A little over 30 years ago, Linda Evans attended a community theater production about Greensboro native William Sidney Porter, better known to most of us as beloved short story writer O. Henry.
The play, called “What’s Around the Corner,” was written by local playwright Joe Hoesl. Evans, a historian at Greensboro Historical Museum, decided to contact him about a new endeavor. Though the museum had always commemorated O. Henry’s life and work with a collection of artifacts and archives, Evans thought a similar performance could become a new tradition there.
Hoesl had long been an O. Henry fan and was delighted by the idea. He adapted five short stories for the stage, and “5 by O. Henry” has entertained crowds each year since.
“I’ve been part of this from the beginning, but it really all started with Joe,” Evans says. “He’s the one who pulled it all together and made it happen way back then, and this year marks its 30th anniversary.”
“I’ve done more than 80 of these stories for the stage now,” Hoesl said. “The best thing about O. Henry is that his stories have such great dialogue. It makes it so much more interesting because the characters come alive more than when you’re just reading. And of course, there’s always one of his famous unexpected twists at the end, which takes everybody by surprise.”
O. Henry was born in Greensboro in 1862. An avid reader, he attended Lindsey Street High School and was a clerk at The W.C. Porter and Co. Drug Store on South Elm Street, which was owned by his uncle. He enjoyed sketching the customers and eventually became a pharmacist there before moving to Texas at age 20.
He led a complicated life, writing and drawing while holding a variety of jobs, including bookkeeping for a bank that accused him of embezzlement in 1894. He was later arrested, but before his trial he fled to Honduras, where he wrote his first book, “Cabbages and Kings.” When he returned to Texas to be with his dying wife, he was sentenced to five years in prison but continued submitting stories to magazines. After his release, he moved to New York, where he wrote the majority of his work — nearly 400 stories. An alcoholic, he died in 1910 after a long illness, having published nine other books.
Most of O. Henry’s work is witty, revolving around the lives of ordinary people and ending with an element of surprise. His best known stories include “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Cop and the Anthem,” “The Ransom of Red Chief” and “The Caballero’s Way.”
In the early days of “5 by O. Henry,” Hoesl chose which stories to adapt and juggled other responsibilities to bring them to life.
“When I started out, I directed it, I cast it, I wrote it, I got all the sets together myself, and it was just horrendous,” he said, laughing. “Every year, I said, ‘I’ll never do this again.’ ”
The museum rounded up a crew of experts over the years — people that Evans and Hoesl are both thrilled with — and coordinating the production is easier today.
Each year the selection changes, with the cast performing two songs between stories while sets are changed, accompanied by pianist Michael Greene.
“The best thing is that we’ve got all these people now who love doing this,” Hoesl said. “We have a core of actors, and we keep adding more, and they’re always good. And the singing is crucial. Barbara Britton is such a great artistic director, and she has directed hundreds of shows. Now, I give her 10 stories to choose from and she picks five.”
This year’s playbill features “The Rathskeller and the Rose,” “The Fifth Wheel,” “Conscience in Art,” “Tobin’s Palm” and “The Memento.”
Musical Director Pam Murphy chooses the songs, and Marion Seaman, who teaches at Greensboro College, designs costumes. John Saari, also a professor at Greensboro College, designs sets and lighting.
“He could have any job in the world, he’s always in demand, but he stays here in Greensboro and has done fabulous sets for us for at least 15 years,” Hoesl said.
About half of each audience has never been to the museum before, Hoesl said, adding that the shows are great for families.
“We encourage them; we say you’ve got to come back. For people new to this, I’d tell them, ‘You’ll really enjoy it and have a great time.’”
Evans says the shows are well-received every year, and humor is a large part of their appeal.
“Who doesn’t like to laugh, and believe me, you’re going to laugh if you come,” she says. “You’re going to laugh a lot.”