Betty and Steve Walpert come across as strikingly calm and happy. Spend time with them and you’ll notice a lot of laughter and friendship, and no indication they are among the most influential and involved arts professionals in the Augusta area.
And yet, between them, Betty and Steve have motivated and inspired thousands of people to support and take part in the fine arts. They have dedicated years of their lives to improving the lives of others; encouraging self-expression, building self-confidence, and offering a healthy escape from the grind of daily life.
Betty Walpert teaches advanced-level acting, costume design and theater history at Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School. For more than 20 years, Betty has inspired students to embrace fine arts as a means of enriching their lives. She is also an accomplished actress, director and mentor with multiple awards to her name; best supporting actress and best character actor as the witch in “The Wizard of Oz,” best actress in the Army Festival of Performing Arts, best local actress by Augusta Magazine, arts professional of the year, and the 2013 SETC William E Wilson award winner.
An Augusta resident from childhood, Betty has made more than 75 stage appearances as well as regional and local television commercials, and on three separate occasions was recognized by the Georgia Theatre Conference as best director. She still frequently plays a role in Fort Gordon Dinner Theatre productions, and she has performed alongside her husband in numerous productions, including “Becky’s New Car,” “Moon Over Buffalo” and “The Housekeeper.”
Expressive, intelligent and hugely talented, Betty’s enthusiasm for life is infectious and her passion for what she does is evident.
Steve Walpert arrived in Augusta in 1969 as a second lieutenant in the Army’s Signal Officer’s Basic Course. He spent two years in the Army as a motion picture/TV director at Fort Gordon and in Southeast Asia before returning to civilian life and his first love: theater.
Since his return to Fort Gordon as the director of music and theatre and the dinner theatre, he has produced and directed more than 35 seasons of live theatrical productions and a range of special events.
Off post, you may recognize him as the past president of the Greater Augusta Arts Council, co-founder of Arts in the Heart of Augusta, and co-founder and previous board member of Leadership Augusta.
However, in addition to the Dinner Theatre, Steve manages the entertainment program on post, which includes the annual Soldier Show, Missoula Children’s Theatre, Operation Rising Star, outdoor concerts, talent shows, festivals and Youth Theatre productions. His awards are too many to mention, but all a reflection of his substantial and extensive body of work.
But ahead of work comes family, and the couple has two daughters and two granddaughters, too. In other words, Betty and Steve are very busy people.
Thankfully, Augusta has a history of supporting the arts, and it is this part of the CSRA’s culture that fires up the Walperts’ passion and keeps them going. The significance of what they do and what they provide others doesn’t escape them, but they feel the benefits of theater can’t be ignored and they want the rest of us to feel that way, too.
The Fort Gordon Dinner Theatre is a perfect example. It is an on-post community theater, staffed by a handful of employees who produce multiple high-quality musicals, comedies, mysteries and more each year. All of which are only possible due to devoted and talented military and civilian volunteers who fulfill the roles of cast, crew and backstage workers. With a focus on visually stunning sets, carefully choreographed performances and quality shows, its annual performances are open to the public and they are hugely popular.
Put another way: the shows always sell out.
Speaking to Steve, it’s easy to see that this may be exhausting work, but in the end it is worth every minute. The positive effects of theater on individuals and society as a whole are well documented, but Steve is a living example of how theater can have a profound effect on a person. For young, newly commissioned second lieutenant Walpert, the availability of a performing arts program was a game changer.
“I was stationed at Fort Gordon, in 1970,” he said. “I went out for one of those life-changing walks one evening and happened to stumble upon the Fort Gordon Performing Arts Center. I was amazed to discover the U.S. Army had such enlightened recreational programming. I poked my head through the front door, and was instantly welcomed by Claude Astin, the gifted founder of the Fort Gordon Music and Theatre Program, and a community of soldiers and civilians who shared a love of the theater. I spent every waking off-duty hour at that theater the year before I went overseas. We did dozens of productions, entertaining thousands of soldiers and community members.”
