90-Year-Old World War II Vet Backstage Hero of Vermont Theater Group

When Burlington, Vermont's renowned Lyric Theatre Company raises the curtain on its production of "Irving Berlin's White Christmas" Thursday evening for a five-show run this weekend, the community theater group will know the show's technical success will be in large part due to the hard work of a backstage volunteer.

"It's going to be a good show," promised Vern Emerson, a retired mechanical engineer who served as the set engineer for "White Christmas."

The 42-year-old group presents its shows at Burlington's Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, and Emerson said he has worked on nearly 60 of the splashy musicals. "Some of the directors have thrown some pretty heavy stuff at me, but they haven't beat me yet," he told necn, chuckling.

Emerson described some of his key responsibilities for a show as doing technical drawings for set construction and working to ensure the large set pieces function as they are supposed to when on the formal stage.

Emerson, 90, is also a World War II veteran who served with the Army in Europe.

"I was in a couple of pretty big battles over there," Emerson remembered. "I was in the Bulge - I made it through that."

Emerson's Lyric friends noted his biography likely means he has a special connection to the story told in the wildly popular 1954 movie musical "White Christmas," which starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney.

That classic film is about World War II vets who become entertainers, traveling to a lodge in the fictional town of Pine Tree, Vermont, that desperately needs holiday snow.

Lyric's executive director, Syndi Zook, said the stage version expands on that famous film.

"This is the like the movie, 'plus!'" Zook explained. "It's all the wonderful characters from the movie that you love, but they're doing more. More songs, more dances--and, it snows!"

The Vermont setting of "White Christmas" has helped make tickets to the Lyric performances some of the group's fastest-selling ever, Zook said.

"I think every line that has a Vermont reference is going to get much more of a reaction than it would get in say, Peoria," predicted Lyric actor Paul Ugalde. "I think it's going to get a huge reaction!"

Backstage, Vern Emerson was promising a good show. "They can't help but love it," he said of the audience, smiling. “It’s great singing, great dancing, just a lot of fun.”

The 90-year-old said he is already looking forward to his next Lyric Theatre assignment. In 2016, the group is planning to present “Mary Poppins” and “The Who’s Tommy,” Zook said.

"I've got another 10 years yet before I slow down," Emerson said, vowing to keep volunteering with the community group for as long as he can.

Performances of "White Christmas" run at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Burlington, Vermont through this Sunday, November 15. Zook said tickets are very close to selling out, but limited passes are available.

Zook said World War Two veterans can get a free ticket to the Saturday matinee performance at the Flynn, thanks to a gift from one of Lyric's sponsors.

For free ticket information for World War II vets, call the Lyric Theatre office on Friday November 13 between 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. That number is (802) 658-1484.

For more information on the Lyric Theatre Company, visit the group's website.

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