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Historical play, raffle proceeds to honor late Camille Playhouse legend

January 20, 2019

To hear her friends and family tell it, there was no one who loved the Camille Playhouse more than the late Joan McNeil.

Now the theater community is raising funds to honor McNeil, who passed away in 2017, by renovating and naming the lobby for her. The proceeds from three “Billy Bishop Goes to War” performances this week will be used for the project.

“She was the face of the Camille,” Robin Pierce, chair of the fundraising committee for Joan’s Lounge, said of McNeil.

Father-son duo David and Brock Hughston will perform the two-man play, which is based on the recollections of Canadian WWI hero and flying ace Billy Bishop. David Hughston said the show is funny, sentimental, sad, edgy and filled with emotion. It includes 10 songs and has a two-hour run time, which includes a 15-minute intermission.

“I wanted to have a part in whatever dedication the playhouse wanted to have for her,” he said of Joan McNeil, whom he said was among his best friends at the theater. “We’re having a ball, we really are.”

David Hughston said McNeil was a dynamic personality, whether she was selling ads for a program book or doing anything else the playhouse needed. She even made an impression on his young daughter back when she performed at a dance recital where McNeil sang between performances.

“(My daughter) said, ‘Daddy, she’s so dramatic,’” he recalled. “She was so that, and just a lovely person. We miss her a lot.”

WOMAN OF THE HOUR

The board members envision an Art Deco makeover for the lobby, which they said McNeil would have loved. The plan is to invoke 1940s style with a little bit of gold and glamour - just like McNeil did.

“She loved a party, and we thought it would be fitting,” Lisa Esteve, a Camille Playhouse board member and fundraising committee member, said. She pulled up a photo on her phone of McNeil, smiling and bedecked in a glittering black blouse accented with a double-strand of pearls.

McNeil was an actress, director, volunteer, board member and founding member of the Brownsville Players in 1963. The group started by performing in a cotton warehouse, Esteve said, and had a permanent home when the playhouse opened in 1965.

“She was over-the-top. She had a booming voice and could take control of an audience,” Susan Cowen, a fundraising committee member, said of McNeil. McNeil also gave her time to the Guadalupe Middle School and Pan American Round Table, she added.

Judy Coyne, a committee member, said McNeil expertly planned events down to the placement of the chairs in a room.

“She loved to design the events,” Coyne said. “When I’d have an idea, she was supportive and threw in ideas of how it could come to life. She loved what she was doing, and it just exuded.”

Pierce said McNeil recruited many of the current Camille Playhouse board members to serve. In addition to tickets to the performance, they are selling $20 raffle tickets for high-end prizes. Pierce’s dream would be to raise $25,000 for the renovations.

“She had been sick for a long time, and this was a home away from home for her,” Pierce said.

Jim McNeil said he is excited the Camille Playhouse board members are making plans to pay tribute to his late wife.

“I’m thrilled they’re going to do it,” he said, noting that the playhouse and the DeStefano Room are named for other notable figures in the theater’s history. “For her to be honored with the same level as Camille (Lightner) and Henri DeStefano, I think that’s absolutely phenomenal.”

Joan McNeil so loved the theater that, as her illness progressed, she attended board meetings with her oxygen machine. When she needed larger oxygen machines, Jim McNeil said, the board held meetings in their living room so Joan could be there.

The theater community held a memorial service at the Camille Playhouse when Joan passed away, Jim McNeil said, and stood up when he asked them to give her one last standing ovation.

“She was highly respected and highly loved. They really went all out when they did the memorial for her at the theater,” he said. “She was marvelous.”

Performances of “Billy Bishop Goes to War” will take place 7 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Camille Playhouse. Tickets will be available for $20 at the box office or online at camilleplayhouse.net.

Raffle tickets are available from any board member and at the Camille Playhouse. Prizes include a fishing trip, 43-inch smart TV and a ride in an authentic WWII aircraft.

nadia@brownsvilleherald.com

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