The curtain falls forever on Hampton Playhouse

By Steve Jusseaume, Hampton Union Staff Writer

Hampton Union, January 30, 2001

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online]
Interior of Playhouse Hampton Playhouse owner Michael Wakeen poses inside the theater recently. Despite some residents' efforts to save what they called a Hampton landmark.
Theater people combed through the Hampton Playhouse barn this weekend, collecting props, track lighting, speakers and costumes; anything that might be put to use at any number of theater companies along the Seacoast.

After 52 years playing host to quality, live summer equity theater, the Hampton Playhouse is coming down this week; a victim to so-called progress.

Lee Danley of Danley Demolition picked up a demolition permit Friday and expects to begin the process of dismantling the barn later this week, likely on Thursday. Demolition of the barn was approved by the Heritage Commission nearly a year ago, after the land underneath of Playhouse was sold. A group originally headed by Michael Wakeen, Craig Salomon and others proposed a 25-lot subdivision for the 15-acre parcel off Winnacunnet Road in 1998. In the meantime, the Playhouse opened for the summer 1999 season, under Wakeen's direction. But finances were such that the Playhouse couldn't turn a profit, and an August 1999 production of 'South Pacific' would prove to be the last show performed in the historic structure.

The Heritage Commission approved the demolition with great reluctance in May.

"I grew up in this town and love this town. The Hampton Playhouse was always a great landmark. It will be a shame to see it go," offered commission member Dan Nersesian at the time.

The production entity 'The Hampton Playhouse' continues to produce shows and last year staged several productions in the Winnacunnet High School auditorium. And a group of volunteers so-called the Friends of the Hampton Playhouse investigated options for the barn, including dismantling the structure and moving it to another site, however in the end nothing could not save it.

"I did everything I could to market the playhouse, but there are no amenities there. It just didn't fly," Wakeen told the Heritage Commission last spring.

This past weekend, Wakeen stood in a darkened balcony as dozens of theater people and others worked about salvaging anything that could be saved.

"It's a shame we couldn't make this work, but the finances just wouldn't allow it," Wakeen said.

Forrest Hardhardt of Hampton spent a few days in the barn, salvaging wood planks last week and over the weekend, and helping a theater group from Portsmouth haul out stage sets, curtain pulleys and lighting gear.

"I'm a scavenger by nature. I've got parts of a lot of old buildings in my house. But this is different. It's really sad to see this barn come down," Hardhardt said, standing in the lobby Saturday amid the detritus of more than half a century of theatrical productions. Two bright red ticket stands leaned against a wall, publicity stills littered the floor, and a few copies of the South Pacific playbill lay on a table.

"This is just another part of Hampton going away. If this is progress, I don't want any part of it," Hardhardt said, glancing out the door within earshot of a construction crew working on one of several new homes being built in what has been aptly named "Playhouse Village."

On the stage, Dane Leeman, the technical director of the New Hampshire Theatre Project at 125 Bow Street in Portsmouth lugged a long piece of curtain tracking out the back door.

"We're just trying to salvage as much stuff -— props, lighting gear, cable -— as we can use. There aren't enough theater companies here, and its tragic to see this barn go down," Leeman said.

Other theater groups have visited the barn, taking anything of potential value. Dick Ray of Winnacunnet High School spent some time at the site, taking a few items for the high school drama department.

"Four or five theaters have come down over the past week looking for anything they might be able to use," said Danley Friday. "I've called a lot of people, a lot of theater groups, telling them they can take what they want. I'd rather see as much of this stuff go to good use rather than just tear it all down and haul it away."

Danley plans to salvage some of the timbers in the old barn, including some up to 44 feet long, and cut from one single tree, that served as holding timbers in the ceiling. Some people planned to save rows of theater seating, and others scavenged through file cabinets for memorabilia over the weekend. But by yesterday there was very little of any value left to save.

Danley, who has demolished some very old, historic buildings in the area over the past years, recalled pulling down an old friary building in Rye some years ago.

"I hated to see that place come down. It could have been used for so many things, but this old barn is different. It can't really be used for much. I know it holds a lot of memories, but the structure itself is in pretty bad shape. There just isn't much you can do with it," Danley said, hauling one of the red ticket stands to his pickup parked in the snow just outside the side door.