Founded in 1914, the Playhouse is one of the nation’s oldest community theaters and produces a year-round season of dramas, musicals, and children’s productions.
Let’s go back to the year 1914. A small group of women gathered around the big dining room table at the home of Mrs. Frank Parker to discuss the possibility of starting a drama group. They became a chapter of the National Drama League but called their organization “The Little Theater.” Meeting at first in homes, they later acquired the former Christian Science church building at Ninth Avenue East and First Street. Dressing rooms were in the basement on a cold, damp earth floor; the auditorium was heated by a wood and coal stove that had to be well stoked before performances. The Little theatre of Duluth then began it’s career with the American première of Bernard Shaw’s Dark Lady of the Sonnets.
The Little Theater announced a play-writing contest in 1916. The young winner was Margaret Culkin Banning with a one-act play,Her Sacred Duty. The group members paid fees for guest lectures, road companies, and visiting professionals, and they sent delegates to drama festivals all over the country. The entrance of the U.S. into World War I meant that theater, except for benefit shows, came to a near halt.
In 1926 The Little Theater was reorganized, added men to its roster, took on a new enthusiasm, and brought in its first full-time director. Maurice Gnesin, a professional theater man, ran workshops and gave acting lessons and instruction in stagecraft.
In August 1927, The Little Theater group rented and moved into a building at 6 South 12th Avenue East. (The former building on first Street was moved across the ice on the bay to Park Point and became Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church.) The auditorium in the new building was equipped with wooden benches, later replaced with wooden theater seats and, finally, upholstered seats.
Almost from the very beginning, The Little Theater group expressed interest in and pursued plans for an active program in children’s theater. The Duluth drama group was recognized nationally as one of the first to include children’s theater in its plans. The Junior League and The Little Theater cooperated in producing children’s plays well into the 1930s under the fine direction of Frances Hoffman Lavine.
Alan Wallace came as director in 1929. He opened the season with Barry’s controversial Broadway hit Paris Bound, on the subject of easy divorce. Eyebrows were raised, tongues wagged, and some patrons threatened to cancel their memberships. Despite this scandal, Wallace did much to popularize the theater by presenting many highly acclaimed productions. He was followed by John Wray Young, later a nationally known authority on community theater who, along with his wife, were among one of the first people inducted to the Louisiana Performing Arts Hall of Fame.
These were the Depression years, and throngs of jobless, young and old, were seeking an inexpensive outlet for their “leisure” time. With this many volunteers upon which to draw, large-scale shows like Green Grow the Lilacs (upon which Oklahoma! was later based) were frequently presented.
Director Young was followed by several other noteworthy professional directors, including Ulmont Healy, who was director for nine important years. During Healy’s stay, he gave the audiences and players many enjoyable modern dramas, as well as classics and some fine Shakespearean productions. Healy encouraged local writers by producing plays by Duluthians Mrs. U.H. Reque, Joe Cook, and Dr. Simon Sax. It was also during this time that the name of the theater was changed to The Duluth Playhouse. The next full-time director was Sam Wren, who had a background of New York theater and summer stock experience. Ron Hammond, a delightful Englishman, was next with his talented designer wife, Dagmar.
In 1956 a revolutionary idea was proposed: instead of relying on the talents of just one director, why not use the local talent to hire individual local directors for each play! This play was highly successful, bringing not only a far more diversified range of experience but also a fresh approach with new volunteer talent and new audiences. This change brought financial stability for the Playhouse. During these years the Encore Awards were established for acting and production; winners were chosen by the membership.
This was the Golden Anniversary year, with spotlights in the sky, television interviews with arriving guests, and national coverage on the radio networks.
In 1967 the Playhouse added an additional play to its schedule. This special production was to be a play which would not fit into the regular season schedule, either because of its controversial nature, limited audience interest, or unique staging. The first of these productions was In White America, which filled the auditorium for its four-performance run and was later repeated in the 75th anniversary year. The annual “special production” continued to be limited to four or five performances and covered a variety of dramatic styles and forms.
Just before dawn on Sunday, March 29, 1971, flames licked at the big velvet stage curtain that had closed a few hours before on the Playhouse performance of Roar of the Greasepaint… The fire that gutted the building on 12th Avenue East left the theater in ruins. When the smoke cleared, lighting and sound equipment, properties, sets, Green Room furnishings, and hundreds of costumes collected over a period of 57 years were gone. Miraculously, the office on the second floor of the building had the least damage, and all records, pictures, and historical files were saved. In the tradition of “The show must go on,” the interrupted run ofRoar of the Greasepaint continued one week later in a high school auditorium with new sets, new costumes, and new props. After an extensive search, the Playhouse moved to the former Covenant Club rooms downtown, where it opened its 1971-72 season. One hundred and eighty seats were purchased at two dollars each and hauled in from a movie house in North Dakota. The dining room became the auditorium; the kitchen area became the dressing rooms and paint shop; the card room was the Green Room; and all the necessary work was done by Playhouse volunteers!
In May 1977, the Duluth Playhouse moved into another new space at the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center, better known as The Depot, at 506 West Michigan Street. This beautiful 282-seat theater was designed with continental seating with generous space between the rows and excellent sightlines from every seat. The Green Room, dressing rooms, costume and props storerooms, and a substitute rehearsal space are all on the lower level. The Playhouse season expanded to seven mainstage shows plus a children’s production.
The Duluth Playhouse brings the finest in entertainment and theatre arts opportunities to Minnesota’s Northeast Region. Featuring local and professional artists, The Playhouse hosts a year-round season of live theatre. With the Children’s Theatre Arts program, The Play Ground Theatre, and the new Conservatory for the Performing Arts, there are opportunities for everyone to explore, learn, and perform.
(The above history was compiled in 1989 for the Playhouse’s 75th Anniversary Year. A continuing history is in development… Please contact the Playhouse if you know interesting anecdotes or information about the theater since 1977.)