Jerauld Reinhart still remembers the hook used in 1954 by the hiring principal to lure him from southern Indiana to accept a teaching position at Merrillville High School following his graduation from Indiana University.
"The principal's name was Mr. Edgar Miller, and he boasted to me that the largest theater in the state was located just down the road from the high school," said Reinhart, 84, who founded Ross Summer Music Theatre with his wife of 60 years, Margilee.
"Well, I was thinking of a live theater stage, and what he was referring to was the Y & W Drive-In movie theater on Broadway in Merrillville."
With the help of his wife, and, eventually, the couple's eight children, Reinhart launched his own summer theater program in 1963, and the first production was unveiled the following year with "Annie Get Your Gun."
Tonight, following the theater company's performance of the second weekend run of "Les Miserables," the 2013 50th anniversary production, the Reinharts are hosting a curtain-bow bash for alumni from the past five decades, both in front of and behind the curtain, helping Ross Summer Music Theatre remain a lasting success for generations.
Jerauld Reinhart has maintained a presence in each of the more than 70 musicals produced, with a hand in every level of production. This summer, he is the man behind the baton in the orchestra pit.
RSMT, named since it is based in Ross Township, started in Merrillville High School's gymnasium, and as the program progressed, more adults, and eventually their children, joined the summer productions. In 1972, Merrillville High opened an auditorium to house plays and other events — now named the Reinhart Auditorium.
Of all the productions mounted, a few still remain favorite stand-outs, with "The Music Man," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Carousel" ranking at the top.
"The reason 'Carousel' holds a special place is it's the first Broadway production I ever saw in Chicago," Reinhart said.
"I was still in college in the marching band, and we came up to play at the game against Northwestern in 1949. And while we were in Chicago, we had time to catch a show and it was 'Carousel' that was in town starring actor John Raitt, the father of singer Bonnie Raitt."
With many of the productions starring as many as 100, and sometimes even 150 talented youth from the surrounding area, Margilee Reinhart admits some shows have been more difficult than others.
"In 1966, we did 'Flower Drum Song,' which is intended to have an all-Chinese cast," she said.
"We bought every can of black spray hair paint in Northwest Indiana. And once the cast was in full makeup, Jerry couldn't even tell who was supposed to be who."
Mike Reinhart, who now leads the stage projects with the guidance of his parents, said he learned early in his youth that to spend time with his parents during the summer months meant being involved in the theater production of the moment. And for this summer's production of "Les Miserables," Mike's two sons, Lucas and Jacob, have followed their father's lead and have roles in the musical.
Joining in tonight's proud memories are returning actors who have used their Ross roots to secure careers on Broadway and professional theater venues around the world. Actor Ron Clark, who starred in the first Ross production in 1964 of "Annie Get Your Gun," traveled from Texas for tonight's toasting moment.
And Brian Lynch, who spent seven years touring nationally and internationally with various Broadway musicals including "Aspects of Love," "Cats," and "Les Miserables," the latter in the starring role of Jean Valjean for more than two years, is also one of tonight's highlights.
Actor David Bedella, originally from Gary and now an established stage star of London's West End, also returned for tonight's gathering.
"I was in 'Bye, Bye Birdie' with the Reinharts in 1976 and later, they gave me my first chance at a leading role when they cast me in 'Oklahoma!'" said Bedella, who starred in "Jesus Christ Superstar" with Ted Neeley from 1992 to 1995 and later earned raves as the star of "Jerry Springer — The Opera."
"But best of all, the Reinharts are a family who love music, kids and the arts, and always lead by example," Bedella said.