Contractors are used to rubber-neckers. There is a reason for the round holes in the board fences surrounding construction sites. But the average person views a building project in passing — a quick turn of the head while walking towards work or play.
Builder Jim Maxwell had a slightly different experience on South Main Street in New Hope this past spring.
“People are super excited,” he says. “You walk down the street and people come up, and they are happy to see what we are doing and want to hear about it, and they want to be involved in it. We have had a lot of visitors all day long.”
There is a reason for their excitement. Maxwell is the main contractor on the renovation of the Bucks County Playhouse.
There was a time when the elite names in theater flocked to New Hope to appear and be seen at the Bucks County Playhouse. That time may soon come again.
Over a year after the venerable theater was shuttered due to financial issues, the Playhouse re-opened on Monday, July 2, with a musical revue, “A Grand Night for Singing.”
The 1993 Tony-Award nominated revue, which runs through July 29, features more than 30 hits by the premier Broadway musical team of the 1940s and ’50s, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. It is a fitting re-launch, as Producing Director Jed Bernstein points out, since the duo was known to have done much of its work at Hammerstein’s Bucks County retreat, “Highland Farm” in Doylestown.
The fact that the theater is back on its feet, at a time when regional theaters are feeling the economic pinch as deeply as anyone, is testimony to the hard work and open wallets of several different entities; most notably, the Bridge Street Foundation and the Bucks County Playhouse Conservancy.
The Playhouse dates back to 1938, when a group of New York theater types thought it might be a good idea to turn an old grist mill on the banks of the Delaware River into a live theater. With a lot of perseverance, some luck, and help from well-known theater people who lent their names to the enterprise, the Bucks County Playhouse opened in 1939.
It soon became part of what was known as the “straw-hat circuit,” theaters mostly in resort areas like East Hampton, NY, Cape Cod, and Ogunquit, Maine, running a summer season of live theater, usually recent Broadway hits, featuring actors of variable fame. The shows would play a week or two in each venue and then move on over the circuit.
Over the years, the Bucks County Playhouse featured such luminaries as Helen Hayes, Grace Kelly, Walter Matthau, and Bert Lahr. Its location 90 minutes from New York also made it ideal for pre-Broadway tryouts, such as in 1963, when Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” starring Robert Redford, played there prior to its 1,530-performance run in New York.
The theater thrived for decades, adding great luster to New Hope’s reputation as an arts community, but changing habits and economics saw the Playhouse fall on hard times in recent years. It had lost its Actors Equity standing, and thus the ability to attract major theater names.
Ralph Miller, who had run the Playhouse for decades, lost the property when Stonebridge Bank foreclosed on the property in 2010. The building was in danger of being transformed to other purposes or worse, being razed to make other use of the prime waterfront location.
Enter New Hope community activist Peggy McRae. Raised by theater-loving parents who were season ticket holders to the Fisher Theater in Detroit, Michigan, McRae moved to Bucks County in 1999 when her husband’s job brought them to the area.
When McRae heard in 2007 that the financially strapped Miller wanted to sell the Playhouse, she swung into action. Using the successful revitalization of the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut as a model, she organized the Bucks County Playhouse Conservancy.
When the bank put the Playhouse on the market in December, 2010, the Conservancy, which had commissioned an engineering analysis through the generosity of local engineer Mary Acciani, was ready to make an offer if, of course, the money could be raised.
Then, in October, 2011, Bucks County residents Kevin and Sherri Daugherty got involved through their Bridge Street Foundation, a non-profit private family foundation. Intrigued by a newspaper story about the Conservancy, the Daughertys contacted McRae.
Tanya Cooper, president of the Bridge Street Foundation, takes up the story.
“Our mission is to contribute to the restoration of the arts in the community, as well as to restore historic buildings,” Cooper says. “And we really want to be economic contributors. We didn’t just purchase already going concerns, rather, empty buildings that had been repossessed by the banks and the like.”
“The Bridge Street Foundation, the Bucks County Playhouse Theater Foundation, and the Lambertville Hall all sort of happened together. Kevin and Sherri had originally planned to build up Lambertville Hall (the former First Baptist Church on Bridge Street in Lambertville, across the river from New Hope) as a music venue, but while they were closing the purchase on that, Peggy and Kevin began to discuss the Playhouse. It seemed like a natural fit — a music hall and a playhouse, each on opposite sides of the Delaware.”
