This story was written in April 2003 for the Hendersonville Times-News by Jennie Jones Giles.
Robroy Farquhar’s love of theater and Leona Fraki Farquhar’s knack for organization brought the Flat Rock Playhouse to the mountains of Western North Carolina.
“They both brought something very important to the whole experience,” says their son, Robin Farquhar.
Robert William Smith was born in 1910 in Liverpool, England. He immigrated to the United States at the age of 15 and soon became involved with fellow British expatriates in theater circles.
Smith took the name Robroy from the Scottish clan chieftain Robroy McGregor and Farquhar from his mother’s family.
By the 1930s he was performing on stage in Upstate New York, Greenwich Village in New York City and Florida. In 1939 he began directing drama at a private school in Miami. Within a year, with the help of a financial backer, he established the first professional stock theater in North Carolina at the Old Mill at Highland Lake.
His theater dreams were interrupted by World War II. Robroy became an infantryman with Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army in Europe. He told his son of only one wartime experience.
“They were in a river during a firefight,” Robin says. “They were literally pinned down in the river and were freezing to death. He hated water after that.”
Leona was born in Minnesota, moved with her sister to Chicago, and then, being an adventurous young woman, hitchhiked to Florida.
“Dad was down there doing winter stock theater,” Robin says.
She and her sister took jobs in a theater in Miami where Robroy was directing performances.
The war sent Leona back to Minnesota to radio school. She became a chief inspector of communication equipment in military aircraft. Later she was in Fairbanks, Alaska, monitoring military transmissions.
At war’s end, Robroy returned to Henderson County and was reorganizing his theater at Lake Summit.
“He fell in love with the area,” Robin says. “He loved the people. It reminded him of the Scottish Highlands, one of his favorite places.”
Leona answered Robroy’s call for help and in September 1948 they married.
In 1951 they moved the playhouse from Lake Summit to its current home on “the great flat rock” for which the village is named.
The stage was under a circus tent, money was scarce and the work was hard.
Vision and determination
Robroy was the spokesman, gathering support.
“He brought showmanship and theatrical enthusiasm,” Robin says. “She made the nuts and bolts happen.
“He was the dreamer, she was the doer,” he says.
With perseverance, determination and vision, the Vagabond School of the Drama was formed and the tent gave way to a shed. In 1961 the Flat Rock Playhouse became the State Theater of North Carolina.
Kate Bertram, playhouse actress and property mistress, remembers Robroy “stepping in front of the curtain to say ‘Welcome to your Flat Rock Playhouse,’ with a cat on his shoulder and a basket of kittens to give away.”
“He loved cats and dogs,” Robin says, “especially collies.”
“Robbie had one blind spot,” Bertram says. “He refused to recognize the impossible. Not only that, he believed that people were capable of accomplishing the impossible even though they knew better.”
Robin adds that his mother had a similar attitude.
“If one truly believes something, it will happen,” she often said.
Leona’s wide range of skills
Paula Campbell, whose mother was a good friend of Leona’s, remembers Leona would do anything.
“She was a dancer, a carpenter, a seamstress and a nurse,” Campbell says. “She was totally unforgettable.”
She became interested in natural health foods and metaphysics in the 1950s, before these ideas and interests were widely accepted or popular.
“She was a pioneer in natural foods, so far ahead of her time,” Campbell says. “She was like a Britannica of information, very well read, and always had a positive attitude.”
In spite of their divorce in the late 1960s, Leona and Robroy continued working as a team and continued to be friends, Robin says.
Robroy, wearing a plaid beret, plaid pants and at times a mismatched plaid jacket, was enthusiastic and optimistic as the Playhouse continued to grow and expand.
Leona bought a building on King Street in Hendersonville and turned it into the Merry Miller, the first health food store and cafeteria in the area.
“She became more focused on her own business,” Robin says. “But she continued to run the concession stand at the Playhouse…. She was so proud of the honey lemonade she created.”
Robroy never ate properly and had diabetes. The son believes his mother gave his father an extra 10 years of life.
“She continued to bring him food and checked on him,” Robin says.
Robroy’s health deteriorated in the late 1970s and in the early 1980s he took a bad fall. Because of the diabetes and poor circulation he developed phlebitis in the leg, leading to a rapid decline.
In 1983 Robroy died. After his death, Leona continued to run the concession stand.
“She loved the Playhouse and it was good for me to have her there,” Robin says.
Campbell remembers Leona’s love for the outdoors.
“We went hiking once to Green River Narrows,” Campbell says. “We hiked and hiked and hiked. She wore me out. She never broke a sweat. She was incredible.
“Everything was more fun with Leona. There were so many people she helped,” she says. “She was ageless and timeless, an elderly woman with many young friends.”
Leona died in 1998.
Robin believes both his parents left the world a better place than they found it.
Robroy never made much money or gained many possessions, his son says.
The theater impresario, known as Robbie by most theater people, is credited for building a family atmosphere at the playhouse that remains a trademark today.
Actors, actresses, friends, co-workers and theatergoers remember him as a true artist, an elegant, dignified man with class, culture, heart and vision. He radiated enthusiasm, kindness and gentleness.
Actress Barbara Bradshaw recalled Robbie’s rule that he would cast only “ladies and gentlemen” for shows at Flat Rock.
He envisioned the Playhouse, and along with Leona and actor friends and Hendersonville area people he made it happen.
“He did it for love,” Robin said. “It was his love, his passion.”