After five decades in the performing arts, the director of Fort Gordon’s entertainment program directs his last show on the dinner theatre stage
The walls of Steve Walpert’s office at the Fort Gordon Dinner Theatre tell their own story. Covered with playbills, newspaper articles, photographs, show posters and awards, they speak of a rich career in the arts spanning five decades.
And as the curtain opens on “The Drowsy Chaperone” on Friday, March 4, it signals the closing of one big chapter of Walpert’s life.
While Walpert officially retired as the director of Fort Gordon’s entertainment program on December 31, he is working as a temporary employee for the next few months, and “The Drowsy Chaperone” will be the last show he directs on the dinner theatre stage.
“As I get closer to retirement, a lot of people have said some very nice things about what I’ve done in my career. But I never forget that those things all stem from the opportunity I was given as a young soldier back in 1970,” he says.
Theater and the Military
Walpert’s love of theater was sparked at the age of 8 when he was cast as a witch in his school’s Halloween radio production. During his school years, he explored theater as well as music and sports. The son of a World War II Army special services big band director, Walpert always dreamed of a career that would marry his love for theater and the military.
In 1970, while the young second lieutenant was stationed at Fort Gordon, he stumbled upon a rehearsal at the Fort Gordon Performing Arts Center. There he met his mentor, Claude Astin, who founded Fort Gordon’s music and theater program, and Walpert realized that his dream could come true.
“Astin was a brilliant man,” says Walpert. “He was very knowledgeable and very talented.
Walpert didn’t stay at Fort Gordon long during his first stint. The Army sent him to the Southeast Asia Pictorial Center, where he directed a few films. Once he got out of the Army, he worked with his father in California for a couple of years producing events with entertainers at resort venues.
He returned to Fort Gordon in the late 1970s.
Walpert says there have been numerous highlights to his career including moving into the current dinner theater facility in August 1991 with the production of “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
“The building we’d been in was condemned,” he says. “It was a World War II-era building, and we had to find another building.”
The current performing arts center is a former movie theater, which was underutilized at the time. He promised he could pack the house, and he did.
Matchmaker and Mentor
Greg Goodwin remembers that first production in the new theater well.
“It brought Judith (his wife) and I together. . . . She was my first stage kiss,” says Goodwin, who played Huck Finn in “Big River” and is playing the part of Underling in “The Drowsy Chaperone.” He considers it an honor to be part of Walpert’s first and last shows in the current building.
Over the years, Goodwin, who managed the Imperial Theatre from the late 1990s into the early 2000s, has appeared in numerous shows at Fort Gordon and with other theater groups such as the Augusta Players.
“Steve is so well-respected by people. I love working with him. It’s wonderful to see how he molds young talent,” he says
Walpert’s wife, Betty, calls her husband one of her mentors. She is the award-winning drama instructor at John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School, but she met her husband more than 30 years ago while working at dinner theater.
She was a stage manager, and he was a director.
“Watching him was better than any advanced directing class,” she says.
He knows how to place a character on stage and help with the development of that character. Also, he has a knack for movement, especially physical comedy, and has a clear vision for each of the plays he directs.
“He’s been great. He’s come in several times (at Davidson) when I’ve had trouble with a scene,” his wife says.
Asset to the Community
Davidson isn’t the only place outside Fort Gordon’s gates where Walpert has been involved in the arts. He’s a past president and board member of the Greater Augusta Arts Council and a founder of Arts in the Heart of Augusta. He served on the executive committee of Leadership Augusta and helped found Youth Leadership Augusta. He has produced several plays tied to Augusta’s history including directing “Coming to the River,” a play written in honor of the city’s 250th birthday in 1992.
“He’s an extraordinary asset to Augusta. He’s had such a role in developing different programs and supporting new arts ventures,” says Barbara Feldman, executive director of Storyland Theatre. “I can’t imagine Augusta without Steve doing Fort Gordon Dinner Theatre.”
Feldman has worked with Walpert in a variety of ways. She and her husband, Jack, have appeared in numerous dinner theater shows including “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “1776.” And Walpert appeared in Storyland’s production of “The Frog Prince” a few years ago.
Walpert’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. He and the program he’s built at Fort Gordon have received numerous awards at the highest levels of Army entertainment.
Among the awards he’s received include the Irving Berlin Award for Programming Excellence and Best Army Entertainment Program Award in 2005, the American Association of Community Theatre’s David C. Bryant Outstanding Service Award for distinguished and lasting achievement in the field of community theatre in 2006, James T. Martin Award for Individual Excellence from the Army Entertainment Division in 2002 and the Greater Augusta Arts Council Arts Professional of the Year in 2006.
For Walpert, however, it’s not the awards that have made the most impact. It’s the relationships he’s made and the people he’s met along the way who have supported him and the entertainment program.
“I love the work I do. I love working with actors and soldiers,” he says.
Many times, people will come to him years after the fact and tell him their small part in a show decades before gave them a confidence boost or opened a door into a world they’d never experienced.
As he steps down, he looks forward the tradition of Army entertainment growing.
The Army program dates back to the 1950s, ”when a very determined lady named Margaret ‘Skippy’ Lynn convinced Army leadership that the performing arts could be a vital quality of life and self-development part of the Army Recreation Program,” says Walpert. “And it’s been that way right up until now. I hope that an enlightened Army leadership will continue to recognize the importance of this program and that it will move forward, enhancing the lives of the military and civilian community for a very long time.”
Walpert may not be directing plays at Fort Gordon Dinner Theatre after March, but he doesn’t plan to leave the arts world entirely. For now, though, he’s keeping those projects under wraps until he can work out the details. We can hardly wait to see what’s next.
By Charmain Zimmerman Brackett