Playhouse navigates bumps in the road in the 1970s

Wednesday, May 25, 2011
There was extensive work to be done to this barn on the property of the late Hazel Day Longden when the Putnam County Playhouse took possession in the early 1980s, as Jim Poor found as he surveyed the property.

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of five articles exploring, by decade, the 50 years of Putnam County Playhouse in advance of an open house Saturday, May 28 at the Hazel Day Longden Theatre. Starting at 3 p.m., the public can tour the theatre and buy tickets for "The Music Man or the 2011 season.

The second decade of the Putnam County Playhouse opened with great memories of our very successful first 10 years. The sun was shining, the grass was green (with no dandelions), and the flowers were in full bloom. But, if you looked hard enough, you could see storm clouds forming on the horizon. The 1970s are almost a blur for me, as the Playhouse hit some hard times.

The difficult times of the Playhouse in the '70s was caused, I believe, by a loss of vision and focus by the board. By this time, several of the original board had resigned, feeling (and rightfully so) that they had done what they set out to do: Contributing to the successful start of live community theater in Putnam County. Gradually, they were replaced by other good people, but also a few people with personal agendas. In my view, the goals of the Playhouse became focused inward instead of outward to the community.

Upon completion of the transformation from barn to playhouse, Poor presented Longden with a plaque bearing her likeness to hang in the new playhouse.

Please do not misunderstand. There were still those on the board who certainly thought first of PCPH. Vickie Parker and Linda Gjesvold come to mind. (These two women, along with Jack Randall Earles, are the Playhouse people I am closest to). But, there were a few others who thought of their own personal desires instead of what was best for the Playhouse. This happens all too often in arts organizations and the Playhouse was not immune to this problem in the '70s.

I tried to counteract this trend, but could not. It seemed we had lost our way. I eventually resigned from the board around 1976 or 1977. The audience attendance had dropped in the latter years of the '70s. Compare these attendance figures:

-- 1971 (PCPH 10th year): "Peter Pan," 1,400 and "Hello Dolly," 1,750.

-- 1977: "The Music Man," 666 and "Hansel and Gretl," 449.

-- 1979: "Camelot," 451 and "My Three Angels," 296.

I hated it! I felt helpless. There seemed to be nothing I could do. I was off the board and I thought the Playhouse was going the wrong direction. And, then, something happened.

I remember two young men coming to see me during this turbulent time with encouraging news. Evidently, there were others who felt as I did and at the annual meeting (I think it was 1977) they had nominated some new people to the board, replacing some of the self-focused directors. I was not at the meeting, but listened with interest to what they had to say. The two young men had been involved with the Playhouse over the years in some of the children's musicals I had directed in the '60s, and they were excited to tell me about the change. I certainly hoped that the change would have the desired effect. That was the beginning.

And then, things began to happen -- I got a visit from one of the director, asking if I would come back and direct another children's musical. Besides my passion for the Playhouse, I am a pushover for Vickie Parker. I said I would do it. We picked the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Cinderella," and 1978 began the resurgence of the Putnam County Playhouse. Besides "Cinderella" (657 attendees), we also presented "The King and I" (955 attendees). Attendance was still not what it had been, but there was a general feeling that we were back on the right track.

Money was still short, so we sponsored a fundraising dinner theater at the DPU Union Ballroom called "A Night to Remember." The funds raised from this effort helped, but our financial situation was still critical.

The last five years of the '70s (long years, it seemed) saw the Playhouse move back and forth from McAnally auditorium at GHS (now Parker auditorium) to the DPU Performing Arts Center. Each year, we wondered where we would perform the next season.

High rent and restrictions at both facilities were making it harder and harder to stay solvent. The rent on both theaters was based on the days we were there and the hours were restricted. We rehearsed up to the two weeks before performances at various places that donated their facilities to us. I remember rehearsing a lot in the basement of the old Presbyterian Church (it eventually burned down and is now the parking lot of the Putnam County Library). Many of today's Playhouse directors and performers have no memory for those difficult years. The Playhouse now has a great facility in which to rehearse two shows at the same time and time is never a problem.

