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Bill Kirby Jr.: A farewell curtain call for the first lady of community theater

Bo Thorp played a range of characters on the Fayetteville stage, including the title characters in "Driving Miss Daisy" at Cape Fear Regional Theatre and "Hello, Dolly!" at Fayetteville Little Theatre. Below, she starred with Pat Reese in "On Golden Pond" at Fort Bragg Playhouse. Bo Thorp died on Oct. 14at age 89
Bo Thorp played a range of characters on the Fayetteville stage, including the title characters in "Driving Miss Daisy" at Cape Fear Regional Theatre and "Hello, Dolly!" at Fayetteville Little Theatre. Below, she starred with Pat Reese in "On Golden Pond" at Fort Bragg Playhouse. Bo Thorp died on Oct. 14at age 89
Contributed photos

They came for what would be the final curtain call for the first lady of Cape Fear Regional Theatre.

A farewell bow, if you will, for Olga Thorp.

They knew her as Bo.

“It was a dream that needed love,” Holden Thorp would tell those who gathered Wednesday for a celebration of life service at St. John’s Episcopal Church downtown and for others attending a live-stream at his mother’s beloved theater on Haymount Hill. “And Bo gave it all she had.”

Olga Lucia Bernardin “Bo” Thorp died Oct. 14.

She was 89.

“Someone like Bo seemed immortal,” Mary Kate Burke, who followed Mrs. Thorp as the theater’s artistic director, would say. “So, it’s kind of hard to believe. We adored her.”

Bo Thorp arrived in this city in 1960 with her lawyer husband, Herbert Thorp, both fresh out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where acting and theater had become a part of her being. She found a city without a theater, and Herbert Thorp made a promise to build one. In 1963, his was a promise kept in the old Hamont Theater movie house.

“Alligood’s service station and Bobby’s Soda Shop,” Holden Thorp would say, “never knew what hit them.”

Fayetteville Little Theatre was born, with Bo Thorp there to become a community treasure as artistic director, actor, director, choreographer, technical supervisor and prop master until her 2011 retirement.

“When she retired,” Holden Thorp would say, “she didn’t want to let go.”

After all, Bo Thorp had given her life to this theater.

“When I interviewed, I met with the who's who of Fayetteville — Ralph Huff, Terri Union, Will Gillis, Deborah Mintz, the CFRT staff and the CFRT board,“ Burke says. “I knew it must have been going well, because a stop was added to meet with Ms. Bo Thorp on Skye Drive. The meeting was meant to be 30 minutes. Anyone who has talked to Bo knows that you rarely had a 30-minute conversation with her. We talked about her life, how and why she founded the Fayetteville Little Theatre, which eventually became CFRT. We talked about why she loved it here and what the theater meant to her and how she wanted to be involved as it continued to grow.”

Bo Thorp sat on her sofa.

She listened to Burke, a vivacious young woman with ambitious theater dreams of her own.

“It just feels right,” Bo Thorp would say.

Burke never has forgotten sitting across from Bo Thorp.

“She had a way about getting the best out of people,” Burke says. “I'm certainly glad that she trusted me with CFRT, and like so many others, my life has been changed for the better by her.”

No actor was ever alone

Bo Thorp touched thousands of lives in this community, from young actors such as Tom Savini, Suzanne Ishee and Grady Bowman to sage actors including Mayon Weeks, the late Leonard McLeod and the late Pat Reese.

“Bo's impact on our community is uniquely significant,” Weeks says. “During her 50-plus years guiding our theater, she started and grew the children's program. She embraced diversity in the front- and backstage family long before it became popular. She took ‘local’ out of our vocabulary and opened international doors for our performers and audiences. And she shepherded countless performers and stage technicians into meaningful theater endeavors.

“She did this and more while always praising her hometown. When people from here talk of Fayetteville's merits, CFRT is always in the conversation. When newcomers are being introduced to the area, CFRT is high on the ‘quality of life’ features they are shown.

“That didn't just happen,” Weeks says. “It took a lot of people and time, and especially a passionate, talented, strong, determined and inspiring leader. That was Bo.”

When it came to this theater on Haymount Hill, Bo Thorpe was passionate.

Failure was no option.

The theater’s stage was never bare.

“Everyone who knew my mother knew she was fiercely independent,” son Clay Thorp would say. “Stubborn, you would probably call it.”

The curtain had to open season after season after season, and the marquee lights along Haymount Hill had to be aglow.

No actor on Bo Thorp’s stage ever performed alone. She was there for each of them offstage and on, urging them to be at their best.

“She saw ‘Color Purple’ and at the end of it she stood up and said, ‘Can you run it all summer?’” Mary Kate Burke says. “’It’s tremendous.’”

That, all in the theater will tell you, was Bo.

She played her parts, too.

“Her Mame strummed, her Rose turned, and her Agnes flamed,” Holden Thorp would tell us in his eulogy.

She was Carrie in “The Trip to Bountiful,” Willie Loman’s loving and devoted wife in “Death of a Salesman,” Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls,” Ethel in “On Golden Pond” and Dolly in “Hello, Dolly!”  And she was Miss Daisy

Once she smooched with Joe Namath, the football star turned actor who was one of many film and stage stars to grace the local stage. They include Pat Hingle, James MacArthur, Alileen Quinn, Eddie Mekka, William Christopher, Dirk Lumbard, Lawrence Hamilton, Loretta Swit, and homegrown Elizabeth MacRae of “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” television fame.

