PHOTO PROVIDED - Frank Long, Marge Wrightson, "Barefoot in the Park" CT Production 1985

COTTAGE GROVE – The community lost a one-of-a-kind citizen when Frank Long exited the earthly stage on June 10, 2021. The Celebration of Life was held at the Cottage Theatre last weekend, and while renovations are still underway, work was far enough along that Frank’s life could finally have its time in the spotlight.

On March 5, family, friends, former colleagues, theater lovers and community members gathered in celebration of his life and accomplishments. Susan Goes, executive director of CT, served as emcee, shared some insights on Frank Long and told of the renovations that were apparent on entering the building. 

“It is highly fitting that the first gathering in this new space is to have Frank in the focus, honoring him,” Goes said. 

A man with many passions, his chief and lasting legacy is the CT. Everyone that I spoke with mentioned what became a mantra for Long, “Think Ashland!” He fully believed that the CT could provide a cultural, educational, and economic engine for Cottage Grove much as The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has done for our southern neighbor. 

And it has. Growing from a parachute set up on the pitch and putt surface at the Village Green, through a tenure at a funky former health food store, to a state-of-the-art facility, CT is still going strong. 

DANA MERRYDAY / THE CHRONICLE - Friends and loved ones line up to pay tribute to longtime Cottage Grove resident Frank Long.

Casey Woodard knew Long as both an influential teacher at Cottage Grove High School and as a partner in the fundraising efforts that led to building CT's first true home. 

Woodard remembers first being aware of him as the ubiquitous teacher with a camera. Being the yearbook adviser, photography and journalism teacher, and a former newspaper reporter, it was natural that Long would be out “on the beat” recording student life. He took great pride in the quality of product his student team achieved in producing the annual “Lion Tracks” and school paper, and pushing students to achieve their best by being engaging and approachable.  

“Frank had a very calming effect on students. He would cross his arms, tilt his head and pause while reflecting on how to respond to a question or challenge,” Woodard said. “He also really engaged with students in deep conversations, not just chit-chat.”

Woodard and Long reunited in the ’90s with the goal of building a real home for the Cottage Theatre and fundraising for it. The troupe had lost the lease for their 60-seat venue where they had soldiered along with coffee can lights, a stage exit that went directly outside, and a dilapidated travel trailer dressing room. Many stories exist about the mercurial director Alice Corey who demanded professionalism, a toilet you couldn’t flush during performances, and seat springs poking patrons’ dierreres, but the memories of the old space were recalled as warm, memorable and magical. Progress caused the bank that owned the land to end the building’s lease. Walmart was coming next door and suddenly the land was worth a bundle.  

Woodard admits his involvement was partly motivated by guilt. “Our family had sold the land to Walmart which caused them to lose their space,” he said, noting how much love the town had for the all-volunteer theater. 

And then there was Frank.  

“He was the real face of the organization. People support people, not institutions, and Frank was relentless … I helped Long lay out a plan and timeline to raise $1 million. Frank ran it like a champ and he and the volunteers did 99% of the work,” Woodard said. The Woodard Foundation helped with an initial grant and a sweetheart lease on the land for the proposed theater.  

At times, Woodard used his contacts to steer the group toward other foundations and donors. He helped set up a benefit at King Estates in the barrel room that brought in over $100,000 with Long and the CT musical troupe, “Way Off Broadway,” performing. This group also toured relentlessly, appearing anywhere that would have them, fundraising for the project.

Long was not only part of the initial “Act I” to build the original CT, but was very active in two more million-dollar campaigns that expanded and upgraded the facility — “Act II” and the now-nearly finished “Act III.” He was a fixture on the CT board, often serving as its president.

Long was a family man, having nine children in his two marriages. It is noted that teaching, art, and music run the family.

In conversation with wife Donna and son Brian, traits of Frank Long emerged that made him a local legend. 

PHOTO PROVIDED - Frank Long, left, and Pauline Thorstenson in "I'll be home for Christmas" from a 1993 production.

Coupled with his unquestioned honesty, knowing Frank would stick with a project until its successful conclusion reassured potential donors that their contribution wouldn’t be for naught.

He also could never say “no” to a good cause. “I think we can do that” was his standard response. 

“Our home phone number was up all over town for five different causes,” Brian said. “When we would get home the answering machine was always full.”

Donna said he had a quixotic quality about him. “He was forever tilting at windmills, like he didn’t know what he was trying to do was impossible. Somehow, he managed to pull it off,” she said.

Jim Gilroy, as mayor and civic leader, worked with Frank Long on numerous projects, but didn’t get to know him on a personal level until they and their sons were on Troop 140 Boy Scout campouts together. 

“When Frank and I were sitting around the campfire he’d share parts of himself that normally don’t come up in everyday life. I can’t help but think all the world’s problems could be solved if we just sit together at a fire,” Gilroy said. The decades-long businessman’s coffee club that started out in the 1950s at McCoys, and is still going on, was also a place where Gilroy saw another side of his friend.  

Kiwanis was another part of Long’s life. He was a charter member of the Bohemia Sunrisers Club that was organized in 1980, serving as its first president. He also started clubs in Junction City and Oakridge. The Pacific Northwest District — a huge area which includes Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and parts of Canada — was served by Long in the role of Lt. Governor twice, involving a lot of travel and commitment. He attended many regional, national and international Kiwanis conferences, and was in Vienna, Austria, when his son Brian was born. 

Donna said he’d go to meetings with their infant daughter Kendra in tow. It is fitting that they both were recognized by the coveted Hixson Award, Kiwanis’ highest honor.  

A less distinguished but more personal honor was given to Long by the local club in the form of the title of “Music Man.’” He was the only one who could pitch and lead the national anthems of USA and Canada, the traditional opening of each club meeting. His beautiful, rich voice was also lent to the choir at First Presbyterian Church. Having a booming laugh, he would often get a reluctant audience going if a comedic piece was struggling, being a welcome “plant” in the audience.

Brian said that many a Saturday morning was spent at the Kiwanis woodlot with his Dad. He was encouraged to have his buddies over for sleepovers so they could be roped into helping, too. If his kids were watching TV, they would find themselves stuffing envelopes for a mailing. The Scouts primed the exterior boards for the new building in rainy winter weather at the Saginaw mill; it was so cold that they had to use gas jets to get it to dry. 

Growing up in Porterville, Calif., Long got hooked on theater in high school by acting at the well-known Barn Theater, where he performed in 32 productions by the time he graduated from junior college.

He appeared in 20 performances at the CT, most memorably as Elwood in “Harvey,” and was involved in every aspect of each play. He did whatever needed to be done, taking tickets, building sets, sweeping the floor, selling refreshments, no job was beneath him. 

“I had to get my own garden tools and put my name on them, because otherwise they would end up at CT,” Donna said. Another time she put her foot down was when they moved into a house that had a garage. “It is not going to be for set-building, a paint shed, or a costume shop, we are going to park the car in there!”

Frank was well-honored in Cottage Grove, receiving First Citizen in 1998, the first Frank Long Spotlight award from CT, 2011 Breaking Barriers Award, among others. Brian said that the family could not go anywhere in town without everyone wanting to stop and talk with his dad, a fact he learned to accept while patiently waiting.

“Frank knew how to have fun, and the most fun of all for him was when he was on stage,” Goes said. CT’s first performance in the upgraded building is “Mamma Mia,” the production that was set to open just as Covid hit. 

DANA MERRYDAY / THE CHRONICLE - Long's legacy: A view from the stage at the renovated performance space at Cottage Theatre.

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