Playhouse spirit sparkles on for 2020, in legacy, anticipation
While pandemic forced cancellation of recent season, full lineup being bumped forward to 2021, starting with 'Animal Crackers,' Producing Artistic Director Chuck Tobin '80 says
With the Saint Michael’s Playhouse’s 2020 season canceled due to a pandemic, Producing Artistic Director Chuck Tobin ’80 has had a lot of time during these hot months – normally his busiest and happiest — to reflect on his favorite memories and best hopes for the venerable campus summer institution that dates back to the late 1940s.
Recently Tobin mentioned a recurring thought that brings him hope and a smile in such times: Apparently, shortly after the last major worldwide flu pandemic in the early 20th Century, the Marx Brothers in 1919 produced, on Broadway, Animal Crackers — their madcap, silly and wonderful musical show that later became a hit movie. It’s essentially the same show (minus Groucho, Chico and Harpo) that the St. Mike’s Playhouse will produce to open its 2021 season. Tobin aims to carry forward all the shows originally intended for the 2020 season. “Same shows, same casts, same directors, same sets, same everything,” he says.
Of that original 1919 Broadway opening of Animal Crackers, Tobin says, he learned through research that “The audience went berserk! — after all they’d been through, here was this joyous, funny, surprising Marx Brothers musical on Broadway. So when I think about it, I really understand that response now — it’s like the light at the end of the tunnel… and when we finally get to do a play, it’s going to be Animal Crackers. Perfect!”
Longtime Playhouse audience-favorite cast members from seasons past are planning to be back for the occasion, such as Kathryn Markey ’84, playing the role made famous by Margaret Dumont in the Animal Crackers movie. Bill Carmichael of Vergennes, another perennial audience favorite, also plans to be back for a later-season show in 2021. The delayed lineup for next year will be “a season of updated classics and new plays” – in order: Animal Crackers, Bakersfield Mist, Desperate Measures, and Into the Breeches!”
“People do miss it, I hear from our loyal regular patrons,” said Tobin, who has been with the Playhouse in some key professional role since 1986 and was first exposed to it as a contributing insider during the summer of his senior year as a Saint Michael’s theater student in 1979, when he was assistant director for a show featuring Joanne Rathgeb, who, with her husband/professor Don Rathgeb founded the Saint Michael’s Theater Department and ran the Playhouse for decades, with frequent acting appearances as well.
“Many of the patrons I hear from say they are excited they have something to come back to,” Tobin says of 2021. “Everybody from the company, is really onboard and says it’s worth waiting for – designers and crews too.” Of all the nearly 900 subscription season ticket holders, only one person sought a refund, he reports, with the rest opting to use their purchases for the 2021 season, which Tobin finds remarkable and heartening.
But for important safety reasons, people in theater these days have new words to live by, if only for a season: “The show mustn’t go on!” jokes Tobin.
A dramatic history
The Saint Michael’s Durick Library Archivist Liz Scott recently shared some photos and background from seasons in 1950 (70 years ago), 1970 (50 years ago), 1975 (first year in McCarthy 45 years ago), and 25 years ago in 1995, providing an interesting sampler of the growth and sustained popularity of the Playhouse in its successive iterations in terms of venue, number and variety of shows and leadership.
For years after it started in the late 1940s, the Playhouse, founded by the legendary Saint Michael’s humanities and classics professor Henry Fairbanks, was in Austin Hall, a large white clapboard building formerly located about where Alliot Hall and the Chapel now stand, in front of Joyce Hall, with a great view of Mount Mansfield – cars would pull off Route 15 and park along the field that was there. (See top photo). The Playhouse website tells that history well:
“The year was 1946. Henry Fairbanks, a Saint Michael’s College humanities professor, had the idea to create a professional theater company that would bring to Vermont the best talent in the theater business to produce the highest quality theatrical productions. Henry, along with his friend and colleague Eliot Duvey, famed director of the Boston Tributary Theatre, worked with officials at Actors’ Equity Association in New York to assemble a professional theater company which would operate in residence at the college. From countless discussions, letters, and rounds of negotiations a new professional theater company, aptly named Saint Michael’s Playhouse, emerged. From New York, Hollywood and Boston came seasoned professional actors to form the resident company of the first summer stock theater in Northern Vermont.
