Meet the adult volunteers behind Central Junior High's famous musicals

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

For more than 20 years, Mike Dumey has been known for spearheading awesome student musicals in Cape Girardeau. But the stage choir teacher at Central Junior High School says none of that would be possible without the help of his adult volunteers. Some of them -- including Pat Renard, Mimi Higgins and Dumey's father, Ralph -- have been there from the beginning, when Dumey started out at Schultz School.

"They like to watch their work in action, but they really do it because they love the kids," he says.

TBY interviewed three longtime volunteers about their skills, their ideas and what it's like to work with a stage full of preteens.

Volunteers, stand up and take a bow. Readers, please hold your applause until the end.

submitted photo

Ralph Dumey -- chief set designer

Mike Dumey's father, Ralph, grew up helping his own father with carpentry projects, then spent his life working as a welder. When Mike called upon his retired father's expertise, Ralph couldn't say no.

"I knew about construction and how things go together," says Ralph, now 84. "A lot of the sets had to be made where you could move them offstage, yet they had to be made to stand up when you need them and so they didn't look like they were leaning over."

Ralph has built everything from backdrops, steps and columns to a 12-foot stage extension to a storage system for the 150 wigs from "Cats." Once Ralph creates the framework for the sets, it's up to the art teachers and stage crew to paint the pieces to look like a lush jungle or magnificent mansion.

"I just do what (Mike) says," says Ralph. "The art teachers do the painting and design. I just make the sets and make them where they stand and where the kids can move them."

Ralph says it's hard to choose a favorite accomplishment, but he was rather proud of his "Beauty and the Beast" set, which involved a number of columns, platforms and steps, plus curtains that opened up to yet another backdrop.

"I enjoy them all. At the time I had just retired, so it gave me something to do and think about," says Ralph. "I just enjoyed helping him put it all together where it looked decent. It all comes together really nice."

Ralph also enjoys seeing how student rehearsals transform into impressive theater performances. He admits that sometimes when he sees the kids practicing he can't help but think, "There's no way it's going to come together," says Ralph. "But practice looks nothing like the show. He could get them to all come together. I really enjoyed it."

Due to health concerns, Ralph says he might not be able to help with this year's production of "Annie" as fully as he has in the past -- but "I'll do what I can," he says.

Mimi Higgins (Laura Simon)

Mimi Higgins -- major props and details

Mimi Higgins is known for creating incredible props and special effects for Dumey's productions. While her oldest son was in seventh grade at Schultz School, Mimi answered a call to help sew costumes for "The Lion King."

"The costumes were really just shifts. They were not intense. We were going to try to put hoods on them to make them look like manes," says Mimi. "I embellished the primary costumes. I do that sort of thing, what can I say?" Pretty soon Rafiki had a red mane, Pumbaa had a set of horns and Timon had a tail rigged with fishing line so it would stand upright and wag -- "just little embellishments," says Mimi. The next year, Mike asked her to make gargoyles for "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Then it was a set of horse costumes, then a Cinderella carriage.

"By this time my two boys had long since been out of seventh and eighth grades," says Mimi. Her boys are now grown men, but Mimi never stopped helping with the student musicals. She's created a Cinderella carriage from an old ultrasound cart, a "Beauty and the Beast" rose that can lose its petals, one by one, at the push of a button, and large, undulating tentacles for Ursula in "The Little Mermaid."

"When Mr. Dumey asks me for something it's his idea; I just go with it. As for how I come about doing it and making it happen? I just pull it out of the air. It just falls into place. Inspiration hits and I think 'Yep, that'll work, that'll work,'" says Mimi. "My mom used to make things all the time when I was growing up, so I suppose that's why I like to make costumes so much. I'm from New Orleans and I remember all the Mardi Gras excitement of what to dress up as each year. It runs in the family, I suppose."

Mimi says she didn't know how to everything when she first started, but she's learned from others and even started volunteering with college productions because she wanted to see how other groups put shows together. She started taking classes and eventually earned degrees in computer science and theater, all the while learning how to make more "major props" for Dumey's shows.

"I'm pretty fond of the carriage, myself, quite frankly," says Mimi. "It looked helpless at one point, but I said I'll sleep on it and something will come. Then the aha moment, the inspiration hit."

Pat Renard (Laura Simon)

Pat Renard -- costumes and organization

Pat Renard grew up in 4-H, where she learned -- and loved -- to sew by age 8. She became a home economics teacher and helped sew costumes for theater productions at the high school. When she transferred to Schultz and heard Mike wanted to do a musical, she offered to help with costumes. That was more than 20 years ago, and Pat has helped faithfully since then, even after retiring from the Cape Girardeau School District 10 years ago.

But Pat does more than sew. She takes measurements for up to 150 young singers and actors; designs and sews costumes for them all, working with a team of 20 volunteer seamstresses; sews numbers into every costume and accessory, then coordinates that number with a child; makes repairs; does the laundry; and stores everything away when the production is over.

"Different plays require different times, but usually in the months of April and May I don't do anything else," says Pat. "It just depends on what the play is and how demanding it is ... and how many moms and grandmas I have to help. We have up to 150 cast members every time, which is above and beyond what most schools attempt to do, but (Mike's) philosophy is to get as many involved as he can, and give them all this opportunity that they may not have again."

The work is worth it for Pat, who says she loves working with the kids and watching them grow. When the school did "The Sound of Music," she recalls, there was one student who had a gorgeous voice but was so terrified of being on stage that he could not sing his part once he got on stage. Pat was told not to worry about making his costume, but she made it anyway.

"Sometimes all it takes is for someone to put on a costume so they feel like they're not themselves anymore, but they're that person," says Pat. "So I did the costume, the kid put it on, he went on stage and sang his part like oh-my-gosh."

And that's why Pat is so committed to this huge task every year, and why she puts so much thought into the costumes, such as Joseph's "amazing technicolor dreamcoat," Pat's all-time favorite creation. It's hard for junior high kids to get on stage and perform in front of their peers, she says, but "once they become that other person on stage, they have the confidence to do things they would never have done before."

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