The bank had been shopping the property for months. The initial asking price was $2.79 million, but the price had been lowered to $2.1 million before the Bridge Street Foundation purchased the Playhouse for an estimated $1.7 million.
Then the real work began. In addition to being shuttered for months, the building had not had any substantive work done for years. As is typical of theaters operating on a shoestring, repairs had been done piecemeal, if and when they were needed, just enough to get through a season, or perhaps, even just a performance.
The result was a rat’s nest of wiring, ancient plumbing, and massive damage to the structure wrought by time and the river, which, to paraphrase Mr. Hammerstein, had just kept rolling along into the basement and first floor.
Cooper, who had just been appointed head of the Foundation, was only slightly daunted. She was uniquely suited for her new position. “I was born in Canada, and went to the University of Windsor. I majored in musical theater — for one semester. Then I switched to accounting. I wanted to eat.”
“I met Kevin Daugherty years ago in Detroit. He was in public accounting, and he was auditing the firm I worked for,” she says. “We became friends. I ended up the vice president of audit and compliance and he ended up in private equity investment.” Daugherty owns Speyside Equity, a Philadelphia-based firm, and his wife owns Angel Hearts, a woman’s boutique in nearby Newtown.
Cooper, meanwhile, sat on the board of two non-profit organizations in Michigan, and had kept up her interest in music, singing with various bands for 20 years.
“Everything from Janis Joplin to Shakira. So when Kevin called me late last year, explained about his plans, and said, ‘Do you know of any accountants who have a music background with experiences in non-profits and that have restructured companies?’ well, let’s just say that you look back on your life and you wonder what the plan was, and it all seems to make sense now.”
The church that will become the Lambertville Music Hall is a work in progress, but when Cooper first got a look at the Playhouse, it was a bit of a shock.
“I have a picture on my office wall that I look at every day,” says Cooper. “It was one of the first press conferences that we held. I was standing on the stage of the Playhouse looking out at duct-taped seats, gray, nasty walls, the carpet was — I don’t even know. The floors were so dirty, and the thing that struck me was when you are standing on the stage the one thing that you saw was all this acoustic tile and plywood on the catwalks falling apart.”
It was time to call Jim Maxwell, the co-owner, with his father, of Doylestown-based J.R. Maxwell Builders, a firm expert in renovating old buildings.
“It was a complete renovation,” says Maxwell. “The entire electrical system was redone — all the original system was below flood plain. The Playhouse had flooded numerous times. Everything was brought up above the flood area, with all new wiring. There’s a completely new sprinkler system, new fire safety features. When the fire inspector saw what we had done, he got a big smile on his face.”
“The building wasn’t necessarily falling down, but we did a lot of structural work, updating, bringing it up to code. When you put a lot of money into a renovation, you want to make sure that the nuts and bolts and all the structure are good,” Maxwell says. “The stage area and the sitting area are done, one hundred percent, they’ll never have to be touched again. All the rigging was replaced, the seats were taken out, refinished and re-installed; they look brand new.”
Quite an achievement when you consider that Maxwell and his crew started work March 1.
“James is phenomenal,” Cooper says. “Everyone who’s worked on this project — the architects, the contractors, the sub-contractors, the city council — so many people in New Hope just want this to be a success.”
Landscapers, too, have been hard at work. Cobblestone curbing and gas lanterns will add an old-time feel to the parking area and theater approach. The Bridge Street Foundation has also purchased the adjacent building that once housed Zadar’s night club. Now shuttered, and not of particular historic value, the structure has various possible uses, but that project is down the road.
“That building is for profit,” Cooper explains. “Performance centers (like the Playhouse) tend to break even or lose money, so we wanted one of our buildings to be for profit in case we need to provide additional funds for the charities. We never want the Playhouse to be in the situation of going under; we always want cash to be flowing for the community. And not just from Kevin and Sherry, and not just from fundraising — we don’t always want to be putting our hand out.”
