The ‘Playhouse’ that burned on May 31, 1988 on the site of the present, soon to open, ‘Playhouse’ was built in 1938 by Robert Elwyn, an actor and director who had managed Hervey White’s Maverick Theatre. It was designed by the Kingston architect Edward Millikin and the lobby décor, with its distinctive radial roof rafters of the porch forming a giant cobweb with a large velvet spider at its highest point, was conceived by Norman Bel Geddes. Subsequently the Playhouse ownership and management passed first to Alex Segal, then Michael Linenthal and finally Abe Sainer.
In 1960, Edgar Rosenblum bought the Playhouse from Abe Sainer. Edgar had established the Polari Gallery in Woodstock in 1957, producing exhibits, dramatic readings and concerts. The Polari was first located in the barn at Parnassus Square, then for two years in a barn on Chestnut Hill Road.
Acquiring the Playhouse property, Edgar built a simple frame structure to the building’s east to become the new home of the Polari Gallery. A scene shop was added on the west side of the playhouse building. Edgar owned the playhouse from 1960 till 1973. The last year of ownership it was leased to Philip Meister’s Shakespeare Company. During Edgar’s ownership it was an Equity (professional Actors) Theatre presenting a season of 10 plays, a mixture of classic plays, contemporary dramas and recent Broadway hits. Among the many splendid actors appearing were Judd Hirsh, Diane Keaton, Charles Grodin, Peter Boyle, Jane Lloyd Jones, Virginia Downing, Crystal Field, George Bartenieff, Estelle Parsons, Nancy Jones Henry, Joseph Leon, Hayward Hale Broun, Tammy McDonald, Michael Murphy, and the wonderful David Atkinson, appearing memorably in “The Three Penny Opera” (to be revived twice) and in “Man of La Mancha.”
In established summer stock tradition, actors performed at night (with Saturday Matinees) and rehearsed the next week’s play during the day while the shop built the scenery.
Sunday — strike night — after the performance, the old set went down and the new set and lighting was put in place. On Mondays the dress and tech rehearsals took place and Tuesdays the new production opened.
Each summer 16 to 26 apprentices and staff were housed in The Villeta Inn in Byrdcliffe and other cottages in Byrdcliffe and around Woodstock. There were Saturday morning Children’s shows and a series of Midnight Concerts featuring Tim Hardin, Dave Van Ronk, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Jerry Jeff Walker, Pete Seeger, Susan Reed, Tom Paxton, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, John Hammond, The Tarriers, Johnny Herald and The Greenbriars Boys, Peter Yarrow and Happy & Artie Traum, among others. Later, The Band recorded the album Stage Fright at the Playhouse and other recordings were made there, too, over they years. Concerts of chamber music, and solo classic artists were also part of the crowded schedule, as was the opening of a new show every other Saturday at the Polari Gallery. In addition Turneau Opera presented a short season during this period.
In the spring of the second year, during a freak ice/wind storm, the entire front part of the
Playhouse roof collapsed — the same storm that brought down what was left of the derelict Maverick Theatre. The Playhouse roof had to be reconstructed with custom arches from Unadilla Silo Co., and it was completed just in time for the 1962 opening.
In the fourth year of operation, Edgar leased The Hyde Park Playhouse, a former carriage house on the Vanderbilt Estate. This involved rehearsing and building sets for two plays, maintaining two staffs, striking two sets on Sunday night and then switching productions...driving across the river in all hours in order to open the new play in each theatre on Tuesday. Sometimes there was a problem with the set not fitting the stage it was moved to. Frantic last minute alterations had to be made. I remember one opening in Hyde Park — a sold out benefit performance of My Fair Lady — and the set needed last minute carpentry.
So, in the ballroom scene, Eliza Doolittle (played by the young Estelle Parsons) swept in, the train of her white satin gown hitting the still wet paint of the altered set and gaining a large wet brown stripe.
The insanity of the two theatre switch lasted only one season. At some future point in time the Hyde Park Playhouse was also destroyed by flames.
When Edgar acquired the Playhouse, seating was on long benches...audience members often carried their own cushions into the theatre. For the first season, the seats of the benches were padded. In the third year the benches were replaced with real seats recycled from a theatre in Brooklyn of the same era of the Playhouse. The Playhouse benches were given to the Maverick Concert Hall where they replaced the rougher benches that were then moved to the outside seating area.
In 1967, Edgar established The Hudson Valley Repertory Theatre at the Playhouse with the goal of bringing professional theatre to the area beyond the summer months.
J. Constant Van Rijn, President of Rotron and a great supporter of the arts in Woodstock contributed a heating plant to this endeavor. An interesting footnote to HVRT period is that Diane Hall, now known as Diane Keaton, earned her Actors Equity card in the HVRT production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
In 1972 Edgar, having been appointed executive director of The Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, sold the property to Harris Gordon...who continued to run it as a summer stock theatre and turned the Polari Gallery into The Joan Gordon theatre, which presented Children’s shows. In 1985, The Playhouse was sold to Ralph Miller.
It was destroyed by fire in 1988.
The Playhouse rose again when The Woodstock Arts Board, though intense effort, raised the money to acquire the property, saving it from probable commercial development. Initially an outdoor stage was built with lawn seating. A collaborative community effort built a smaller scale version of the distinctive playhouse porch. The seating area was partially enclosed, wings added to the stage area and bleacher type seating installed. Now in its new incarnation it has been totally enclosed expanded, and theatre seating and lighting added. The town awaits its new incarnation eagerly.++