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How Aristotle Onassis Lost Great Bay

This 1974 Greek tragedy fueled
a modern musical comedy
Aristotle Onassis 

In 1974 the most important thing that happened in Seacoast New Hampshire was what didn't happen. Oil tycoon Aristotle Onassis did not turn America's smallest seacoast into the world's largest oil refinery. Tankers did not begin offloading 400,000 barrels of crude oil daily into a giant pipeline at the Isles of Shoals. 3,500 acres along the shore of Great Bay were not torn to pieces to accommodate the $600,000,000 refinery. Yes, I said six-hundred-million dollars, and that was back when $3,000 would buy a shiny new Volkswagen Superbeetle.

Instead, over 1,000 citizens of Durham said NO to thugs. They voted against the refinery, despite powerful forces and promises of gifts and jobs and economic prosperity. Meldrim Thompson Jr., then governor of NH, supported Onassis all the way to the bank. So did William Loeb, influential editor of the only statewide newspaper. The trio was defeated in the eleventh hour by a grassroots environmental movement.

It's a classic David and Goliath plot in which the little guy, armed only with a homemade slingshot, topples the heavily armed giant. The killing projectile, in this case, was a little thing called "home rule", the principle that allowed Durham residents the legal right to vote Onassis out of town.

A year later, the reclusive sixty-nine year old shipping tycoon was dead.

Durham playwright Edso Valena saw in the vanquished millionaire, not a Greek tragedy, but the makings of a romp-stomping musical comedy. I saw one of the few productions of "Oiley-Vey" last fall at Johnson Theater at the University of New Hampshire. I've been humming the tunes every since. I admit, I tried to wriggle loose from the free tickets a friend gave me. The thought of two hours watching Oyster River middle and high school kids singing and dancing about a failed oil refinery didnít exactly fuel my supertanker. Community theater, especially when it focuses on local history, is always a gamble.

But the play was funny, really funny. Itís Technology versus the Ecosystem in a winner-take-all confrontation. Valenaís script transforms Durham into the battleground between the forces of Good and Evil. Even more, this is a showdown of the sexes. Onassis, Loeb and Thompson face off against three local women. Evelyn Browne, who was tricked by the Onassis real estate developers into thinking her Great Bay land would become a bird sanctuary, represents the feisty townspeople. Phyllis Bennett, publisher of a little weekly newspaper called "Publick Occurences", represents the liberal, independent media. Dudley Dudley, who convinced the NH state legislature to back the Durham voters autonomy over Big Oil, plays the shrewd politician. Artist John Hatch, his wife Maryanna, Nancy Sandberg and other Durham residents are portrayed by singing students. Even Jackie Kennedy Onassis makes a mute appearance.

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The play was funny for a bunch of reasons Ė first because there is no oil refinery stinking up the Seacoast. We won. In retrospect, the idea seems insane. Secondly, it was hilarious to watch kids from Durham Ė and these were not theater majors, just normal kids Ė dressing up like adults from the 70s. At one of the two performances, the real Dudley, Bennett,  Sandberg and Mrs. Hatch were in attendance. (Thompson, Loeb and Onassis have all passed on.) Chris Bramante, for example, was so convincing as a pint-sized Aristotle Onassis in a oversized suit, that he was outdone only slightly by his sister Doria, who played Ev Browne like a junior Ethel Merman. The kids in the audience were in stitches Ė and all the while, learning the history of their hometown.