“She loved performing, but she also loved directing, especially when she knew she had a hit,” Holden Thorp would say. “There were times when we knew during the last few dress rehearsals that we weren’t going to have any empty seats. She was addicted to that feeling, and nothing made her happier.”

Color blind, and a stage for all

Bo Thorp was more than an actor and more than a director. She was a visionary of her time and a community’s time.

“In 1978, Bo became the only white person to ever direct ‘Strike at the Wind,’ the story of the Lumbee Indians in Pembroke,” Holden Thorp would remind us. “We learned an awful lot about the world that summer.”

A son would tell us more about his mother’s resolve and her legacy.

“In 1979, Bo decided it was time to do an all-Black show,” Holden Thorp would say. “By then, ‘Raisin in the Sun,’ ‘Purlie,’ and ‘The Wiz’ had all been big hits on Broadway. But at the Fayetteville Little Theatre, Black actors had only played small parts as household domestics and similar roles.

“Bo decided the way to start was by staging the musical version of ‘Raisin in the Sun’ — just called ‘Raisin’ — which was written by Lorraine Hansberry’s husband, Bob Nemiroff. It was a decision that was not popular at the Highland Country Club and in the white spaces of Fayetteville. She pressed on, and it changed many lives very quickly. Bob Nemiroff was so surprised that she pulled it off that he came to Fayetteville for the opening.”

‘Bo’s legacy is our future’

Fayetteville Little Theatre, at the urging of the late state Sens. Tony Rand and Lura Tally, among others, in 1988 became Cape Fear Regional Theatre. Today, after two successful capital campaigns, it is a newly renovated playhouse far from its first play in the auditorium at the old Alexander Graham Junior High School.

“Bo Thorp possessed the rare ability to touch our deepest emotions and carry us to places we could only imagine and experience through live theater,” says retired Army Maj. Gen. Al Aycock, immediate past president of the CFRT board of directors. “She could bring joy to your heart, put a smile on your face, bring tears to your eyes, give you goosebumps and keep you in suspense, while always helping us to see what we could become as people and as a community together in one of the most culturally diverse communities in America.

“Bo opened the door to partnership with Fort Bragg through a unique relationship with the old Fort Bragg Playhouse. 

“It is exceptionally fitting that Bo Thorp was thoughtfully involved in the recent renovations of the Cape Fear Regional Theatre and helped with the eventual long-term design as everything that is being done to modernize the facility comes as a result of the foundation she built,” Aycock says. “Bo's legacy is our future. The newly renovated auditorium named in honor of Olga B. and Herbert H. Thorp is a memorable starting point for a total theater experience that will continue to be better for audiences, actors, actresses, musicians, directors, technical crew, and all those who support the arts in our region.”

Willie Wright, 85, is house manager for the theater and remembers Bo Thorp as the ever gracious theater director.

“More than guiding a playhouse of actors, actresses and staff, she had the ability to inspire individuals to be part of a team to bring joy to the greater Fayetteville area,” Wright says. “When I volunteered to be an usher in 1989, I immediately noticed that Ms. Thorp interfaced with the maintenance personnel of the theater with the same love and caring as her family. 

“Under the leadership of Bo Thorp, the audience expanded from Fayetteville to busloads of patrons from Southern Pines, Pinehurst, Raleigh and Wilmington coming to the playhouse on a regular basis, making it a regional entertainment center. She was a diamond that made the Cape Fear Regional Theater one of the jewels of Fayetteville. Her achievements included converting a movie theater into a live playhouse, organizing a team to present live performances, teaching the art of acting with students progressing to live theater across the nation and living the life of a great human being.”

Beyond the theater, Herb and Bo Thorp opened their Skye Drive home to neighborhood children for Halloween carnivals and haunted houses, Paul Paschal says. And they organized the annual neighborhood Christmas caroling for the Salvation Army holiday fund that, Paschal says, has raised more than $1 million since 1976.

“I used to tell Bo, ‘If you had not moved to Fayetteville, the local theater would be on folding chairs at an avandoned grocery store,’” he says. “I would tell her that she had the acting ability of Mary Tyler Moore and the creativity of Carol Burnett, which she would think was a little overboard. But I think I was right.”

A place for all

Two sons would leave us Wednesday with memories of a mother’s life.

“You gave her more than she gave you,” Clay Thorp would say. “Two giving selflessly to one another.”

And a mother who saw beyond life’s social horizons.

“She didn’t have an elaborate philosophy about it all,” Holden Thorp would say. “She never read James Baldwin or Cornel West. But she was a woman leader when the world didn’t have any. She was for gay rights when most gay sex was exiled to park bathrooms. She went to Pembroke when the Lumbees were barely on the radar. She integrated the theater even though she was surrounded by white moderates who were more devoted to order than justice. She made a place where every misfit could fit in.

“So now it’s closing time. We’re closing for the evening. Roll up the ribbons. Pack up the presents. Dolly will never go away again.

“Thank you, Fayetteville. We love you all.”


Bo Thorp’s last onstage performance was in “Love Letters” on Valentine’s Day 2017 with old friend Mayon Weeks.

“Well done my muse, my fellow actor, director and lifelong friend,” Weeks says. “The spotlight shines brightest where you stood.”

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at billkirby49@gmail.com or 910-624-1961.

Fayetteville, theater, Bo Thorp, Cape Fear Regional Theatre