On the afternoon of Sunday, June 30, New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse was packed with theater-goers for the opening of its big summer musical, Mamma Mia! While patrons excitedly clapped and sang along to high-energy numbers like “Dancing Queen” and “Take A Chance On Me,” producing director Alexander Fraser was experiencing something else – an epiphany.
He realized that Sophie, the lead character in Mamma Mia!, who is on a quest to discover the identity of her father in order to move forward in life, is very much like the Playhouse. Similar to Sophie’s situation, a large chunk of the Playhouse’s 80-year history is a mystery.
When the Playhouse was purchased by the Bridge Street Foundation in 2011, after its closing the previous year, the space was completely empty. While other theaters boasted stunning posters on their walls, depicting the various stars who appeared on stage, the Playhouse’s walls were bare.
“There was nothing. I mean, there was a lot of garbage, but there was no history whatsoever,” Fraser said. “Not a program, poster or press clipping could be found. Ever since, we’ve been struggling to piece together a complete and coherent history.”
Since the Playhouse’s reopening in 2012, historian Peggy McRae has worked tirelessly to fill those huge gaps in the theater’s historical knowledge. However, many dots of its colorful past remain unconnected.
Thanks to a grant from the Pfundt Foundation, the Playhouse has launched The Nelson and Bette Pfundt Playhouse Archive to help uncover and preserve the history of New Hope’s beloved theater. According to Fraser, Bucks County residents are key to the archive’s success and completion.
“We are putting out a call to the entire community to head to their attics and basements and donate Bucks County Playhouse memorabilia to the newly-created archive,” he said. “We’re looking for playbills, press clippings, posters, photographs, signs, knick-knacks. All can help shed light on the Playhouse’s storied history.”
In Fraser’s opinion, knowing where the Playhouse came from is important in order to determine where it’s going. One such example is his encounter with a photograph of Thornton Wilder, the playwright behind Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, which was on display at the New Hope Historical Society. Toward the latter part of his career, Wilder moved from behind-the-scenes to the spotlight, appearing on the Playhouse stage in both shows.
When Fraser had trouble finding the perfect actor to play Vanya in the Playhouse’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, an idea occurred to him – to cast the playwright, Chris Durang.
“I never would’ve thought of that if it weren’t for seeing those pictures,” he said. “So that’s a literal example of why the more we know about where we come from, the more it can help us shape where we’re going.”
To date, much has already been documented about the stars who graced the Playhouse stage – Grace Kelly (who made her professional debut in New Hope in 1949), Robert Redford, Liza Minnelli, Helen Hayes, Walter Matthau, Angela Lansbury, Kevin Kline, Al Pacino, Dick Van Dyke, Bob Fosse, Audra McDonald and countless others.
A number of artifacts have also been contributed to the archive. The Doylestown Historical Society has gifted 284 newspaper clippings/photocopies that originally appeared in local publications from 1939 to 2018; Ann Walker Liebgold, daughter of one of the Playhouse’s original founders Don Walker, donated her father’s grand piano; and Nita Crowley, whose father John Crowley was general manager for the Playhouse from 1951 to 1970, donated his collection of more than 50 posters.
The archive project is being managed by David Leopold, creative director of The Al Hirschfeld Foundation, with pieces on a rotating display at the Playhouse and its new restaurant, The Deck.
The New Hope Historical Society is also presenting the exhibit “80 Years of Bucks County Playhouse” through Sept. 1 at the Parry Mansion. Located across the street from the Playhouse, the mansion features memorabilia, ephemera and images from the historical society’s collection, many of which have never before been displayed, in addition to newly-discovered treasures from the Pfundt archive.
Fraser said any and all items are welcome, though there is a particularly large gap in knowledge after 1970. As items come in, they are being digitally reproduced and made available online.
“People studying the theater around the world will be able to access it,” he said.
For Fraser, who came to Bucks County in 2012 after 30 years as a Broadway producer, it’s a thrill to learn fresh information every day about a theater that experienced a rare rise, fall and rebirth. Recently, he discovered that Ann Miller did a show at the Playhouse because she owned a home in the area.
“That gets me thinking, ‘Boy, Ann Miller was here. What show was that? Can we think about doing that show? Is there a contemporary resonance to that play that we could do now just for fun?,’” he said. “We’re always looking for ideas and tying things back to this extraordinary history.” ••
For those with items they wish to donate to the archive, email email@example.com or call producing associate Jeremy Ehlinger at 267-388-2531.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org