83 Years of Broadway at the Beach!
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 allowed him to persuade such theatre legends as Maude Adams, Ethel Barrymore and Laurette Taylor to star with the resident company. The theatre experienced enormous success and soon sought larger quarters and they bought a parcel of land, part of the old Weare Farm on Route 1. The Hartwigs built 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 Summer Stock 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 her shows at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH during the winter of 1942, to ensure audiences could get to 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. 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 spearheaded the formation of the Ogunquit Playhouse Foundation, a not-for-profit 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.
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 produce its own shows, designing and building sets and costumes and bringing back the stars, including Sally Struthers and Lucie Arnaz. 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 newly appointed Executive Artistic Director Bradford Kenney assumed the reigns. The Playhouse continued its tradition of excellence with regional premieres of two Broadway classics, Cabaret and Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, with Andrea McArdle and Leslie Uggams gracing the Playhouse stage. That year additional improvements were made to the sound and lighting systems with grants from the Maine Arts Commission and the Donato J. Tramuto Foundation. Visitation more than doubled and soon, the demand enabled the theatre to expand its season from the traditional 10 weeks to a 21-week season. The Playhouse opened its doors in May and ran into the fall, making the Ogunquit Playhouse a true regional theatre.
The 75th Diamond Jubilee Anniversary Season was celebrated in 2007 with star-studded shows. It saw record-breaking crowds that clamored to see the glorious Broadway costumes and sets and, of course, the magnificent shows, including Crazy for You with Rue McClanahan, The King and I starring Lorenzo Lamas, and The Full Monty starring Sally Struthers and Hunter Foster. The 75th Anniversary Season raised the bar, setting the stage for “Broadway at the Beach” to continue and ensuring its place in history as “America’s Foremost Summer Theatre.”
With the newly expanded season, the Playhouse was able to develop and offer special performances for middle and high school aged children. Fiddler on the Roof and Les Misérables sold out to enthusiastic students from the seacoast region. Thanks to corporate funding from Bank of America and a grant from the Davis Family Foundation, the school performance and other outreach programs were able to grow. Outreach efforts now include partnering with dozens of social service agencies throughout the region to bring under-served children and families to the Playhouse to enjoy live theatre. Furthering its commitment to preserve the Playhouse for future generations, in 2010 the Ogunquit Playhouse Foundation 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. In 2013, the Playhouse once again invested in both the preservation of the historic building and the safety of its audiences by installing a new state-of-the-art sprinkler system throughout the theatre.
Over the last several years, the Ogunquit Playhouse has received accolades from various respected organizations throughout New England. The Maine Arts Commission awarded two American Masterpiece grants for the lavish productions of My Fair Lady and Guys and Dolls. The New England Theatre Conference (NETC) recognized the Ogunquit Playhouse with the Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Theatre at their 59th Annual Convention, acknowledging the Playhouse as one of the most important cultural landmarks in New England. In 2011 the NETC honored the Playhouse again with the prestigious Moss Hart Award for Best Professional Production in New England for The Music Man. The Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) has nominated the Ogunquit Playhouse for annual awards in such categories as Best Musical, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and others for My Fair Lady, Singin’ in the Rain, Spamalot, Sunset Boulevard, Miss Saigon and South Pacific.
2012 marked the 80th anniversary of the Ogunquit Playhouse 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 Ogunquit community. The Town Manager of Ogunquit presented Sally with the key to the town (and a dump sticker), making her an honorary citizen for life! Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story closed the anniversary season and now holds the record for being the greatest selling show in Playhouse history! The record-breaking show returned in 2013 by popular demand and will be presented at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH during the summer of 2014 - bringing the collaboration between the two arts organizations full circle.
The 82nd season boasts an extraordinary lineup of some of Broadway’s greatest hits including two beloved classics and three regional premieres. The Ogunquit Playhouse is honored to be one of the first regional theatres in the nation to produce the astonishing international musical sensation Billy Elliot and to be the first regional premiere of the Broadway musical comedy sensation The Addams Family, as well as being selected by Cameron Mackintosh to be the American Northeast premiere of his hit musical stage adaptation of The Witches of Eastwick. The 2014 season is a dynamic testimony to the Ogunquit Playhouse’s heritage and continued commitment to professional theatre. The Ogunquit Playhouse is thriving and producing the finest shows ever to appear on Broadway stages. Walter Hartwig and John Lane’s legacies are alive and well thanks to the support of our community, individual and business donors, volunteers and our audiences. Going forward, our staff and Board of Directors are dedicated to ensuring that the finest professional theatre productions will continue to be enjoyed and appreciated by generations to come.