NORTH PLATTE — Even 78 years after its Christmas 1941 birth, North Platte’s World War II Canteen can unexpectedly leave indelible marks on people’s hearts.
That’s the best way to explain what west central Nebraskans will see at 4 p.m. Jan. 12, when Minden High School presents its Class B runner-up one-act play “The Coffee Pot Is On” at North Platte’s Fox Theatre.
Minden High counselor and speech and drama director Jeffrey Horner — who traces his inspiration to a June 2014 visit to North Platte — wrote the 30-minute show he’ll present in association with the North Platte Community Playhouse.
Admission will be free, but donations will be taken and split equally between Horner’s program and the Playhouse’s “Cheers to 90 Years” remodeling fund drive.
Playhouse board member Tyler Cronin said he pushed to bring Horner’s Canteen show to North Platte after driving to Norfolk to watch it during the Dec. 13 state one-act play contest.
“When I saw it, I was so proud to be from North Platte and proud to be a Nebraskan,” said Cronin, who is Hershey High School’s drama director.
“I think it’s hard to do a show on something you have no experience with. And these kids nailed it.”
Horner, a counselor at Minden High since 1998 and its one-act director since 2013, grew up in Scotia but has no personal North Platte ties.
He knew nothing about the Canteen, either, until he visited North Platte on a bus tour of western Nebraska higher education institutions organized by the Great Plains Association for College Admission Counseling.
As the bus neared North Platte Community College, tour leaders “showed us a documentary video of the soldiers who had been there” to visit the Canteen,” Horner said. “It brought me to tears watching it.”
He lingered in the bus to finish the video after it stopped at NPCC’S South Campus. When he looked out the window, he saw the tour’s hosts dressed in 1940s clothes, holding out lunches.
“They had sandwiches and fruit and everything, much like the soldiers had received,” Horner said. “They wanted us to feel what the soldiers experienced.
“After that, I was like, ‘This story is incredible.’ ... I never got done thinking about it.”
Horner wrote Minden’s one-act entry himself for the school’s 2018 contest season. For the just-concluded 2019 season, he did so again — about the Canteen.
“I thought: This is a story we have to tell,” he said.
He’s in good company.
Horner said he’s visited with Karol Bankson, one-act director at High Plains Community School in Polk, who produced her self-written show “Put the Coffee On” for the second time this fall.
The Lumiere Players community theater group of Tualatin, Oregon, presented its original show “The North Platte Canteen” in May 2007 at North Platte’s Quality Inn and Suites (now Ramada by Wyndham).
For his own show, Horner scoured the internet for Canteen stories and documentaries. Jeremiah Holmes, his assistant one-act coach, borrowed The Telegraph’s 2019 book “Canteen: As It Happened” off his mother’s coffee table in north central Nebraska.
Most of the play’s named characters and many of their lines are drawn from Canteen volunteers and customers’ first-person accounts in national columnist Bob Greene’s 2002 book “Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen.”
Fox playgoers will see younger and older versions of Canteen founder Rae Wilson Sleight, played respectively by Peyton Schoone and Hannah Boehler, and her brother, Capt. (later Col.) Denver Wilson, portrayed by Markus Ramsey.
They’ll meet William “Woody” Butrick (Jakoby Loibl) and his wife, Vera (Winters) Butrick of Tryon (Maylee Kamery), whose relationship began by letter when Woody found Vera’s name and address in a popcorn ball Army buddy Virgil Butolph got at the Canteen. (Butolph and Vera’s sister, Ethel, later did likewise and married before war’s end.)
And they’ll experience the heartbreak of widowed Canteen volunteer Elaine Wright (Anais Sowles) as she learns of the death of her son, Staff Sgt. George E. Wright. The 1940 North Platte High School graduate was killed when his plane was shot down over Nazi-occupied France on Oct. 21, 1942.
Horner said the 30-minute limit for one-act contests meant he couldn’t present other major Canteen figures like Gene Slattery, who raised $2,000 to help keep it going by selling toys, pets and (repeatedly) the shirt off his own back starting at age 9.
But he said “The Coffee Pot Is On” — taken from the code words saying another troop train was on its way — does its best to present the Canteen’s origins and the experiences of its thousands of volunteers and 6 million service visitors from 1941 to 1946.
When a present-day reporter (William Werner) tells an older Woody and Vera Butrick that he doesn’t understand “how 10 minutes could be that big a deal,” Horner said, “William says, ‘Let me tell you how big a deal it was.’”
It was a big deal for Horner’s one-act team, too. After winning its own contest Nov. 23 in Minden, “The Coffee Pot Is On” finished second to Gothenburg in the Southwest Conference contest but beat the Swedes at districts.
Minden’s home contest also drew a real-life Canteen volunteer in Marcie Schmidt, who lives in Minden but grew up at Maxwell. She also had brothers in the service who were Canteen customers.
“They did pretty good. It gave people an understanding of what happened there,” Schmidt told the Minden Courier.
Omaha Concordia’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” edged out Minden at state, Horner said, though one of the three Class B judges ranked Minden first.
Cronin, the Playhouse board member, said his organization will feed Horner, Holmes and their 35 actors and 15 stage crew members after their performance. A public reception is also likely.
Though Minden’s Canteen show performance is free, a block of seats in the Fox will be reserved for the high school troupe’s families, he said.