Walking through the theater today makes a startling contrast to the run-down venue attendees had gotten used to in the last few years. There’s a clean, bright, vintage look reminiscent of a first-class summer theater in its heyday. The seats have regained their elegance. The walls, stripped down to stone and refinished, give a real sense of history to the building.
It seems almost a shame to tread on the newly redone floors, while the stage, cleaned, painted, reinforced, and brought up to modern standards, demands to be used. And in a burst of historical wonder, the original stage fire curtain has been cleaned and restored. It boasts an amazing mural painted in the 1930s by Bucks County artist Charles Child, which depicts the town of New Hope as seen by theatergoers of the time.
It would almost seem criminal not to mount a production here. And that’s where the Bucks County Playhouse Foundation’s contract with Producing Director Jed Bernstein comes in. Head of Above the Title Entertainment, which has produced such Broadway smashes as the revivals of “Hair,” “Equus,” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” Bernstein is the former president of the League of American Theaters and Producers (now the Broadway League).
He’s a native New Yorker whose mother worked for a producer and an avid theatergoer since childhood. He went to take an MBA at Yale in part because he wanted to access the theater management classes at the Yale School of Drama. He has been involved with the Bucks County project since Peggy McRae contacted him in 2010.
“Anyone who considers himself a theater person knows the history of the Bucks County Playhouse and how important it was,” he says. “It’s an exciting opportunity for me for two reasons: one is that it allows me to bring artists who I work with in other geographic areas to work on material here. And the second is that so much of my life is about making theater important in whatever community it’s in. That’s what I did for 11 years at the League of American Theaters, where the constituents were all across the country.”
“What I thought from the beginning was that the best outcome for the Playhouse was for some non-profit entity to have the building, be responsible for its renovation and maintenance, but to ask that entity to take on the risk of producing and running a business didn’t seem quite right,” he says.
“So this kind of joint venture that has been worked out is very exciting. It allows us to do great professional programming 20 weeks a year, and then, on the other hand, for the other 30 weeks of the year, you have tremendous opportunity for the community — arts classes, individual bookings to outside groups, community theater — anything we can think of for this wonderful community asset.”
In a fitting tribute to the Playhouse’s back story, “A Grand Night for Singing” will open almost exactly 73 years to the day after its first production back in 1939. And the second production, from August 7 through August 26, will be “Barefoot in the Park,” the same show that had its premiere on the river’s banks almost 50 years ago.
In the theater’s press release, Neil Simon says, “I am so delighted that the Bucks County Playhouse, such an important place in my creative life, will be up and running again. For it to feature, in its renaissance season, one of my own plays is icing on the cake.”
With the renovation project well underway, the Bucks County Playhouse Conservancy was dissolved. Peggy McRae took over as director of community affairs for the Playhouse Foundation. To date, the Bridge Street Foundation has put about $3.3 million into the Playhouse renovation, with more to come.
There is work to be done on the lobby and dressing rooms of the Playhouse, and those plans are already in place. The New Hope community has been generous in its support, and it is hoped they will continue that support in concrete ways as the project progresses.
The Playhouse will host fundraisers and offers a membership program with discounts. And the Playhouse is presenting a cabaret season at New Hope’s Havana Restaurant and Bar from July 19 to 21, and again August 16 to 18. Playwright and Bucks County resident Christopher Durang will host the July event.
The Bucks County Playhouse has come a long way in a short time, since that day when Tanya Cooper first stood on its stage and joined Peggy McRae, Kevin and Sherri Daugherty, and Jed Bernstein in their dream.
Cooper remembers, “One of the very important things I said that day was ‘Here’s where we start today. You tell us if we’ve done a good job at the end of this. And I hope that on our opening day what you see is markedly different and better.’
“And I know as sure as I am sitting here that we achieved that.”
Bucks County Playhouse, Box 313, New Hope 18938; 215-862-2046; fax, 215-862-0220. www.buckscountyplayhouse.com.
A Grand Night for Singing, Monday, July 2, to Sunday, July 22. An evening of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest hits. $29 to $54.
Barefoot in the Park, Tuesday, August 7 to Sunday, August 26. Comedy by Neil Simon about newlyweds on the top floor of a building in New York City. $29 to $54.
Holiday Show, Tuesday, December 4, to Sunday, December 30. $29 to $54. Title to be announced.