If your holiday spirit has ever been bolstered after sitting through a Midland Community Theater production of "A Christmas Carol," or if you have laughed yourself silly at a presentation of "Summer Mummers" or gaped wide-eyed like a child at the majesty of a Pickwick production, you might be surprised at the set of circumstances that made it all possible; circumstances for which all theater lovers in Midland can -- and should -- be thankful.
You can first thank the United States Army Air Corps for drafting and shipping one soon-to-be engineer's assistant from the comfort and security of his Fostoria, Ohio, home to the dusty outpost of Midland, Texas. Art Cole liked what he saw when he was stationed at the Midland Army Airfield. Trained in theatrical arts, Cole was working for a traveling production company when he was sent to Midland, and on arrival he found there was no theater here, even though the changing makeup of the population was of an ilk that desired a strong fine arts presence in their town.
When he was taken into the combat zone aboard a ship bound for destinations in the South Pacific, the USAAC didn't exactly stock the ship with myriad reading options. Cole picked up some theater arts magazines he had brought along, and in those magazines were a series of articles on how to establish a community theater in a town without. Those articles served as the spark Cole would need to develop a desire to return to Midland and give his all to establishing that community theater.
Art Cole is a good first-impression man. It is obvious the minute you meet him you'll like him. Handsome and still presence-casting at 91, Art can still quietly take control of a room. He is one of Midland's most cherished treasures, a person of character for which there are few equals in the annals of this town.
His import reveals itself slowly through his measured words and memories. He carries himself in the dignified manner of many of the hundreds of thousands of members of his generation, people who served and fought bravely, and when the last shot had been fired returned stateside to make it an even better place; a country to which Cole and others like him had already given so much through their countless acts of valor, courage and sacrifice.
When Cole returned to Midland after World War II, he met with a group of theater devotees, headed by Naomi Lancaster, herself a legendary figure in the community. He offered to go to work for three months to establish a community theater, feeling certain that 90 days would be all it would take to effectively gauge whether it would be a success.
When he was done making his presentation that Sunday afternoon, a supporter in the back of the room, saying he didn't feel Cole could survive on just the $200 a month he said he would need to make a go of it, stood up.
"Heck," the man said, "We'll give you $250."
Cole relented, drew the extra $50 a month and, well, 60 years later, look at what that Sunday afternoon has wrought.
Like so many others driven by the desire to make a good place better, Cole shrugs off any notion of credit, preferring instead to pass off all he has done to the randomness of luck.
"Life was good," he said. "Everyone was having fun. And out of that time came a couple of really good museums, a hospital."
Cole can and will tell you that Midland's generosity streak dates at least as far back as his first days here, recalling the story of how both the hospital and theater conducted major fundraising campaigns at the same time in the 1950s.
"They got what they needed," Cole said. "And we got what we needed. It's an amazing thing, Midland."
Cole even remembers the weather and how it gave people fits 60 years ago. When a trainload of USAAC recruits disembarked in Midland, some of them commented on how it looked like it was about to rain. The veterans -- the ones who had been here for at least the three months prior -- scoffed the newbies' notion, "Oh, it's not going to rain, we've been here since February and it hasn't rained a drop."
But it did rain that day. And it hailed. And it snowed. And it all started with an April blue norther. It was Easter Sunday 1942.
After Cole and some buddies developed a short-lived routine of wandering to Odessa to have a few drinks on the weekend, Cole remembers how meeting the theater-conscious in Midland turned him in the right direction. When he partied particularly hard one night and woke up on the courthouse in Odessa, Cole met the group that welcomed him back -- and ultimately agreed to pay him $250 a month to Midland.
"These people could actually carry on a conversation," Cole said. "It was quite a switch from those drinking nights in Odessa."
Art Cole planted and nurtured a community theater empire in Midland. His name is rightly applied to the facility on Wadley, but his influence runs far deeper, down every hallway, in every wing and greenroom and dressing area; through every office, with each ticket sold and embedded in top-notch programs that still thrive today. He is literally the one man behind Mummers, behind the Pickwick Players and, with a little help from his friends, behind acquiring the Yucca.
He retired in 1981 and was named Director Emeritus and now, 30 years later, he sounds positively Yogiesque when acquiescing that those who were with him then are for the most part all gone.
"Everyone my age is dead," Cole said, a wistful trace in his soft voice. "There's nobody around who was with me then."
Sadly, many have gone, but the contributions and accomplishments of those who were with Art Cole will very likely outlive us all.
Editor's Note: These are only a small portion of Art Cole's reflections. He will figure prominently in the book, "A History of Character: The Story of Midland, Texas," to be published in 2012.