St. John Terrell, 81, Music Circus Founder

Posted: October 14, 1998

St. John ``Sinjin'' Terrell, 81, a colorful, visionary showman who gave birth to the Bucks County Playhouse, the once-renowned Lambertville Music Circus, and the annual reenactment of Washington's crossing, died Friday at his home in Ewing Township, Mercer County, from complications of Alzheimer's disease.

Born in Chicago, Mr. Terrell was 16 when he joined a carnival as a fire-eating performer.

In 1934, he became known to radio listeners as the voice of Jack Armstrong - all-American boy. Throughout the 1930s he worked as a stage actor, including touring with Walter Hampden's Shakespeare Company in 1935.

In 1939 he relocated to New Hope, and it wasn't long before his artistic vision became apparent in the form of the Bucks County Playhouse.

``He knew the area was looking for an arts program,'' said Ralph Miller, current owner of the playhouse. ``He had the ideas and the contacts to make it work.''

But when opening night came, Mr. Terrell's vision had outpaced the physical preparations.

``The set wasn't done, and the story goes that he came out and talked to the audience for two and a half hours while the set was completed,'' Miller said.

Mr. Terrell was the theater's producer for only its first year before moving on to other projects, though he always maintained his contacts with the theater and often returned for fund-raising events.

While serving in the Army during World War II, Mr. Terrell came up with the idea that would become his legacy to theater.

After suffering injuries in the troop transport command, Mr. Terrell joined the USO in the Philippines and was cast in the show This Is the Army.

But when the theater troop arrived in Hollandia there was no place to stage the show, according to a 1957 Inquirer article. ``Terrell, the dreamer, suggested that the Army bulldoze a saucer-shaped hole out of the earth and cover it with a tent.'' The Army didn't accept his advice, but Mr Terrell didn't forget the idea.

In 1949, Mr. Terrell lined up the backers to build the Lambertville Music Circus on what would become known as Music Mountain. When some of the backers got cold feet just before opening night, Mr. Terrell hocked everything he owned and opened anyway, according to the Inquirer story.

The circus - a theater in the round under a striped tent - eventually seated 1,500 and required police to direct traffic along roads before each performance.

``It was the musical theater in America for 10 years,'' said James Hamilton, who got his start in scenery design work in the theater's early years and later did scenery for Broadway shows.

Indeed, the Lambertville Music Circus shows drew crowds of people from as far as New York City and Philadelphia.

Before each show, Mr. Terrell would come out and talk to the audience. ``He always wore a panama straw hat, and red pants and a Scotch plaid blazer, Hamilton recalled. His curtain speech included teasers for future shows.

The first show was The Merry Widow. As the circus' fame spread, so did its ability to attract acts. The shows included the world premiere of To Hell With Orpheus and Waltz Down the Isle, as well as the American premiere of Noel Coward's After the Ball.

Each week usually brought a new musical, although some shows stayed for two weeks. Mr. Terrell also broadened the music circus' performances to include music night, featuring some of the top jazz and folk singers of the day - from Louie Armstrong to Pete Seeger.

Success bred more music circuses, some of which belonged to Mr. Terrell, including the Camden County Music Circus in Haddonfield and the Miami Music Circus in Florida. Others, including the Valley Forge Music Fair, copied the novel approach.

By 1957, there were at least 19 musical tents across the country, drawing more than 10 million patrons each summer. The Lambertville Music Circus closed in 1970.

For all the fame brought about by his theatrical accomplishments, Mr. Terrell is probably better known in the Philadelphia region for his re-creation of a historic event - George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Day.

In 1953, Mr. Terrell ``got a boat built, got himself a cape, and a cockaded hat, and, on Christmas Day, had five friends row him across the Delaware,'' according to a 1977 Inquirer article. ``He didn't row. He was standing in the bow.''

For the next 25 years, Mr. Terrell played George Washington each Christmas, making his last crossing in 1978.

Throughout his career, Mr. Terrell was, Hamilton said, ``a visionary, flamboyant man full of ideas and energy . . . with style and taste.''

Mr. Terrell was a founding member of the New Jersey Council on the Arts and was a charter member of the board of trustees of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

He is survived by his wife of 25 years, Mary Gallagher Terrell; a son, Bartholomew; and two daughters, Alicia and Elizabeth.

A Mass for the Dead will be celebrated 11 a.m. Saturday in Our Lady of Good Counsel Roman Catholic Church, West Upper Ferry Road, Ewing Township.

Memorial donations may be made to charity of the donor's choice.

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