Organizers revive Baldwin play

? Watching this season’s first performance of “The Ballad of Black Jack,” Don Mueller made notes in the borders of his sheet music.

It was part of an effort he’s making to ensure the story and music he wrote more than 30 years ago will outlive him.

“I’m trying to get all the music down on paper for future generations,” Mueller said. “When I’m no longer around, I hope they’ll still be doing the ‘Ballad’ at Maple Leaf Festival time.”

The retired Baker University assistant professor’s musical play is about the events leading up to the Battle of Black Jack, considered to be the first battle of the Civil War.

The play was performed Wednesday for area fifth-graders in Rice Auditorium at Baker University, just days before the cast will welcome visitors to the 45th-annual Maple Leaf Festival in Baldwin.

Mueller wrote and composed the two-hour musical to coincide with Baldwin’s centennial celebration during the autumn festival in 1970. For years he brought to life the dramatic events that eventually led to the Battle of Black Jack, which took place in 1856 just a few miles from Baldwin. In the past, he’s directed the play and choreographed it. This year he’s serving as accompanist.

The production became a festival tradition, but the curtain closed on the play in 1983 when play organizers could no longer make use of Rice Auditorium.

Keeping it alive

Today the play highlighting Douglas County history is back. It took the efforts of a few diehard supporters, Baker University and contributions to dust off the script after so many years and put the play back on stage last year after a 15-year hiatus. An effort in 1986 to bring the production back was short-lived after one performance at Liberty Hall in Lawrence.

Now the goal for the 76-year-old composer is to make sure the play never dies again.

The retired Methodist minister said the music had been in his head all these years, and when the play was performed he’d add things or take them out. Wednesday, he said this year’s rendition had been shaved down by about 30 minutes and was a much tighter script.

Mueller, who paid his uncle 50 cents for his first piano lesson at age 4, said writing the music for the ballad came easily.

“It was a natural story for a musical,” Mueller said.

About 20 musical songs and interludes are intertwined with the true story of Charles Dow and Jacob Branson, two free state advocates. Branson is framed for the death of Dow by slavery proponent Sheriff Sam Jones, and an illegal posse is formed to free Branson.

¢Cornerstones: Battle of Black JackOn stage“The Ballad of Black Jack” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday at Baker University’s Rice Auditorium. Tickets are $8 for adults and $5 for students. Tickets are available at the door, or call Mid-America Bank at (785) 594-2100 to order.

Real history

Lawrence resident Bob Newton portrays Capt. John Abbott, a member of the free state posse that rescues Branson from the sheriff. Newton played the same part in the late 1970s.

“It’s all about the struggles right here in Douglas County the burning of Lawrence, the newspaper presses dumped in the river … the events that lead up to the Battle of Black Jack,” Newton said.

The site of the battle, which was led by abolitionist John Brown and slavery proponent H. Clay Pate, is just a few miles east of Baker University. The site’s significance has drawn the interest of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance, whose members are seeking support from the Douglas County Commission to have the battleground listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Play time

The story, brought to life on stage, left a vivid impression on audience members a number of years ago. Two fans of the play, Jack Gaumnitz and Dr. Dave Hiebert, contributed $5,000 each, and with the help of Baker University and its $1,000 contribution, they were able to reorganize the production last year.

That kind of response amazes Mueller.

“I asked them why it was so important to bring the ballad back, and both of them had the same answer, ‘Because we want to take our grandchildren to see it,'” Mueller said.

Gaumnitz, a retired Kansas University business professor, said the play should be shared for years to come, if it could be.

“Kansas had to do things in this antebellum period (that) Kansans should be proud of. Of course not everyone agreed, and it went back and forth a lot, which the play captures. They did the right thing, and I think it’s something that should be preserved,” Gaumnitz said.