I hate cleaning out closets, barns, attics… the storage bins of long ago memories, wading thru what some call nostalgic moments. Don’t get me wrong, I have had some wonderful experiences, been to some amazing places, done some exciting things, but at this stage of my life, most of my memories are bittersweet. I guess that happens when you are the survivor, and all of the folks you shared those experiences with are gone. I am not going into all that to depress anyone, no one needs to read someone’s whining about their losses, but this one took me by surprise. A gazillion years ago, back when I was working on my Art Ed degree, I had the good fortune to land a summer job (of sorts) as a lowly assistant to an assistant at a summer playhouse. I got to do all kinds of fascinating things… I learned how to make a castle so cold and damp and forbidding looking that sitting out in the audience, you were glad you did not live in that age and time… or a palace room so beautiful you never wanted to leave. Manor libraries, business offices, tenement kitchens, cozy living rooms with just enough hiding space for a corpse or two… ah, the theatre. From Sweeney Todd’s barber shop to the bed room in the Sound of Music, to the café in La Cage aux Folles… we whipped up scenery in a couple days or so that would have been good enough for Broadway, I swear. And really, it had to be. OK, our stage was smaller and the house only sat 500, but we had real stars playing on our stage. Real ones… where was this? About 30 miles from our house in the Poconos is a little town called Mountainhome, and in the middle of its tinyness is a little road called Playhouse Lane, and on that lane stood the Pocono Playhouse. In searching for some old pictures of the Playhouse, I found the following quotes… probably in the Pocono Record????? I was in such a state of shock, I forgot to make note of the source…
“Pocono Playhouse—theatrical home since 1947 to such heralded actors as Betty Grable, Walter Matthau, Jean Stapleton, Steve McQueen, Shelley Winters, Hal Linden, Gloria Vanderbilt, Larry Hagman, Cybill Shepherd, Richard Kiley, Kaye Ballard, Ted Knight, Bonnie Franklin, and John Travolta.” burned down last night….
And… “Gloria Vanderbilt and Margaret Truman made their debuts at Pocono Playhouse in the 1950s,” said longtime resident Maryann Miller, who owns Theo B. Price store in Cresco with her husband, Warren “Mickey” Miller.”
And… “Stars who played there over the years included: John Travolta, Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman, Cybill Shepherd, Jean Stapleton, Shelley Winters, Ted Knight, Hal Linden, Bonnie Franklin and Kaye Ballard.”
To this I can add dozens of names, the names of the people I remember working with, some fondly, some disappointing to the point of tears. I remember Gary Moore, and Gary Burghoff, Angela Lansbury, Imogene Coca and her husband, King Donovan. Gary Moore was funnier off stage than on – not to say he was not a good actor, just that he was a nut! Probably the funniest people to work around were Imogene Coca and King Donovan. We had to do frequent quickie repair work to the set because they often improvised during a scene and sometimes the set did not handle it very well. When cement blocks are really Styrofoam… well, you get the idea. They were gracious people and actually considered us human, unlike one or two others I won’t mention.
Does anyone remember Betsy Palmer? She was probably the nicest person to be around – a genuinely warm and unpretentious kind person. I always smiled when I arrived at the Playhouse and saw the Mercedes parked out back with the BP license plate. I knew it was going to be a good day. She was like sunshine on legs!
On the other hand, I was so excited anticipating the arrival of Eve Arden, having grown up on Our Miss Brookes, and then I became a teacher myself… well, I was just excited meeting the voice that convinced me that being a teacher would be a great and wonderful thing – and all I can say is – life is full of disappointments, and I will say nothing more.
Anyway, the point of this post, along with general reminiscing, is to pay tribute to one of the greatest little summer jobs I ever had, and one of the neatest places I have ever had the opportunity to visit, let alone “hang out.” The Playhouse used to be the highlight of my summers in the Poconos… In later years, we planned our vacation around what was playing – or often, who was playing, but that came to an end – first when the theatre was sold and it became… um, well, I am at a loss for words… lets say it lost its class. The performers were unknowns, and even though some of the performances were really enjoyable, I guess I always just felt a bit cheated. Several years ago, I wondered why we were even driving 30 miles to see anything. The quality of the performances left so much to be desired… and I guess lots of other folks felt the same way, too. I think the last time I attended a show there, there were empty seats all thru the house. It was sad, I just hoped someone would buy the place and bring it back to the Playhouse it was when Rowena Stevens owned it.
Anyway, I was cleaning out a box of “stuff” the other day, and I found my old make-up kit, my kit from a gazillion years ago. As I said, we all had to learn how to do EVERYTHING, and make up was included. After tossing the kit in the trash can, I came in the house to check on the whether the Playhouse was even open this year or not. I could not believe my eyes when I saw the pictures. It is like losing a family member, really. I read the story and shook my head in sorrow.
If you are interested, google the Pocono Playhouse, the Pocono Record has a great story on the history of the place and the history of the last owner Ralph Miller and his “trail of fire” –
“In this special report, the Pocono Record, Times Herald-Record and Cape Cod Times collaborate to uncover the string of broken promises, questionable business dealings and trail of suspicious fires that have followed Ralph Miller across three states over 21 years. The owner of Pocono Playhouse was also the one-time owner of the Woodstock Playhouse in New York and Falmouth Playhouse in Massachusetts. Every time that Miller or his playhouses have gotten into trouble, fire destroyed a theater or Miller declared bankruptcy.”
It is sad, like losing a dear old family member… and even though the shows were no longer as great as they used to be, I miss knowing I can’t even drive by and look at the old place, let alone buy a ticket and sit for a couple hours and have some live entertainment. The last few years, props were trucked in, unloaded, and the stage crew traveled around to a few different sites in the summer. Nothing was done on site anymore. I guess they were used to working on small stages, so things did not have to be custom built to fit.
I used to love to watch the show, often standing in the back of the house because there were seldom any empty seats. Some shows were sold out at the beginning of the season, a month or 2 before the curtain went up. But I would have to watch the show a couple of times… once to see the show, but initially, to see how the scenery worked. Sometimes we reworked a scene after the opening night to make it look a little better, or to make movement a little more realistic.
Several of us would stand in the back with ice cream cones in our hands as the curtain went up. The sign of a good show was forgetting to eat the ice cream and having a handful of runny glop as we got caught up in the show. I always kept a pocketful of paper towels in hopes of an excellent show!