On opening night, June 30, 1947, the Playhouse was ablaze with colorful lights. Flashy king-size cars pulled into the parking area on the lawn while excited theatergoers in evening dress mingled on the grand porch of Austin Hall anxiously awaiting the Playhouse’s premiere performance. As the show ended and the curtain came down, five-hundred first-nighters rose to their feet and applauded for a dozen curtain calls, and so a Vermont tradition was born.
During the following years the Playhouse grew and enjoyed decades of successful summer theater seasons until in 1970 the wooden building that housed the Playhouse burned to the ground. All might have been lost had it not been for Michael and Margaret McCarthy, two major financial contributors to the College, deciding to fund a new theater as a permanent home for the Playhouse. And in 1975, the Playhouse celebrated a grand-reopening in one of the finest theater facilities in the state of Vermont, the McCarthy Arts Center Theater. [The first production there was Glass Menagerie starring Joanne Rathgeb, with well-known actor Ken Timmins also in a lead.]
Now, hundreds of productions and more than one million audience members later, Saint Michael’s Playhouse is bigger and stronger than ever as actors from Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theaters, along with a stellar pool of professional actors from the Greater Burlington area, continue to share their talents with Greater Burlington residents and visitors.”
Early big-name appearance
Archival records show the 1950 season 70 years ago opened with no less a crowd-pleasing production than Dracula starring Hollywood legend Bela Lugosi, who at the time was touring in order to play his trademark role in community productions all over, since the Dracula movie had made him famous. Other shows that season were Arsenic and Old Lace, The Heiress, John Loves Mary, Papa is All, The Silver Whistle, and closing with Medea, a Greek tragedy.
Fifty years ago, the 1970 season included a musical called The Apple Tree, a Neil Simon show called The Star Spangled Girl, A Man for All Seasons about Thomas More, the well-known A Streetcar Named Desire, and My Three Angels — “a sweet play about three escaped convicts” who befriend a family and aren’t as bad as one might expect, after all, says Tobin.
He says 1981 was the last year that the Playhouse did five productions, explaining, “Once they got into McCarthy in 1975, they were doing five, going through to the end of August, and Don and Joanne Rathgeb — since they were running the theater department and teaching plus running the Playhouse — had to reduce it to four starting in 1982 since it was overlapping and interfering too much with their duties on the academic side – so four is still the number we do.”
For a time before McCarthy opened, after the sprawling original playhouse building burned down, “they moved for a time into another little place about where the Teaching Gardens are beside St. Ed’s today – it was like a little barracks dining hall that they used for a number years,” Tobin says.
Tobin still clearly remembers having the role of assistant director in 1979 when he was a theater rising senior student – Joanne Rathgeb starred in the Belle of Amherst, and “Catherine Doherty and I were both interns and Joanne had us help with lines, set props …. It was a really nice opportunity — That was the moment when I knew I wanted a life in the professional theater,” Tobin says.
In those days, small musicals occasionally would be part of a season, but it was not the standard part of the annual repertoire it has become today when relatively larger production numbers are regularly in the mix.
The season a quarter-century ago in 1995 featured the opening musical “Forever Plaid,” followed by the non-musical shows “The Verdict,” “Beau Jest,” and “All in the Timing,” offering as ever an unforgettable experience for the student-interns, many of whom still are active in theater activities locally and beyond.
Once Don Rathgeb retired in 1997, Tobin says, “We started doing at least one musical a season.
Starting in 2001, they increased the number of musicals per season to two, opening in ’01 with Little Shop of Horrors and closing with Always Patsy Cline – a fun show that he says “has been the most popular small musical – we’ve done it twice just 10 years apart and the production sold out before the show even opened, most recently in 2010. People just went “Crazy” for it. One amusing fact is that we had quite a few calls from people wondering if Patsy Cline was actually in the show.” (Cline died in a plane crash in 1963.)
Meanwhile, when not communicating with other theater people who are equally up in the air about future plans in this pandemic – “like nailing Jell-O to a wall” is how Tobin describes his and other theater leaders’ jobs at the moment — he’s spending the summer gardening, cleaning out the basement and other “handyman stuff.”
To loyal Playhouse patrons, his message is to “be safe and hang in there until we can entertain you again – it just feels so empty for me and for the rest of us who have been with the Playhouse for so long, not to be offering theater to the people – it’s a very strange feeling and we can’t wait to get back at it.”