From Broadway to Main Street: Smithfield Little Theatre celebrates 60 years

Published 4:49 pm Monday, August 29, 2022

In 1962, roughly 18 months after Smithfield’s only movie theater shuttered, a group of townspeople set out to fill the entertainment void by performing a murder mystery play in the old Smithfield High School on James Street, now the town’s library.

The play, titled “The Cat and The Canary,” opened on Aug. 17 of that year – marking the beginning of what is today known as the Smithfield Little Theatre.

The SLT celebrated its 60th birthday by performing a Broadway variety show for the Downtown Smithfield Summer Concert Series on Aug. 26, dedicating the performance to the sole surviving member of the 1962 cast: June Hurst.

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Gary Parsons, who acted in Hurst’s 1997 production of the musical “Gold Dust,” remembers Hurst’s passion for theater well.

“She was kind of a tough director,” said Parsons, who’s been a member of SLT since 1989. “She knew what she wanted the characters to be like.”

Hurst, he recalls, often worked in tandem with her late husband, Jim, who served as the theater’s set designer for many years. Jim died in 2005, but theater-goers can still hear a recording of his voice ahead of every production telling the audience to enjoy the show.

June directed 17 shows for SLT from 1967 to 2001, operating out of a repurposed cotton gin, the sole building on Commerce Street to survive Smithfield’s 1921 fire.

“She ruled the stage with an iron fist,” Parsons said, but “was also good enough to listen to the actors’ ideas.”

Jim Hurst, Parsons recalls, was instrumental in overseeing the construction of the theater’s current home adjacent to The Smithfield Center on North Church Street. In 1999, while Parsons was serving on SLT’s board of directors, Smithfield Foods’ then-Chief Executive Officer Joseph W. Luter III had approached the theater about acquiring the cotton gin site for the company’s headquarters, and offered $500,000 toward the construction of a new theater elsewhere.

“We wouldn’t have this theater if it wasn’t for him and his diligence over the contractors. … Jim was down there every single day,” Parsons said.

In its 60-year existence, the theater has inspired multiple generations of Smithfield residents to become involved in its productions, and has attracted performers from across the Hampton Roads region. Amelia Vanhoorebeck, who reprised her performance of “There are Worse Things I Could Do” at Friday’s concert from SLT’s 2017 production of “Grease,” is the daughter of Jennifer Kohms, one of the theater’s past board members.