During the summer of 1933, on a warm evening in a renovated garage in Ogunquit’s town square, what was to become one of our country’s finest theatres opened its doors for the first time. Today the Ogunquit Playhouse continues to carry on its legacy as “America’s Foremost Summer Theatre.”
Broadway showman Walter Hartwig and his wife Maude dedicated their lives to bringing first-quality theatre to venues outside of New York City as part of the “Little Theatre Movement” of the 1920s and early 30s. Walter was instrumental in organizing a successful annual Theatre Tournament in New York. When the Depression put an end to the Tournament, the Hartwig’s started the Manhattan Theatre Colony and brought it to the summer resort town of Ogunquit. Hartwig’s reputation and connections to Broadway enticed many theatre legends including Maude Adams, Ethel Barrymore and Laurette Taylor to star with the resident company. The Hartwigs experienced enormous success and they soon bought a parcel of land, part of the old Weare Farm on Route 1, in order to build the present-day Ogunquit Playhouse, which opened on July 17, 1937. Unlike other Summer Theatres of its day, which were renovated barns, garages or churches, the Ogunquit Playhouse was the first, and remains the only, summer theatre from the era built exclusively as a seasonal theatre. On opening day it was a state of the art building that rivaled many theatres in New York.
With Walter Hartwig’s death in 1941, his widow Maude stepped in to carry on his legacy. The turbulent years of WWII caused many summer theatres to close forever, but Maude kept the theatre alive and well. She even produced shows at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH, during the winter of 1942, to ensure audiences could see Ogunquit Playhouse productions despite the gas rationing that was preventing travel. In 1950, John Lane, then a young actor, was hired as general manager to help oversee production duties. He acquired the theatre and land from Maude, who retired in 1951. He was joined by a new business partner, Henry Weller, and they embarked on a long-range plan of modernizing and improving the building and grounds. John Lane immediately became a leader among Summer Stock professionals and was instrumental in the development of the Council of Stock Theatres (COST). Through John Lane’s dedicated direction, professional integrity and impeccable taste, generations of theatergoers enjoyed the brightest stars and finest professional actors performing in Broadway’s best shows.
John Lane retired in 1994 after a long and successful career. To perpetuate his legacy, he and Henry Weller spearheaded the formation of the Ogunquit Playhouse Foundation, a not-for-profit 501(c)3 arts organization. After $500,000 was raised to ensure the longevity and maintenance of the theatre and grounds, Lane transferred ownership to the newly formed Foundation in 1997. John’s extraordinary stewardship of the Ogunquit Playhouse ended after 46 years. John Lane died in 2000. Mr. Weller retired as General Manager in 1997 and went on to serve as Treasurer of the Ogunquit Playhouse Board of Directors from 1997 – 2003, Assistant Treasurer from 2003-2012 and then as a Board Member Emeritus until his passing on June 25, 2014.
In September 1999, the Ogunquit Playhouse Foundation selected Roy M. Rogosin as Producing Artistic Director for the Playhouse to build a bridge between the legendary history of the Playhouse and the exciting and challenging future ahead. During this transition the Playhouse began to move away from the traditional Summer Stock model, which by then was in decline, and began to produce its own shows, designing and building sets and costumes and bringing back the stars. The Manhattan Theatre Colony building was restored as a rehearsal space and the Children’s Theatre Program began and prospered.
2006 ushered in a new era when the Playhouse transitioned to an all musical format and newly appointed Executive Artistic Director Bradford Kenney assumed the reigns. The 75th Diamond Jubilee Anniversary Season was celebrated the following year with seven star-studded shows. It saw record-breaking crowds that clamored to see the glorious Broadway costumes and sets and of course, the magnificent musicals. The 80th anniversary was celebrated in 2012 and the landmark year was shared with Sally Struthers 10th anniversary of performing at the Playhouse. Sally has become an audience favorite, and a true friend to the theatre and the
Under Mr. Kenney’s leadership, the Ogunquit Playhouse continued to push the boundaries of Summer Theatre by extending the season further into the fall year after year, making it a true regional theatre. By 2014 the Playhouse season extended all the way to the end of October, with an additional holiday show produced for the Music Hall stage in December. 2014 was a banner year for the Ogunquit Playhouse. Cameron Mackintosh selected the Playhouse to produce first fully staged production in the Northeast of the musical The Witches of Eastwick. The Ogunquit Playhouse was also the first theatre in the country to produce Billy Elliot the Musical for a regional stage. Both shows received great critical acclaim and received a total of 13 IRNE Award nominations along with another artistic achievement that year, Mary Poppins the Musical. Billy Elliot went on to win 4 IRNE Awards for Best Ensemble of a Musical, Best Choreographer (Adam Pelty), Best Musical Direction (Ana Flavia Zuim), and the Promising Performance by Young Actor IRNE went to both Sam Faulkner and Noah Parets who shared the role of Billy. While the Playhouse had been nominated many times over the years, these marked the first IRNE wins for the Ogunquit Playhouse. In addition, Billy Elliot broke the record for the highest attended show in Playhouse history. In 2014, the Ogunquit Playhouse received the prestigious Moss Hart Trophy for its 2013 production of West Side Story. Kitty Carlisle and the renowned Boston theatre critic Elliot Norton started the award to honor Moss Hart’s memory and his contributions to the theatre. Kitty was a good friend of John Lane, and Elliot was a professed admirer of his leadership at the Ogunquit Playhouse. The Moss Hart trophy will reside in the lobby of the Playhouse for the 2015 season. Also in 2014, after several years of research, the Ogunquit Playhouse’s listing in the National Register of Historic Places was raised to the “National Level of Significance” in consideration of the significant contributions made by its founder Walter J. Hartwig and the Playhouse to Performing Arts Education throughout the nation. The Ogunquit Playhouse was deemed, and recognized for consistently living up to its reputation as “America’s Foremost Summer Theatre,” in large part because of its influence on American theater and all those who participate in it.
2015 will mark the 83rd season of the Ogunquit Playhouse and Executive Artistic Director Bradford T. Kenney’s 10th anniversary season. During his tenure the Playhouse has experienced extraordinary growth. Year after year Mr. Kenney has negotiated the newest and brightest Broadway titles for the Ogunquit stage and each show is mounted with top creative team members and talent direct from Broadway, television and film, each selected exclusively for the individual shows. During his time the Playhouse has also developed and offered special performances for middle and high school aged children, invested in a new steel support system for the stage house section of the theatre to support both the building and a new rigging system, installed a new state-of-the art sprinkler system and expanded the loading dock to allow the safe storage, loading, and unloading of the sets. Mr. Kenney’s foresight and leadership has furthered the commitment to preserve the Ogunquit Playhouse for future generations, and, along with the staff and board of directors, is continually working to ensure that the finest professional theatre productions will continue to be enjoyed and appreciated by generations to come.