Pa. theater fans ensure playhouse will have an encore performance

By Joann Loviglio
Saturday, January 8, 2011

PHILADELPHIA - A theater revival of a different sort is being staged at a historic playhouse that was facing the final curtain.

The Bucks County Playhouse in the Philadelphia suburb of New Hope went into foreclosure and closed last month after more than 70 years in business. Now, it will be managed by a nonprofit group made up of local residents, government officials and a consortium of Broadway professionals.

"The entire theater community was aghast at the idea of permanently losing this legendary venue," said Jed Bernstein, producer of "Driving Miss Daisy" on Broadway and a lead figure in the preservation effort.

Helen Hayes, Grace Kelly, Robert Redford, Bernadette Peters and Walter Matthau are among the actors who appeared at the playhouse, which in its 1960s heyday was a place for Broadway and Hollywood actors to perform in summer stock.

A new nonprofit called the Bucks County Playhouse Conservancy is raising funds to buy the property from the bank and renovate and reopen the theater. Bernstein said he and his Broadway colleagues are developing programming for the theater's 2011 summer season.

A bank took over the playhouse last year after finding Ralph Miller, the theater's owner for more than 30 years, in default of about $2.2 million on the mortgage. A sheriff's sale of the property in December produced no bidders.

"We recognize the playhouse as a cultural icon of the community," Clifford David, president of the Heritage Conservancy preservation group, said in a statement this week. "Our hope is to preserve the building and continue the important cultural contribution it makes."

The 450-seat playhouse on the Delaware River, originally built as a gristmill in the 1790s, is 40 miles north of Philadelphia. It opened in 1939, after playwright Moss Hart and local residents rallied to save the old gristmill from demolition and convert it into a theater.

"I am thrilled to see our community, once again, rally around the playhouse to assure its future," said Peggy McRae, a theater enthusiast from the area who led efforts to save the playhouse.

- Associated Press

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