The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

By Scott Swanson
Of The New Era 

Longtime Sweet Home resident finds her place – on stage


November 1, 2016

SHIRLEY AUSTIN stands outside the Sweet Home High School Auditorium, scene of many of her efforts to promote stage arts in the community.

When Shirley Austin stands in the wings of the stage in the Sweet Home High School Auditorium, which is rather often, she’s doing exactly what she loves: directing entertainment extravaganzas.

Austin has put on many of the non-student productions in Sweet Home in recent years, either at the high school or at Sweet Home Elks Lodge – Chips and Splinters, Sweet Country Christmas, Switcheroo Review, and the annual SHARC Showdown talent show.

More on SHARC in a moment.

Austin, 64, says she found her life calling rather late – kind of like a second career.

She grew up in Sweet Home as Shirley Dimick, one of 13 children, and graduated from Sweet Home High School in 1970.

She wasn’t real active in high school, she said, but she did participate in Girls Glee Club.

“That’s why I remember that stage,” she said, referring to the Auditorium.

After high school she lived in Albany and Portland, where she attended Western Business University.

She married a Canadian and lived in British Columbia for 10 years, returning to the United States in 1987 – single.

“That’s when I started getting involved,” she said. She joined the Kiwanis Club and worked for Santiam Spray Service for 12 years, before moving briefly to California.

“When I was working at Santiam Spray, my boss Greg Sullens wanted the company represented in Rotary and Kiwanis. It was decided his wife Dee would join Rotary and I’d join Kiwanis.”

When she returned to the Sweet Home area from California in 2004, she decided to go back to school and enrolled at Linn-Benton Community College, where she earned a degree in Wine and Food Dynamics.

“I didn’t really use that degree,” Austin said. “But that’s how I found my passion for events.”

During her three years at LBCC, Austin also studied abroad, in Florence, Italy, for a year.

“Best city in the world,” she said. “I think it changed my life. Best thing I ever did for myself. I made some lifelong friends and did a lot of traveling. I learned a lot. Every weekend was a trip somewhere. I went all over Italy and South France.”

She also worked at LBCC Multicultural Center and Student Life and Leadership while attending school.

“Every term we had to come up with an event – organize something,” she said. “I found out I really liked doing that.”

After she finished her degree in 2008, the Lebanon Senior Center opened a new position: activities planner. She applied and landed the job.

During her six years with the Senior Center, she started the SoGo program – Seniors on the Go, which continues, she noted.

“They could sign up for $20 a year and once a week we’d have some little adventure, whether it was a walk through town or miniature golfing or bocce ball or a field trip. Something different every week.”

She also started Lunch and Learn, which brings various speakers in over a six- to eight-week period to talk on different subjects.

A couple of years into the job, Austin found herself doing entertainment for the Christmas Potluck at the center.

“I called on some community members and asked them, ‘Hey, let’s put on a show.”

The result drew a standing-room-only crowd and started another tradition, the Senior Center Chirstmas Show. Each year, the proceeds benefit a different cause, she said.

This year’s show, “A Sweet Country Christmas,” will benefit Dala Johnson and the Blue Angels, a group of Lebanon volunteers who work to combat abuse of women and children. Show times are 2 and 7 p.m. on Dec. 9 at the Senior Center in Lebanon, then at 3 p.m. on Dec. 11 at the Sweet Home Elks Lodge.

Cost is $5 a ticket in Lebanon and in Sweet Home, admission is donations of toys, or cash to purchase toys, for the Sweet Home Choppers Toy Drive.

Other popular events Austin started at the Senior Center were the annual Luau and the Hee Haw Show, which also played in Sweet Home and Albany.

“That was probably our most popular show,” she said, noting that all of her productions are all-volunteer.

This year she’s helping to organize the Sweet Home Elks Lodge’s Purple Ball, which will have a masquerade theme. The ball is a fund-raiser for Christmas baskets presented by the Elks.

“And I’ll be organizing a Roaring ’20s-themed martini tasting event for Feb. 11 - so I want everyone to save the date! It’ll be open to the public,” she said.

Three years ago Wendy Smith, who coordinated Sweet Home’s Sportsman’s Holiday Court, asked Austin to resurrect the old Chips ’n’ Splinters variety show that was a tradition in past decades, featuring prominent local personalities in, er, unusual costumes and behavior.

“That’s when I saw the disrepair the Sweet Home Auditorium was in,” she said. “The curtains were ripped and stained and the floor had a big hole that had duct tape all over it. There was a bubblegum paint job on the walls.

“I thought, to me, these performing arts venues are just as important as football players and kids in sports. Not everybody is into sports or is a brainiac. People need that outlet. Obviously, it hasn’t been a priority.”

She went to the Sweet Home Elks leadership for help.

They got a group together who painted the auditorium. They replaced the front curtain and valence. Ron Sharrah, Elks district deputy, removed non-functioning floor lights and bad wood in the stage floor, and sanded the floor, which was painted at the beginning of this school year.

Austin put on a number of fund-raisers for the project, the biggest of which was the Switcheroo Review in 2015, which brought in $4,000, plus revenue from food sales. She said that more upgrades are needed, particularly to the audio system.

The project’s at a “standstill” now due to seismic upgrades that are being funded by a state grant.

Meanwhile, fund-raisers continue. Last month she put on the annual SHARC Showdown talent contest, which brought together a variety of performers, young and old, who competed for prizes donated by local merchants. Austin said she wants to see that event continue, at a different level.

“My goal is that when the auditorium is finished and Sweet Home has a state-of-the-art auditorium not only for the school district but for the community, I want to continue the talent contest,” she said. “I’d also love to start a community theater group, once this auditorium is done, so we can use it.”

Austin lives in the Brownsville area now, but she said she still spends a lot of her time in Sweet Home. She “basically retired” two years ago, though she does occasional catering as a personal chef, she said.

She also has volunteered at the Oregon Jamboree, “every year since the second year” of the event.

“I went to the first one and thought to myself, ‘How can I get involved?’”

She currently supervises artist merchandise sales. She says one of the perks is “meeting the talent” and she “actually made the cut” to appear in one of country band Home Free’s music videos, “Sold,” when the band filmed at an auction yard in Eugene between appearances at the Jamboree and the Benton County Fair a few years ago.

SHIRLEY AUSTIN and Charlie Williamson, as “June” and “Johnny,” sing “Jackson” during the 2015 production of Hee Hee Haw Haw!

She also got a chance to get on stage herself last spring when she played a part in a benefit murder mystery dinner put on for nonprofit Willamette Manor.

“I played a trucker’s sister,” she said. “Usually I’m the one producing and directing.”

She enjoys “pulling people together, people who like to sing, like to entertain, make other people happy.

“That’s what we’re doing. We don’t make money at it. We just try to find some cause.”


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