The 1980 season ended and we still were trying to find our way back to those great days of the '60s. "Babes in Toyland" (517 attendees) and "Harvey" (349 attendees) had been better than 1979, but the money was drying up. The board met and reviewed our situation. Our bank account was $800 short of paying all our bills for the 1980 season. What were we to do? I don't remember who made the suggestion, but we decided that eight of us would each personally loan the Playhouse an interest-free loan of $100, which would enable us to pay our bills. This was the unified attitude of the board now.

With that problem taken care of temporarily, we discussed the future. We could not go on this way. Do we fold our tents and give up? I did not want to "throw in the towel" and the board agreed. A long discussion ensued about where we could go that we could afford (DPU had already notified us that they were raising our rent for the next year! Good grief!).

We discussed the possibility of owning our own theater, but where would we get the money to buy something? And where would we go? There was nothing available that we could think of. I made a suggestion that, just maybe, Mrs. Hazel Day Longden would consider selling us some property behind her home on Round Barn Road which contained two barns that we could turn into a theater. I was chosen to approach her.

If any of you ever had the great privilege of knowing this gracious lady, you will not be surprised to know what she agreed to as I sat down with her. She would not sell us the property -- she would GIVE it to us (with some stipulations). We would have three years to convert the structure to a community theater, and it would have to remain a theater. I left her home walking on clouds.

I knew we could do this! The board would have to be convinced. They were easily convinced and all were enthusiastic about Mrs. Longden's gift. The board of directors was once again focused on our future, desiring what was best for the Putnam County audience.

It was great to work with this group of like-minded people. I like to call the 1.75 acres with the two barns "The Promised Land." The agreement was signed and now we had to go to work. We decided to present our shows at the barn where people could be told (and see for themselves) about Mrs. Longden's generous gift and our efforts to raise the money for renovating our barn. As I remember, we did not consider approaching any arts organizations or applying for any grants to do this project. (If we considered it, we did not follow through). I was sure the people of Putnam County would provide the funds needed -- and the board agreed. Many people donated money, materials and labor to convert an old horse barn into a theater that still stands today.

The 1981 season saw us go to four shows played outside on the Longden property. We called it "Theatre Under the Stars." Theatergoers sat on wooden bleachers and used "port-a-potties." Before each performance, I spoke to the audience about our dream of a theater of our own and asked for help. People came to enjoy our program, sitting outside on those hard bleachers, and the needed help came along with them. We presented "Chapter Two" with Jim Elrod, Mary Ann Meyer, Dorothy Crawley and Mike Van Rensselaer. Mike stepped in for Bob Hedge (who became ill and was hospitalized) and learned the part in three days. This was also the play that did Jim Elrod in. The mosquitoes and tractor noise were too much, and he retired from acting on our outside stage.

Also, in our first "Theatre Under the Stars" year, we produced "Oklahoma!" directed by Vickie Parker, and another children's musical "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" with Doug Riley as Charlie Brown and seven-year-old Dana Coffin playing Lucy. We closed our season with the comedy "Mary, Mary" starring Marc Adams and Ann Cooper. When the show closed, the board heaved a big sigh of relief -- our first outdoor season had not been rained out once! It sprinkled one night for "Charlie Brown," but the kids performed through it and the audience stayed, too.

Although the decade of the '70s was a turbulent time for PCPH, we had survived, and the promise of our own theater was encouraging. We weren't where we wanted to be yet, but the future looked much brighter. The board of directors was working together with the same goals that we had in the '60s (plus the excitement of the dream of having our own theater). The sun was shining again.

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  • Thanks for the memories. We are so lucky to have dedicated people in the Putnam County Playhouse!

    Great entertainment for all during the summer. This second installment was very interesting and I am looking forward to the next three.

    Thanks Jim Poor, for this series of articles.

    -- Posted by Lookout on Wed, May 25, 2011, at 8:59 AM
  • Yes, thank you, Jim. Such memories! This is the decade when I got involved. I grew up in the Playhouse and it changed and enriched my life forever. I've never met such dedicated people as those involved with PCPH over the years and I thank them for that dedication.

    -- Posted by poky2 on Wed, May 25, 2011, at 9:40 AM
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