcony seats gave way to other uses in an age when many things were different.

In addition to the Worthans, and similar entertainers, other "road shows and barn stormers" visited Perry from time to time. When Jack Dempsey, the "Manassa Mauler" of boxing, was dethroned as heavyweight boxing champion of the world, he embarked on a tour of small towns, like Perry, and demonstrated his strength and skill on various stages, including our own Masonic Auditorium. As I recall, he stayed at the St. Louis Hotel, "Perry's finest," and some fans waited for his show to end by gathering in friendly groups in the alley behind the Masonic building. When Mr. Dempsey emerged and tried to make his way to the hotel down the alley, several devotees of the ring had him autograph 8x10 photos. The late Frank Ley was one of those fans, and he could tell an amusing story about the incident. Sadly, we just recently lost Frank, also. But those days and times will remain burning brightly for decades to come, no matter what.