Chesapeake Academy, Wharton, and Me

by Rebecca Tebbs Nunn

In the summer of 1965, I was lifeguarding at the Tides Inn. That same year, my boss, Bob Lee Stephens, and his wife Suzy, along with other leaders in the community decided to resurrect the Irvington school from the early 1900s, Chesapeake Academy.

To kick off the season prior to the “new” school’s first semester, James Wharton of Wharton Grove in Weems wrote a musical entitled “Chesapeake Academy Days” in which he provided both the script and the score. I was asked by the Northern Neck Players to direct the show.

Members of the cast whom I recall were Stanley Churchman, the headmaster of the school; Noreen Bryant, one of the club women; Lou Siegel, the male romantic lead; Patt Nelson Lawler, a teacher at the academy; Wilbur Mitchell, the sheriff; and a host of young people portraying students at the school including Sully Brien, the owner of the Wharton films that have now been discovered and are being shown at the Rappahannock Art League. There were also several young Carter children in the production and I think a few younger Nelsons.

We rehearsed at various homes in the county while deciding where to produce the play. Finally, it was determined that we would perform two nights on the site of the original Chesapeake Academy. A wooden stage was constructed mostly due to Bob Lee Stephens’ largess on what is now the Commons and lights were strung and sound equipment was procured. Since James Wharton would be accompanying the tunes he had written for the show including “You’re as Dear to Me as Dixie Was to Lee” and another entitled “I Want So Much to be Wanted” sung by yours truly, an “orchestra” pit was dug in front of the stage into which a piano was lowered with room for the other musicians.

My role, in addition to directing, was that of a teacher at the school, but one who had embezzled funds from the front office and was therefore the villainess and old maid school teacher who turned into a fashion plate at the end of the show. Wilbur Mitchell, the Sheriff, a well-known soloist at the time sang a number in the show, but I don’t recall the name of the song and I no longer have my script.

The show “Chesapeake Academy Days” was advertised. Audience members brought blankets or folding chairs and paid for their tickets at the gate. The proceeds went to the Chesapeake Academy Foundation. The cast and all the crew prayed for clear weather and our prayers were answered. We performed the shows on a Friday and a Saturday night in July and from the proceeds, it was estimated that over 1,000 adults plus children (who were admitted free) had attended on the two nights. It was a huge success. After our final performance, James Wharton graciously entertained the entire cast and crew, and their spouses and parents at his home at Wharton Grove with food, drink and entertainment as he played the piano for hours.

James Wharton was in his 70s, I believe, when we did the show, but he was full of pep and a delight with whom to work. He only admitted to being in his 30s because he said he moved to the Grove permanently when he was 40 and that’s when his life began. I helped him again in 1976 with his bicentennial offering for the 200th birthday party of the nation when the festivities were held in Lancaster.  In 1984, when I owned Beckys’ Wine and Cheese in White Stone, I hosted a book signing for Wharton and his book “Where’d the Name Come From” and we sold over 200 copies.

As I said, I no longer have my script or the score, but if anyone does, I would love to direct the show again and this time, we could perform it on the Chesapeake Academy stage and cast the current students.