“The visible impact on morale was so immediate,” he continued. “We all needed that. It wasn’t a very happy time in this country… we were fighting an unpopular war in a time when the military was not really appreciated as it is today. Augusta was a bit more provincial then; with fewer restaurants and fewer things to attract the soldiers downtown. Our theater was something of a cultural beacon in the community, a great program where the Augusta and Fort Gordon communities could share a love of the arts.”
For Betty, the fact public schools like Davidson exist offers a true reflection of its importance.
“To have a school like ours, that’s a public school — everybody in our city should take pride in that and take ownership of that,” she said. “That it’s part of who we are as a city, as a community; we together in Richmond County have worked to make this happen. We are sending students out to be life-long learners and the arts make that process fun.”
And though Davidson is a school known for its fine arts curriculum, Betty knows it still benefits children who eventually decide on a radically different career path.
“The fabulous thing about Davidson is that while our kids might go off to be engineers or scientists, they learn a love for the arts, they learn discipline and they learn what it means to work under pressure and what it means to have a deadline,” she explained. “Because when you have a deadline, that’s it — the show goes on, whether you are ready or not. It teaches a lot of important skills that can cross over into the workplace.”
The Walperts have the experience to stake these claims. Both have been instrumental in building a network of creative people and providing opportunities to children and adults who would otherwise be lacking an outlet. Betty has taken every chance to involve her students in broader experiences, such as taking part in the largest arts festival in the world — Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival in Scotland.
The Fringe is an annual festival that takes place over three weeks in August; thousands of performers on hundreds of stages, it is a whirlwind of theater, comedy, dance, circus, cabaret, children’s shows, musicals, spoken word and more.
Betty describes the festival as “the most amazing artistic experience of my life. There are all these different performances happening at once, and the venues are all over — I swear to you, someone performed on an elevator. You get to see other schools and what they are doing. The festival is very different and big, and spread out. An entire tented fairground section is devoted to young comedians. And you get to see dance companies from all over the world; every church was transformed into a venue for these dancers — beautiful, wonderful, interesting performances.”
The children are able to experience other cultures through the diverse world of performance arts. The group went for two weeks, and hit London first.
“We were there under the umbrella of the American High School Theatre Festival,” she said. “When we got to London, I took the kids to the Globe Theatre; we were bone tired after traveling but we didn’t care — we got to see a fabulous performance of “King Lear.” Then, while in Edinburgh, we went sightseeing and we hiked up King Arthur’s Seat, just outside the city.”
The kids were also exposed to their first professional critics.
“Huge sections of Edinburgh are for pedestrians only and there were small stages lining the roads, maybe 20 feet wide,” she said. “We performed on one of those a few times over a few days, and then we performed in a church three, maybe four times. But we got reviewed — these are legit international reviewers, and we got reviewed just like the adults get reviewed and we got a wonderful write-up.”
The extent to which we make sense of our own lives through art was brought into sharp focus for Betty during one particular Fringe event. She recalled seeing a group of dancers who had experienced a natural disaster few of us can imagine.
“We went just after a tsunami hit Indonesia in 2004, and a group of children who were left homeless by the tsunami were performing together at the Fringe that year,” she said. “Someone had found these kids and cared for them, and they formed a group who sang together. The performance was in the botanical gardens which were just beautiful; these children who had lost so much, they were singing and performing a celebration of life and nature — it was such an emotional experience.”
Emotions often run high for Steve, too, who constantly sees the impact the theater has on the lives of service members. One gripe often heard is that tickets to shows should be cheaper — perhaps even free — if it’s meant to be a service to the military. And though it used to be that way, times have changed.
