I have a good and talented young friend, Ben Houghton (pictured in A Chorus Line below, fifth from the left). Last spring, he turned down a role with us in Thoroughly Modern Millie with regret because he had already accepted roles in Disney’s High School Musical 2 and A Chorus Line at two legendary summer stock theatres in Pennsylvania. He was excited about his summer gig, because he would be performing both shows on the revered and well-worn stages of the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, PA and the Pocono Playhouse in Mountainhome, PA.
Little did he know at the time that he would be among the last to trod the nearly hallowed boards of the 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.
The 500-seat Pocono Playhouse burned to the ground early Friday morning. Flames broke out around 1 a.m., sending sparks flying across the wooded mountain landscape. A neighbor spotted the blaze and called 911. By the time firefighters arrived the building was just about destroyed. The first responders of Barrett Township remained on the scene for hours, putting out hot spots. A state police fire marshal has been called in to determine the fire’s cause and exact point of origin.
By all accounts, the destruction of the Playhouse represents a tremendous loss to its rural community, both culturally and economically.
According to the Pocono Record, this is not the first time that the theatre’s owner, Ralph Miller, has had a burning problem. Miller owns both the Pocono Playhouse and the Buck’s County Playhouse. Previously, he owned the Woodstock Playhouse in New York, destroyed in a 1988 fire, and the Falmouth Playhouse on Cape Cod, Mass., destroyed in a 1994 fire.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined both fires were set by an arsonist using kerosene, but no arrests were ever made in either case.
The Pocono Playhouse was built and opened on July 7, 1947 by USO show manager Rowena Stevens, who moved from NYC to Mountainhome to “bring professional theatre to the Poconos.” It was success stories like hers that prompted Muriel McAuley, Pete Kilgore and Barksdale’s other co-founders to move from NYC to rural Hanover only six years later to bring professional theatre to all of Greater Richmond in 1953.
Apparently the Pocono Playhouse had changed little since its original construction. We remain thankful that community support has enabled Theatre IV to install sprinkler systems and other fire safety devices in the historic Empire, built in 1911, and that the Hanover Tavern Foundation is performing a thorough restoration of Muriel, Pete and Nancy’s beloved Hanover Tavern, built in the late 18th century.
Long may our nation’s historic theatres be protected and thrive! Hope to see you at one soon.
(The photo above and to the right is of a 21st century production of Camelot at the Pocono Playhouse.)