Finally the play is funny because the libretto was a hoot. Valena didnít write new songs, but adapted the lyrics of popular show tunes. Audience members all got a commemorative songbook and a little flashlight, so we could follow along with the cast. Imagine, if you can, a youthful chorus singing the Disneyesque tune "Supertankersfullofoilreallyareatrocious" Or picture Aristotle and his twin henchmen crooning "Crude, Glorious Crude." Or how about this ditty, sung here by Onassis to a tune ("If I Only Had a Brain") made popular by the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz:

IF I ONLY OWNED THE BAY

To New England I am reachiní
From an island oh so Grecian
My credit is okay
We could make a million buckos
Cut some timber by the truckload
If I only owned the Bay

Oh, why I want to buy
What amounts to Mother Natureís little toe
I will heat the homes from Boston to Saco
And while I do, weíll make some dough.
So Iíll help you with your taxiní
Your concerns can start relaxiní
Itís on a silver tray
I will be your favorite neighbor
With this Herculean labor
If you let me own the Bay

The funny thing about humor is that it helps us pay attention and remember. Through catchy songs and comic theater, kids in Durham who had never heard of Aristotle Onassis, absorbed an important story about their community. I'll bet, long after they've forgotten years of memorized textbook facts, that the plot and lyrics and sentiments of "Oily-Vey" will still drift through their adult brains.

Valena, who lives on a family farm near Adams Point says his home would have been "in the belly of the beast" if the Olympia oil refinery had been built. He wrote most of the songs while working long hours on band-saws and shop-saws, creating folk art for a family business. Friends encourage Valena to flesh out the story. Dave Ervin, an Oyster River music teacher -- a genius when it comes to working with kids, Valena says -- took the project on. Volunteers painted a 25 x 50-foot backdrop of Durham Point, based on the work of artist John Hatch. Grants paid for expenses and theater rental. Sponsors and ticket sales helped raise over $3,000 that will go, in part, to a monument in memory of the historic event.

"Towns only have so many big myths," Valena told me recently. "And thatís a big myth. I doubt if you could find a story that big anywhere in the Seacoast. You couldnít do anything that would better capture the spirit of the town."

Sculpting history into myth means smoothing off the rough edges. Aristotle and Jackie O, for example, didnít actually attend the historic Durham town meeting in 1974 as they do in "Oiley-Vey." And they were not accompanied by two cartoonish Greek thugs named Phyllo and Feta (played by Durham twins Luke and Mike Schuster). In fact, the historical climax really came the day after the Durham meeting when the special session of the state legislature officially approved Dudleyís Home Rule Bill HB 18.

"It was a very fortuitous, serendipitous, lucky thing," Dudley says today, remembering the event a quarter century ago. The overwhelming rejection of the Onassis oil refinery by Durham residents just the night before, she says, actually propelled state representatives to pass the home rule bill.

"Home Rule is not a glorious concept," Dudley explained, when I told her I was still a bit confused. (I was there at the time, actually writing small pieces for Phyllis Bennett's newspaper -- but the political details elude me.) "It says that you have the right to say what happens in your home town. Itís a very conservative George Wallace-type of argument."

Which is why, I guess, this little projectile caught the three-headed giant squarely in the frontal lobe. The last thing arch conservatives like Thompson, Loeb and Onassis were expecting, was that a matriarchal tribe of liberal Democrats would use one of their own grenades against them. Apparently politicians in Manchester and Concord and the North Country suddenly realized that, if the state could force the Seacoast to build a nasty smelly oil refinery on its tiny finite shores, it could force similarly distasteful projects down the throat of any town -- for the good of the state.

Even Dudley Dudley agrees happily that Art sometimes teaches history better than history itself. She says the play had her "rolling in the aisles. Those who missed it will have to wait five years when, rumor has it, a reprise performance is planned.

"I love the kids' involvement," she says, "and the fact that the story lives. And it should have a continuos life, because it shows what a community can do."

And what if Onassis and his power brokers had won? Valena says that would have inspired a very different play, something closer to a Wagnerian opera with lots of thunder and lightning bolts.

"Can you imagine the whole west side of Great Bay looking like New Jersey?" he says.

No offense to New Jersey intended, of course. Valena is just exaggerating a little to make his point. That's what artists do.


Copyright © 2002 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved..
Article by J. Dennis Robinson.

POLITICAL CARTOON FROM 1974

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