“When I first came to Fort Gordon, I worked for the recreational division ‘Special Services,’” he said. “We did lots of the same things we do today: sports, special events, clubs, bowling, outdoor recreation, music and theater. It was pretty cool… an abundance of appropriated fund dollars, everything free to the user (except at the clubs). My second production as a civilian director, in about 1973, was a multi-media production of ‘Dracula’ (Dracula grew 20 feet tall) in an 800-seat performing arts center absolutely full of soldiers and family members every night, and no charge for admission. What a trip! We could do any show we desired, within reason, and spend big bucks to make it spectacular and never had to sell a ticket. To be successful, we just had to be good in our area of expertise and provide a lot of programs.”
“But it’s because of the change in the economy, the change in which the Army allocates its funding, that we can’t any longer provide these services for free or dirt cheap,” he continued. “I wish we could, but the non-appropriated funds (NAF) supported programs couldn’t survive without the fees we charge. And the price is determined by the quality and quantity of the services we provide. We must operate with a high degree of fiscal responsibility as businesses. And that’s where some folks get confused. We operate as a business in that we must sustain our operation financially, not in the conventional sense of making a profit for the owner. All the positive net from our activities goes back to our service members and their family members in the form of better equipment, facilities and services. So, if the price of a ticket gets a bit more expensive over the years, it’s just because that’s what’s required to pay the bills. And if we could charge lower fees and still provide a great product, we absolutely would… but it’s a different time.”
Times change and tastes change too.
“Back in 1970, I was in love with Ionesco, Brecht, Pirandello, Jean Claude Van Itallie and Samuel Becket,” he said. “Two of my early plays at Fort Gordon were ‘America Hurrah’ and ‘Endgame’ paired with ‘Act without Words.’ Also Williams, O’Neil, Miller. I was such a theater snob — the thought of doing a Neil Simon play was bewildering to me. Now I’ve done practically all his comedies. I still enjoy all those playwrights and more, but the times and the need to produce shows people will come see in quantities that will keep your theater open, tease an ‘evolution’ in a fella’s perspective. Now, I want to produce shows that entertain, offer variety, enlighten, that challenge the performers, the audience and me… and are interesting.”
With so much on their plates, it would be easy for the couple to feel overwhelmed and give in to the chaos. But, throughout their lives they have provided one another the support they have needed to be successful. Steve explains, “Since we got married, Betty has been my inseparable partner in all things onstage and off. We’ll celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary this summer.”
How has this impacted his approach to theater?
“Candidly, I don’t really want to act in a show unless I’m onstage with Betty,” he said. “There’s a trust — a unique connection — where each actor feeds a type of electricity to the others, and one that performers must share onstage for a show to be great. That characteristic is almost genetic with Betty — she brings so much energy, so much talent onto any stage with her. And that makes everyone onstage with her, and the show itself, better.”
And their ability to collaborate professionally, to empathize with one another, has helped strengthen their personal friendship too.
“Our lives intertwine in almost every aspect,” Betty said. “Steve is so kind and thoughtful and generous — in everything. Even though our day-to-day life can get so filled with pressure and stress, he works hard to find moments of ‘specialness’ in the midst of chaos. It means a lot to come home after a long rehearsal to a sweet note or flowers on the counter. I am so lucky to be married to my best friend, on stage and off.”
Steve had one last thing to say about his wife.
“Living and surviving a life-long artistic collaboration has a lot of potential outcomes. After-all it’s a partnership, much like a marriage. In order to flourish, the partners need to respect and appreciate what they each bring to table. But there is also that artistic component and temperament. Sometimes serene. Sometimes volatile. Add that to an actual marriage and it takes some special navigational skills to stay afloat. However, through all the triumphs, stress, problem solving, intermittent looming disasters, onstage mishaps, occasional ‘disagreements,’ and long hours required to do what we have in the last 30-plus years, there has never been a moment when I didn’t feel blessed to be sharing it all with Elizabeth Walpert. She is an amazing person with astounding artistic capabilities. And on a personal level, to borrow from e.e. cummings, ‘I carry her heart within my heart’… always. In my opinion, I absolutely got the better part of the deal.”