One, two, three . . . once upon a time, a showman came to a hamlet in Tennessee with a dream in his head and a love of children in his heart. Henry A. McDaniel, Jr. came to Freed-Hardeman College in 1969 to establish a theatre program. He brought with him an idea he had picked up at Florida State University. He would form a troupe of actors who would entertain children of all ages with songs, poems and stories. They would create magic without the aid of sets or props. With only their imagination and the cooperation of their audience, they would cast a spell on young and old and everyone in between.
That group, Freed-Hardeman University’s Pied Pipers, Company II, celebrated its 50th anniversary with a reunion of former Pipers during the 2019 FHU Homecoming. The date also marked a revival of the Pied Pipers at FHU.
For 26 years under "Uncle Hank’s" direction, the improvisational theatre troupe delighted audiences. The group celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1993. That was the last time they met with McDaniel, who died two years later. The group continued for another 15 years under other directors, but went on a 10-year hiatus in 2010.
Dr. Chris Creecy, assistant professor of psychology and one of the reunion coordinators, said he began planning the reunion and found himself reviving an experience that had been significant to him. “This group has meant so much to so many and has been so important to the mission of Freed-Hardeman,” he said. “I feel like this is the right time to bring Pied Pipers back to the FHU campus.”
Based on comments posted on Facebook, Creecy did not overestimate the impact being a Piper had on participants.
Kell Christie Gary (1986-90), daughter of Hank and Joy McDaniel, grew up with the Pipers. “I have made theatre my constant study and practice,” she said, “and just about everything I know I first learned by watching Pipers, and then by being one myself. I learned empathy, improvisation, connection and how to lay down the building blocks of any story. I learned how to stand where I could be seen, how to make informative pictures onstage, and how to corral large groups of people. I learned how to make theatre with no props, lights, sound, scenery or special costumes. I learned how to land a joke, still an audience and draw even the shyest of audience members out of themselves.”
Currently, Gary chairs the fine arts department at Houston High School and is a freelance actor and director. She added, “I also learned that telling a story to a group of people is the deepest of honors and the highest of privileges.”
Wendy Czerwonka (1989-93) recalls the 1982-83 troupe as having a major impact on her life. "This is the troupe that made me want to be a Piper. This sealed the deal that I would be attending FHU, and I was in 6th grade," she said. Czerwonka not only became a Piper, she also directed FHU’s Pipers and then started four troupes at four different high schools. She called them Companies 8, 9, 10 and 11 based on her estimation of how many there were at the time. Company 1 was at Florida State, where “Uncle Hank” had learned about it.
Gary formed a Troupe at Bolton High School and an inclusive theatre troupe at Houston High School with her advanced acting students and the special needs education department. “It’s Pipers in all but name,” she said.
Other groups, sometimes with different names, have been formed at other schools, including Harding University, Ohio Valley University, Crowley’s Ridge Academy and other places. Although unsure of the exact count, Creecy said, “I think it is safe to say that the arms of the group are far reaching 50 years after its creation at FHU.”
Pied Pipers, Company II returned to FHU this fall under the direction of Creecy, a Piper from 1992-96, and Carole Cosbey, enrollment assistant and a Piper from 1994-98.
Members of this year’s edition of the Pied Pipers are: Bryson Boggess, Andalusia, Alabama; Brianna Crosby, Valdosta, Georgia; Natalie Estes, Germantown, Tennessee; Matthew Kelley, Newberry, Florida; Emily Means, Bentonville, Arkansas; Chase Milam, Bartlett, Tennessee; and Emily Sowell, Paragould, Arkansas.
Boggess and Estes are second generation Pipers. Their mothers, Karen Barlow Boggess and Nicole Iverson Estes, were Pipers in the early 90s.
The 2019-20 edition of the Pipers will continue in the tradition of the former group, but also will add some new stories and songs. In addition to the homecoming show, the troupe will present a chapel program Nov. 21, which would have been McDaniel’s 79th birthday. They also plan to participate in Henderson’s Christmas parade Dec. 5. They hope to begin performing in schools during the spring semester.
Three, two, one . . . this story’s not yet done.