The curtains are going up on a brighter future for the Bucks County Playhouse.
The New Hope landmark, a symbol of the county's artistic and literary heritage where luminaries such as Grace Kelly and Neil Simon cut their teeth, has been rescued by a consortium of Broadway professionals and community leaders, it was announced Tuesday.
"The entire theater community was aghast at the idea of permanently losing this legendary venue and picturesque piece of theater history," said the Broadway producer Jed Bernstein. "The Bucks County Playhouse has truly been reborn."
The fate of the financially troubled theater was in doubt after the bank holding its mortgage recently took possession from longtime owner and operator Ralph Miller. A foreclosure auction this month failed to attract any bids.
Bernstein, producer of Broadway's current Driving Miss Daisy with James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave, and his Broadway associates will advise a newly formed nonprofit, the Bucks County Playhouse Conservancy, as it prepares to buy and renovate the tattered 450-seat playhouse on the scenic banks of the Delaware and plan programming for the 2011 season.
The consortium's aim is to produce "first-rate professional theater," a news release stated, and to enable the 71-year-old playhouse "to reclaim its status as a destination regional theater."
"I think it's wonderful that so many interested people and concerned citizens have stepped forward to bring back to life what we consider a true icon of the New Hope region and of the arts community," said Clifford David, president of the Heritage Conservancy, a Doylestown-based organization dedicated to preserving natural, historic, and cultural resources in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
David praised Doylestown resident Peggy McRae for spearheading the revival effort. Aware of the theater's shaky prospects, she approached the conservancy several months ago seeking guidance in developing a rescue plan.
McRae, 53, a transplant from the South who founded the Bucks County Playhouse Preservation Society, will help lead the newly formed playhouse conservancy.
"This Broadway team is amazingly well-qualified to return the playhouse to the standard it enjoyed in its heyday," McRae said.
Her model is the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut, which was revived and refurbished through the involvement and leadership of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. "It's a gorgeous building with a rich history and terrific education and scholarship programs that nourish summer-stock theater," McRae said.
Brian "Rick" Appel, 70, an Elkins Park lawyer who grew up in Doylestown and remembers attending shows at the playhouse with his father, David, a former book editor of The Inquirer, is the new nonprofit's acting president.
"We know what we want to do, but it's a little chaotic right now because there are so many things we want to do almost at once," Appel said. "We have a couple of solid things in place, the most important being New York producer Jed Bernstein, who knows where we're going and how to get there."
After a career in advertising, Bernstein was executive director, then president, of the League of American Theaters and Producers (now the Broadway League), the trade association for Broadway and touring theater productions that sponsors the Tony Awards.
"The fact that he is involved bodes very well for the success of this effort," said Margie Salvante, executive director of the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, who called news of the resurrection effort "fantastic." Noting that Bernstein attended the University of Pennsylvania, Salvante added, "His heart, at least in part, belongs in Philly."
The Bucks County Playhouse, situated in an 18th-century grist mill on New Hope's main street, was founded by a group of local artists and theater enthusiasts, including the playwright Moss Hart, who wanted to save the mill from demolition, and were eager to bring a touch of Broadway to the pastoral community where so many prominent New York literary and cultural figures summered and spent weekends.
A forerunner of the producing theater companies now so common in the nation, it showcased the talents of many professional actors - many of them stars then or in the future, such as Colleen Dewhurst, Robert Redford, Bert Lahr, Angela Lansbury, Alan Alda, Helen Hayes, Walter Matthau, and George C. Scott. Rob Reiner was an apprentice there.
In recent decades, the Playhouse no longer employed actors represented by the Actor's Equity Association. The Inquirer has not reviewed its offerings for years because it has lacked professional standing. Its current production, A Christmas Carol, will close Thursday.
Miller, who ran the playhouse for more than three decades, owed Stonebridge Bank more than $2 million, according to published reports. He is a controversial figure with a history of financial problems and bankruptcy. At one time, he owned three other theaters, the Pocono Playhouse, the Falmouth Playhouse in Massachusetts, and the Woodstock Playhouse in New York. All three were destroyed by fire; both Falmouth and Woodstock were declared arsons.
A kinder fate awaits the Bucks County Playhouse, its advocates hope, as a new era appears to be dawning.
"Theater-lovers not only in New Hope but in Bucks County and beyond feel the playhouse is an important place," Appel said. "They want it not only to survive but to thrive."