Leddy Center Artistic Director Elaine Gatchell first heard Dr. Paul Gustavson sing in The Threepenny Opera by an Exeter company in the ’70s. She knew he’d be the perfect Fagin in her Oliver!
Because she didn’t want to impose on his time, she made an appointment with his secretary at his practice in Raymond. When they met, she had to admit she was there under false pretenses.
“I told him I was not sick, but I knew … he was a wonderful tenor, and that I was putting on Oliver! and was wondering if he’d consider being Fagin. He looked at me, then opened the drawer and pulled out the score of Oliver!” Gatchell said.
Gustavson knew the musical well because his wife, Elisabeth Gustavson, had directed it in an elementary school years earlier. Today he can’t remember why the score was with him that day; maybe someone warned him Gatchell might be coming. Regardless, he thought it sounded exciting.
It wasn’t the first time Gatchell casted outside the theater; once she asked a man with a long beard in downtown Exeter if he’d like to be Merlin in her Camelot. Another time, she found the perfect dog to play Sandy in Annie in the bed of a truck while driving and followed the owner home to ask for permission. She often got positive results.
But no actor has been with the company as long as Paul Gustavson. This July, he performs in Oliver! at The Leddy Center again, this time as Mr. Bumble, in its 42nd season, his 39th — and his first major part in about five years.
“It was a dream come true for him, as it was for me, to find somebody that excellent, who was such a wonderful actor,” Gatchell said.
His first years with the group, then the Epping Community Church Players, were in the Epping Town Hall, then in the Epping school auditoriums. It was because of him the company found a permanent location in 1984, when a three-story building downtown went up for sale. Gustavson had been itching to move his practice closer to the hospital in Exeter, and when he learned the top floor had the right makings for a theater, he couldn’t resist.
He and his wife met Gatchell and her husband, Leddy Center co-founder Bruce Gatchell, at the vacant building and explained his plan — to buy the old Leddy Brothers building for his medical practice and turn the third floor into a theater, where he would only charge the cost of electricity and other amenities. They formed a 25-year contract.
Gatchell credits Gustavson, in part, for her long career.
“I have friends who are directors from all over the state, and they don’t have a home place. They rent, and it’s tough on them. … I think of how fortunate I have been to have always had our own theater,” Gatchell said.
For a long time, the arrangement worked out wonderfully. Because of its rent-free status, The Leddy Center was able to donate proceeds to a variety of charity organizations, and at lunchtime, Gustavson trekked up the two stories of stairs to practice. His family joined the fun, his wife making costumes and his kids acting. For a period, he was on the board of directors. Gatchell said he garnered a strong following of people who still love watching him perform.
In 2000, he noticed something was off while watching a recent production video; he was moving more slowly than he thought he’d been. He went to a neurologist and learned he had Parkinson’s.
Not long after the diagnosis, he went up onstage and performed as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, his favorite role, which he’s played four times. He became a different person, forgetting the disease, and for a short time, his symptoms seemed to subside too. Gatchell said it was a breathtaking performance.
“We were all terribly concerned,” Gatchell said. “We had no idea [whether he’d continue acting], and he didn’t either. … But people were very, very moved. We all were.”
The Gatchells moved the company to the former home of the Emissaries of Divine Light, less than a mile from the original building, in 2008, just before Gustavson closed his full-time practice a year later.
Gustavson’s determined to remain active as long as possible; he still works twice a week at the Rockingham County Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Brentwood, and he co-founded a Parkinson’s support group that meets there the first Thursday of the month. They organize hiking and biking excursions and dance lessons and other activities regularly. This, in addition to performing, is what’s keeping him healthy.
“The tendency of people with Parkinson’s is to isolate themselves. They feel different, and the more they isolate, the less they move. Part of the thing about being in theater, it forces you to be part of things. But these days, there are more and more things being done to encourage folks with Parkinson’s Disease to get out and be active and get exercise,” Gustavson said. “There’s no question, [the disease] is still here, but somehow, there’s a transformation that can occur [onstage].”