RANDY: Just after 5:00pm on Sunday afternoon, May 22, 2011, the actors and crew of Stained Glass Theatre Joplin—formed in 1998 as an offshoot of the Stained Glass Theatre here in the Springfield/Ozark area—was just finishing their last performance of the play “I Remember Mama.” The cast was taking their curtain calls and final bows. Mary McWethy and her husband were working the show: she was in the cast, he was on the crew.
MARY McWETHY: It was our last performance... we were all kind of sad to see it end. But that’s when the tornado sirens went off, is when we were doing our curtain calls.
RANDY: As their performance space, Stained Glass Theatre had been leasing a building on 26th Street owned by, and adjacent to, Mercy Hospital Joplin.
MARY: Wendy Estes—she was killed in the tornado—our director, she told everybody, “This is a pretty sound building and it’s been through a lot of storms, and you’re welcome to stay here.” Thankfully, most of the people left—there were a few patrons that were still there. And within probably 15 minutes or so—
TAMMY AGGUS (in background): Half an hour.
MARY: Half an hour maybe—
TAMMY: The sirens went off twice....
MARY: It went off again... and that’s when we could hear (the tornado) coming, and everybody ran towards the basement. And we didn’t all make it to the basement—the doors were sucked shut with the vacuum from the tornado. And there were several left I the stairwell, and there were several still up on the main stage.
RANDY: Mary was one of those trapped in the stairwell—her husband was on the stage with a flashlight, trying to guide people toward the basement because the lights were out. Mere seconds before the roof tore off the building, he jumped off the stage. Both Mary and her husband survived, but they were seriously injured that evening.
MARY: His neck was broken in two places, it crushed his shoulder. And I was crushed between the stairwell... we spent a week in the hospital.
RANDY: Three people lost their lives. There were a total of 56 people in the building at the time the tornado hit.
TAMMY AGGUS: And I was upstairs—I was, like, right in front of the stage when it hit.
RANDY: Tammy Aggus was going to direct the next show that summer, and she was there that night to help strike the “I Remember Mama” set. Like a number of other people that night, she was lucky.
TAMMY: I didn’t get severely hurt—I had bumps and bruises, some really deep bruises. But I was right next to Malachi Murdoch, who was very seriously injured. I’d known him his whole life, and didn’t recognize him when it was over.
RANDY: David Cheek joined the Stained Glass Theatre Board of Directors two weeks before the May 22nd
tornado. He wasn’t there that night...
DAVID CHEEK: ...but my son was there—he was in the production. As a matter of fact, Tammy was holding onto his leg, I think. (chuckles)
TAMMY: Yeah, when the eye of the tornado went over, I had my eye open for just a second. And I saw his leg and I grabbed hold of it—so he always teases me that he had a hand-shaped bruise on his leg and wondered where it came from! (laughter)
DAVID: So, but... I had the experience of coming into the situation almost immediately afterwards, and seeing it, and just being devastated by what I saw.
RANDY: Was there any talk of NOT carrying on and continuing on with the business of running this company?
DAVID: Very, very little talk of not continuing on. The immediate talk was, “We’ve got to do something.” And we started looking for venues.
RANDY: Remarkably, they only missed one show that season, the summer production. They were back with another show in September.
DAVID: And we’ve done productions on a regular basis ever since. We’ve traveled from to there to everywhere! (laughter)
RANDY: Their nomadic wandering throughout the Joplin metro area has continued to the present day—but that’s going to change within the next year. David Cheek says the Stained Glass board decided they needed a permanent production facility... in fact, we were conducting this interview a few weeks ago in the company’s new theater—a 1920s-era church building at the corner of 21st and Annie Baxter Avenue in Joplin. No doubt you’ve heard occasional noises and talking by the construction workers in the background.
DAVID: This building was available—Tammy’s husband happens to be a real estate agent, and he had the listing, and it’s moved from there.
RANDY: So you’re purchasing this—the company is purchasing it.
DAVID: We have bought this. This is the first time that, as Stained Glass Joplin, we’ve actually owned our own property. That’s exciting.
RANDY: They signed the paperwork last October and have been working on renovation and fundraising since then—all while continuing to produce their season of live theater in various churches, schools and other venues around the Joplin area. They were just about to open a production of “Beatrix Potter” at Fir Road Christian Church in Carl Junction as I was conducting this interview. They had just received the building permit the week before I visited with them, and they were installing donated theater seats; the box office was being framed in, as well as restrooms. And this church building boasts a full basement. They’ll need between $250,000 and $500,000 to complete the project the way they want it, says David Cheek.
DAVID: We have received a $75,000 grant from the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, and then there’s a $50,000 matching grant.
RANDY: Well, it certainly looks like work is progressing pretty well so far.
DAVID: It’s making movement—that’s the exciting thing. (Laughter) We’re seeing progress!
RANDY: David Cheek, Mary McWethy, and Tammy Aggus of Stained Glass Theatre Joplin. You can find out more about this faith-based theater company at www.sgtjoplin.org. I’m Randy Stewart.