When Michael Gallagher and Debbie Zehner used to portray Hansel and Gretel — as adult actors looking silly in yellow lederhosen and an Alpine frock on the Music Box Dinner Playhouse stage — the script called for Gretel to slap the hysterical Hansel.
“He used to say, ‘Debbie doesn’t stage-slap; she really slaps,’” Zehner recalled with a laugh.
In order to get back at his cast mate, Gallagher once quietly slipped a handful of white mints into his mouth just before Zehner was to hit him.
“The Tic Tacs flew across the stage. I thought I knocked his teeth out,” she said. “He said, ‘That’s for all the slaps.’”
That’s just one of the Gallagher stories people have been sharing in recent weeks as they planned and celebrated a retirement party for their friend, who has officially retired after 36 years at Music Box.
They even managed to keep the party, held last Saturday at the Swoyersville theater, a secret until they lured him there via pretext and greeted him with applause.
“I was pretty much surprised,” Gallagher, 67, of Wilkes-Barre, admitted later. “And very deeply appreciative.”
But while Gallagher has moved from a position as full-time artistic director of the playhouse to a role as artistic director emeritus, he’s still pitching in to help with shows.
In fact, when a reporter called him on Tuesday afternoon, Gallagher was at a fabric store buying material for the backdrop for an upcoming production of “Bye, Bye, Birdie.”
“He officially retired at the end of June,” Music Box President Kim Rose said. “But he’s at the theater more now than he was before.”
OK, but maybe he’s taking things a little easier now.
“He would work 80 hours a week,” said Zehner, who often directed shows for which Gallagher designed the set. “He truly put his heart and soul and life into the theater. He’s done some gorgeous things, and even when it looked like it would be impossible to put something on that small stage, he’s been able to make it work.”
“He does beautiful sets for huge shows on a tiny, tiny stage,” said another friend, Joe Sheridan, of Kingston. “He makes it look spacious and grand and opulent despite the size limitations. That’s his true genius.”
“It becomes a matter of necessity,” Gallagher said of that skill. “You do everything your little brain can do.”
Gallagher said he learned about set design from the late designer Klaus Holm from 1968 to 1972, when he was a student at then-Wilkes College, where he majored in education and minored in theater.
Then he “learned by doing” as he established a theater program and taught school in Pennsburg, honed his skills at the Colorado Springs Opera Festival and, back in Northeastern Pennsylvania, designed sets for Scranton Public Theater, Theater Under the Tent on Montage Mountain, and the Masonic Temple.
Gallagher designed a set for a Scranton production of “The Odd Couple,” which starred the late actor and playwright Jason Miller, and he also designed a set for local productions of Miller’s plays “That Championship Season” and “Nobody Hears a Broken Drum.”
“That was a great deal of fun,” Gallagher said. “He (Miller) was very, very nice to me.”
Gallagher has also enjoyed the Music Box, where he started working when it was established in 1981.
“When Kelly and Doc Bishop started the theater, they wanted to get the best set designer,” Zehner said. “They did.”
“He could have been a big fish in a bigger pond,” Rose said. “But he chose to stay here and help nurture local talent.”
In addition to designing sets, Gallagher said, he’s enjoyed the chance to perform roles ranging from eligible bachelor Horace Vandergelder in “Hello, Dolly!” to Herbie the manager in “Gypsy.”
“There were times I’d work all day building a set, leave for supper and come back for rehearsal. It was a fun thing to do and very fulfilling.”
Of course, things didn’t always go smoothly.
Sheridan remembers a moment in the musical “1776” when Gallagher was delivering one of John Adams’ dramatic speeches. It may have been the part where Adams complains about all the editing other members of Congress want to do to the Declaration of Independence and says, “We have endured, by my count, more than 85 separate changes and the removal of close to 400 words. Now would you whip it and beat it ...
Sitting on the stage in his role as another Founding Father, Sheridan watched helplessly as Gallagher went blank and repeated the part about whipping and beating. And beating and whipping. Again and again.
“He must have said it about 15 times,” Sheridan said.
“I don’t know how I got myself out of that loop, but eventually I did,” Gallagher said, laughing at the memory.
On another occasion, the last verse of a song escaped him, but Gallagher didn’t panic. He simply improvised new lines, right there on stage. He even made them rhyme.
Singers in the ensemble had to listen very closely, Sheridan added with a chuckle, because they were supposed to echo what Gallagher sang.
As for the future, Gallagher expects to continue pitching in at Music Box, and perhaps auditioning for likely roles there or at other theaters.
“I just appeared as FDR in ‘Annie’ at Theatre at the Grove in Nuangola,” he said. “That was something I’d never done before, and I enjoyed it very much.”