There hasn’t been much drama at New Hope’s historic Bucks County Playhouse lately, at least not on the stage.
Closed due to financial and other problems, this dowager of what was once known as the “straw-hat” theater (after the long-ago practice of men changing their hats from felt to straw in the summer) seemed to have had its last curtain call. But theater "angels" emerged from the wings, vowing that the show would go on. They promise a totally updated and revamped 21st century BCP, yet one whose iconic exterior will remain the same.
On April 24, 2012, Jed Bernstein, producing director of the Bucks County Playhouse, announced the theater would reopen on July 2 with a production of “A Grand Night For Singing,” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
“Bucks County was such an important place in the life of Oscar Hammerstein II,” noted Ted Chapin, President and Executive Director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. “In Highland Farm he had a retreat where he did much of his creative work. That a Rodgers & Hammerstein show…is reopening the legendary Bucks County Playhouse is a thrill to us all.” Following that production will be the Neil Simon comedy “Barefoot in the Park,” which first opened at the BCP about 50 years ago.
As hard as it is to imagine, the Bucks County Playhouse almost didn’t make it.
According to the memory of one of its founders, Broadway music arranger Donald J. Walker, who wrote a series of articles in 1953 for the New Hope Gazette that were reprinted recently by the Bucks County Herald, in 1939 “bookies” in New York were giving odds of 11 to 5 against the playhouse.
The theater was conceived at a New York cocktail party in July, 1938. The spark plug behind the idea was St. John (pronounced SINJIN) Terrell, a publicist with his own musical company. Along with Terrell and Walker were playwright Keynon Nicholson and retired silent screen and stage actor Richard Bennett.
To the New Yorkers of the day, who toured Europe without thinking about it but regarded an excursion to rural Pennsylvania as a daring adventure, New Hope had become familiar territory. An artists' colony had been active there in the early 20th century, but by the late 1920s had gone elsewhere.
Theater people started to arrive in the 1930s, including playwright Moss Hart and his wife, singer-actress Kitty Carlisle Hart. Over drinks at New Hope’s Logan Inn, one New York wit noted that the Harts' lavish property, said to have included palm trees, “was what God would have done if he’d only had the money.”
Annie Kaufman Schneider, the daughter of Moss Hart’s collaborator George S. Kaufman, told Pennsylvania Heritage magazine in 2000 that her father also purchased a summer home there. This brought a weekend crowd of notables to the Delaware River village.
“The theater people- the writers the directors, the lyricists, the actors and the producers- congregated around our house and Moss’s. It was non-stop. The next weekend it would begin all over again,” recalled Schneider.
It came to the attention of Walker, St. John and the others that a group of New Hope residents, the New Hope Mill Association, was interested in purchasing and preserving the New Hope Flour Mill that had recently closed. Founded in the late 18th century by Benjamin Perry, a wealthy miller, the mill gave the town- up to that time known as Coryell’s Ferry- its name.
The picturesque location of the mill on the river had an immediate appeal to the New Yorkers. After several parties that according to Walker were liberally fueled with martinis and Manhattans, the New Hopers, led by community leader Henry Chapin, decided to go in with the New Yorkers. They formed a joint stock company that tried to sell shares to fund the building’s transformation. The New Yorkers promised a flood of celebrities and talent would sweep into town in support. It didn’t.
In humorous detail Walker, who claimed his wife Audrey came up with the name Bucks County Playhouse, described its chaotic creation. Although they did manage to get a $100 share from Moss Hart, who they found at home dressed in a gaucho costume, tracking down writer Dorothy Parker in the wilds of Upper Tinicum Township in the dead of night with faulty directions proved more difficult. When the triumphant St. John Terrell emerged from her home with a $50 check, Walker was horrified to discover it was made out to Terrell’s own theater company, not the BCP.
The theater, designed by architects Donald Hedges and Edwin J. Schreuers, gradually took shape. Progress was slow, and accidents like the roof catching fire the day before opening night seemed to plague the BCP. When veteran character actor Edward Everett Horton, who was to play the lead in “Springtime for Henry” arrived, he was stunned. “Where are they going to play this show, on a raft in the river?”
Walker recalled a tremendous effort that had actors, cast and crew installing seats the day before the performance. “We were only able to do it because we were in our 20’s and had both the energy and idealism to do it,” he noted.
Finally, opening night arrived on July 1, 1939. New York Times theater cartoonist Al Hirschfeld was among the luminaries on hand to record it for posterity.
Richard Bennett was given the task of giving the opening speech. He was in fine form until he suddenly veered off course when attempting to make a comparison between the BCP and the famous music festival at Salzburg, Austria. “Yes friends, we’ll do it,” he intoned, “will make New Hope the Stroudsburg of America!”
Few seemed to notice Bennett’s flub. For most in the audience, the idea that the theater nobody thought would happen, HAD happened, was enough. A proud theatrical history had begun. Here’s to you BCP, “break a leg.”