The first performing arts center in Prince George's County opened Sunday night in the 30-year-old Cheverly Theater.
Renamed the Publick Playhouse, the theater was purchased in November 1975, by the Maryland National Capitol Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) to provide a home for theater, dance and choral groups located in Prince George's County.
Renovation began in October 1976, at a cost of $155,000 and workmen were just sweeping up at 5 p.m. last Friday night to ready the theater for a weekend community arts festival. The three-day festival and the grand opening Sunday night coincided with the anniversary of the opening of the original theater - Feb. 6, 1947.
Sunday turned out to be hometown night as Rep. Gladys Noon Spellman (D-Md.), County Executive Winfield M. Kelly, Maryland Senate President Steny H. Hoyer (D-Prince George's), State Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, county councilmen and the mayors of Bladensburg, Bowie and New Carrollton joint 500 others for an evening of music, theater and dance in the dedication performance at the playhouse, 5445 Landover Road, Hyattsville.
Dave Ginsburg, the first manager of the Cheverly, opened the evening with "Greetings Alumni of Uncle Dave's Original Kiddie Club" and commented, "Winnie Kelly won first prize tap dancing here. I won't be surprised if he's on the program tonight."
He also mentioned Kelly's early penchant for cap pistols, which Kelly responded to later by saying, "I guess in those days the Seventh Cavalry and the Indians surrounded me. I've got the same cap pistol but it's the tax payers around me now."
Kelly reminisced about the ealry days of the theater and mentioned he wasn't the only one in his family to have come to the Cheverly Theater. He said, "My wife Barb and I were talking about memories of the Cheverly. She said, 'I used to come to the theater, hold hands and smooch, but I didn't know Winnie then."
Gladys Spellman recalled the day when "I stood right here on this stage and talked to a crowd when this was the Cheverly Theater. My kids used to go to this theater."
Louis Goldstein remembered "doing a little courting with my wife here.We sat back in that far corner."
Of course, the seats - along with just about everything else there now - weren't in the theater even as long ago as last October.
It seems that last owner of the Cheverly took everything with him when he left - seats, curtains, screen and all.
Acoustic tiles, carpeting, a stage and seats all had to be installed before the theater became usable once again.
The county bought 1,000 old seats from the Viers Mill Theater and 40 volunteers saved the county $750 by cleaning 500 of them, scraping all the Double Bubble off seat backs and bottoms. These volunteers became the backbone of the Friends of the Publick Playhouse, the volunteer organization that sponsored the fundraisers over the weekend.
They are now seeking new "Friends" and funds for scaffolding, air conditioning, a screen, stage and many other items on what they call their "shopping list."
Heinz Weverink, chairman of the Friends, praised the spirit the volunteers showed over the months in the dirty job of cleaning up and pressed the need for more work. "The seats are defective and old; there is no air conditioning. It was just a shell. I hope the reason you're here is because you care. Your public playhouse will be a showcase for quality of the arts in this county. Reach into your hearts and reach into you wallets."
The volunteer spirit behind the Publick Playhouse was in evidence throughout the evening, in everything from home baked cookies to the ushers. Spellman noted "People wanted it and then rolled up their sleeves and made it possible. It is a people's playhouse."
Paint for the outside graphics and the carpeting were donated by community business, said Doug Herbert, the playhouse manager. The lights, dance floor and some sound equipment had been loaned for the weekend.
Because the theater has no space for dressing rooms, two temporary classrooms have been donated to the Friends by the school board and will be installed soon.
Herbert said the playhouse has plans to provide other facilities for the public outside of the community groups that may play there. A Saturday afternoon kiddie show and a Monday evening adult classics film show are planned, as well as an art gallery and acting class program.
Thirty junior high school students are set to begin acting classes next week in a gifted student program taught by students from the University of Maryland. The classes will culminate in a performance at the theater by the group sometime in the late spring.
Currently an art show is on display in the theater lobby. Works by students who are physically and mentally handicapped are on exhibit as part of the community arts festival. A Phase II plan calls for a small gallery to be built onto the building. Bette Valenti, visual art coordinator, MNCPPC, stressed that "the center is an arts center plural - to include visual arts and film."
The theather can be rented with priority and lower fees for Prince George's and Montgomery County groups. Technical advice through a supportive services program developed by John J. Gallagher will aid interested groups with lighting and sound problems. The theater hopes to operate on a self-sustaining fund through the theater rental.
"The county received an award for patience," said Councilman Francis White Sunday night. "Over the years the arts and cultural interest did not come up to the top of the pile in county prorities. But the county has been patient, the citizens have been patient and now is the time for us to be great spectators and great appreciators."