BUCKFIELD – The Oddfellow Theater might be standing empty today had it not been for Benny Reehl, a vaudeville performer who once lived in town and touched people here with his creativity and humanism.

“There would be no Oddfellow Theater without Benny Reehl. And so many of the things he inspired in me wouldn’t exist,” theater owner Mike Miclon said recently sitting in the upstairs portion of the theater he has renovated into a home for his family. “I’d be in jail or something,” he added.

Reehl died in 2005 at the age of 61.

Miclon, who grew up in Buckfield and went to the local high school, said he was encouraged into the performing arts as a teenager by Reehl and his wife, Denise, a drama coach.

While traveling as an apprentice in the early 1980s with the Reehls’ show, The Buckfield Leather and Lather Traveling Variety Show, Miclon said he gained confidence as an artist and learned the tricks of the trade, such as juggling, magic tricks, sound engineering and comedy.

Reehl, a former professor of theater and English in Albany, N.Y., moved to Buckfield in the 1970s. Soon after, he and Denise started their itinerant show, touring the country. Reehl is considered the founder of a vaudeville revival, coining the phrase “new vaudeville,” a stage variety show with an assortment of short acts.

“He loved originality and versatility and adaptability,” Denise Reehl said Thursday by phone. “And then he found something that enabled him to express those qualities. In vaudeville, he could relate completely with his audience, talk to them, play with them.”

In 1996, Miclon bought the Oddfellow building from the town and opened it two years later.

“Benny and Denise took me to little theaters like this one, under 200 seats,” Miclon said. “Really what I inherited from Benny was a love of the intimate audience relationship and the possibility that a theater in Buckfield, Maine, would make sense.”

To honor Reehl, Miclon has asked Michael Raymond, a local artist, to paint his portrait to hang inside the theater. Both Raymond and Miclon said they believe Reehl would be pleased with their gesture.

“Benny would be most happy that Mike’s an artist and I’m an artist, and we hooked up,” Miclon said, because Reehl believed art unified people and played a vital role in communities.

Raymond said he will begin the painting as soon as a photograph to base the portrait on has been selected. He expects it to take him six weeks.

Although he never met Reehl, Raymond said he knows many people who did, and he has seen videos of Reehl’s performances.

“This man left so many traces on people,” Raymond said. “I’ve met half a dozen, eight, and they loved this guy. A guy who leaves that thumbprint.”

The 4- by 5-foot painting will hang in the theater’s new lobby, and Miclon said he will also put up some of Reehl’s costumes and his quotes about theater.

Denise Reehl read aloud a couple of sentences from Benny’s writing: “I believe that working in theater in any capacity is not an inborn talent but an acquired craft, the learning of which is commensurate with one’s desire to learn, ability to accept and use valuable critique, and one’s love of humanity. The latter being that quality which develops strong empathy in characterizations and a stage presence that makes an audience relax and enjoy.'”

“Benny was interested in who people were, he loved people,” Miclon said. “The humanity of people he was constantly inspired by.”

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