We are delighted to welcome Lauren Wohl to Story Snug. Lauren is the author of Extravaganza at the Plaza, illustrated by Mark Tuchman, and she has written a fascinating post about the inspiration behind this story and the other books in her Raccoon River trilogy.
Extravaganza At The Plaza: Hannah, and her friends from Raccoon River, want to save the town’s old abandoned Plaza Theatre. Inside it’s spooky, full of spider webs, creaky floors and one stage curtain. But can Hannah and her friends gain the support of their community and save the Plaza Theater?
They can’t fix broken plumbing, sew curtains or mend holes in the roof, but they can raise money. Hannah aims to raise $2,500.00 but with only three weeks to go before opening night, it doesn’t look like they’re going to reach their goal. Will they be able to find a solution? Can the theatre be restored to its former glory?
Extravaganza At The Plaza is a story of determination and hard work, cooperation and luck and it shows how children in a small town can make a real difference in their community.
We enjoyed reading about Hannah and her friends’ Plaza project and Lauren’s story about the real life events that inspired the story is really interesting.
Writers take their inspiration wherever (and whenever!) it comes. For me, the source most often is the real world – my own experiences and those of others I observe. They can be commonplace or unexpected, but they have to stick with me so that I wonder about them; ask and answer my own questions about them; and make up stories about them.
In summers I live in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, in a small town that is close to the county’s largest city. In recent years there have been several major projects there, and one took hold of me: the restoration of a grand old theater that had fallen into disrepair.
Pittsfield’s Colonial Theater was built in 1903. An old vaudeville theater and center of activity, celebrities appeared there regularly – from George M. Cohan and John Barrymore, to Sarah Bernhardt and the Ziegfeld Follies. Theodore Roosevelt famously came to give a speech there, fell out of his carriage as he was disembarking, and broke his arm.
After those glory days, the Colonial became a local entertainment center and later a movie theater. The movie theater closed down in the early 1950s. Who knows what might have happened to it at that point if not for local business owners, the Miller family, who moved their art supplies shop into the front of the building, protecting the rest of it from demolition and the rapid decline from which unoccupied buildings suffer.
Talk of restoring the Colonial began in the late 1990s, amplified by the local newspaper and politicians eager to see signs of growth and modernization in the community. A corner was turned in 1998 when First Lady of the United States Hillary Clinton visited and named the Colonial a National Treasure.
During the restoration, a store-front opened a couple of blocks away, allowing citizens to follow the progress, see photos of the old theater and renderings of what it would look like after the renovations. The newspaper ran regular coverage. Everyone was invested, in one way or another, and in 2006 a very elegant Colonial Theater reopened.
It was a point of pride for the citizens of Pittsfield and all the nearby towns. We were committed to its success. And programming made that easy, with favorite sons and daughters who were now entertainers and well-known stars, returning home for performances. There were many evenings of family entertainment – a high-value in the Berkshires – as well as shows designed to attract various special interest groups. The Colonial also became the home of one of the county’s most prestigious summer-stock theaters.
It was a grand success by all measures.
If you’ve read the second book in my Raccoon River Kids trilogy of chapter books, — Extravaganza at the Plaza — you’ll make the connection. Hannah, the main character in that novel notices the old, crumbling Plaza Theater on Main Street and decides it just has to be restored. She understands that children can’t do much of the needed work, but she knows what they can do: raise awareness of her “dream” project, convince their neighbors that this is something well-worth doing, and even raise some money.
Despite a few set-backs and disappointments Hannah perseveres, and by hook and by crook, with lots of help from her friends and a stroke of luck, they come through. The renovated Plaza is a grand success by all measures.
The stories for the other novels in the trilogy also came out of actual events. Blueberry Bonanza was inspired by a conversation I overheard (writers are nosy) when we were picking blueberries. The youngest fellow was listing all the delicious blueberry dishes they would be able to enjoy through the rest of the year with the loads of berries in their baskets. “Maybe I can sell some,” he wondered aloud. “And buy some books for the library.” Aha – inspiration.
Zooapalooza in the Park comes closer to home. As a young girl, I wanted a dog. More than anything. My parents appeased me with goldfish. Goldfish?! Next with a parakeet. Better, but no cigar. Then I saw a dog sniffing around our garage. I figured it was a stray, so I took it in and settled it in our basement. Unlike Spunky, the little dog my character Lili finds, “my” dog was a barker. It didn’t take long for my mother to find her. I told Mom the dog was lost. “This dog is not lost,” my mother responded. “It belongs to a family around the corner. They’ve hung signs on every tree in the neighborhood.”
“Oh,” was my only response. We brought the dog right back to her family.
That true episode needed a lot of finagling to work as the plot for Zooapalooza in the Park, but it was the inspiration.
And what’s next? A young of friend just told me that she was having a hard time learning to play the piano. What’s worse was that she didn’t like it. But what could she do? She didn’t want to disappoint her whole family. There’s a story there, don’t you think?
Thank you Lauren. It’s always really interesting to hear where authors get their inspiration. It’s great to see how much determination and effort Hannah and her friends put in to achieve their dream.
Lauren L. Wohl has had a long career in children’s book publishing. She has a degree in Library Science and has been an elementary school librarian. She served as Director of James Patterson’s ReadKiddoRead program, taught writing at the college level, and now consults with several publishers and literary agencies. Stories she’s been reading in newspapers and seeing on television news programs about children stepping up to make kind, generous, and important contributions to their communities inspired her chapter books about the Raccoon River Kids: Blueberry Bonanza and now Extravaganza at the Plaza. She is also the author of a picture book, A Teeny Tiny Halloween, illustrated by Henry Cole.
A native New Yorker, Lauren enjoys life in her new hometowns of Lenox, Massachusetts and Miami Beach, Florida.
Thank you to Cornell Lab Publishing for sending us an ebook of the story.
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