No More Curtain Calls At Hampton Playhouse

At The Hampton Playhouse

By Liz Premo

Atlantic News, Thursday, February 1, 2001

[The following article is courtesy of the Atlantic News]
A landmark lost. THE LOSS OF A LANDMARK -- The historic Hampton Playhouse is slated for demolition to make more room for the Playhouse Village housing development. [Atlantic News Photos by Liz Premo]

Its time has, agonizingly, come. Despite efforts to save it since it closed its doors to audiences for the final time at the end of the 1999 summer season, the Hampton Playhouse is about to meet its demise. A Fremont, NH demolition company, its sign already positioned on the grounds, will soon be moving in the heavy equipment which will-bring the more than 200-year-old barn down flat to ground level.

Now, it's realistic to say that many people in the Seacoast area haven't given that barn, or the theatre it housed for more than half a century, very much thought over the last year and a half. There are, however, many, many more people here and beyond for whom the Hampton Playhouse was a beloved fixture in their lives. Many of them are unaware of its impending fate, even though they knew that major changes would likely take place on the Playhouse property once it was sold in 1998.

Stage right
A view of stage right as seen from stage left

Oh, yes, the new owners and the faithfuls from the Hampton Playhouse community tried to make a "go" of it. The 1999 season brought another summer full of fantastic mainstage productions, and the Theatre Arts Workshop produced fine children's shows through July and August. But the producer lost money, and the builders were anxious to get the show on the road, as it were. So, on the last evening (a Sunday) of the last show (South Pacific), the doors to the Hampton Playhouse closed for good — after a certain unnamed individual motored a rumbling Harley Davidson into the theatre lobby to protect it from the steady rain that was falling (Playhouse founder Sarah Christie must have been spinning in her grave, no disrespect intended.)

Looking back, the dismal weather was a pretty good indicator of what would eventually come to be. The Playhouse property owner did appear to be willing to hold on to the building until arrangements could be made to somehow move it or dismantle it. A group — New Playhouse at Hampton — was formed, after a community meeting was held at the Lane Library late in 1999. At that meeting, great discussion was generated about legalities and tradition and housing developments and the importance of creating long-term and short-term committees to look at the whole situation. With New Playhouse at Hampton off and running in early 2000, things almost seemed workable, and almost seemed hopeful.

The Stage Manager's booth
Disarray surrounds the Stage Manager's booth

But things aren't always as they seem, and things don't always work out the way people want them to work out. Speaking for myself -— and for our daughter, who has not only performed on that stage for two summers but who also enjoyed Playhouse children's shows from the age of 5 -— the absolute worst now seems about to happen. We've shared many tears, many moments, and many cherished memories on both sides of the Hampton Playhouse stage, and letting go of it has been a very difficult thing to do indeed.

This past week, as the Playhouse was prepped for demolition, area theatre groups and others in the community were offered an opportunity to take whatever they deemed could be usable in their own environments. Furnishings, props, costumes, curtains -— just about anything and everything was there for the taking. I, too, ventured into the Playhouse to retrieve, among other things, a red-and-white dress that Playhouse diva Deb Girdler and I created for the character of Nellie (played by Linette Miles) in South Pacific, which Deb directed. I found it backstage, crumpled on the floor of an Equity dressing room, lying amongst haphazardly scattered, unused tickets and a full, toppled-over trash can.

I couldn't help but be amazed at the utter chaos I saw all around me -— it was heartbreaking. Decade after decade of live summer theatre productions had taken place on the very same stage which now was heavily littered with scrap wood, discarded metal pulleys, velvet curtains bagged in plastic, broken light fixtures, stray props and abandoned accessories. Clutter abounded on the same surface where Hampton Playhouse favorites like Frank Vohs, Deb Girdler, Rue McClanahan, Marcia Wallace, Karri Nussle, Dick Sabol, Alfred Christie, Steve Witting and countless others brought joy to lovers of live theatre.

This week, the sound of music and singing was replaced by the high whine of a power tool being used to dismantle hardware high up from where the drops used to hang. The harsh pounding of a hammer echoed in place of the energetic tap-tap-tapping of dancing feet, now silenced forever. Instead of a director and a stage manager and a troupe of actors, individuals who had more than likely never acted before in their entire lives were now taking center stage. And the eeriest thing of all was to stand in the midst of that disaster area and look out into the darkened theatre with its empty seats, envisioning the hundreds of thousands of theatre patrons who had enjoyed season after season of Hampton Playhouse productions. Playhouse summers as we remember them will, unfortunately, never, ever happen again.

A deserted Playhouse
[Photo left: THE FINAL ACT -- The Hampton Playhouse is now deserted and set for its upcoming demolition, scheduled to take place sometime this week. Housed in a 200-year-old barn, the Playhouse was the scene of thousands of performances presented over the course of more than half a century. Now all that remains are empty seats in a darkened theatre.]

I took a moment to stop in at the deserted box office which — with faithful Playhouse perennial Bob Stockbridge at the helm for many, many years — was literally the heartbeat of the theatre. But there were no tickets there, no cash register, no seating charts, and no telephone ringing off the hook as was custom. In the theatre lobby, the soda machine was unplugged, the pay phone dismantled, and the outdoor awning unceremoniously heaped on the floor near a file cabinet that had a portion of its contents (including actor headshots and old newspaper clippings) strewn about on the carpeting.

The backstage area, unseen by the majority of people who ever entered the Hampton Playhouse, holds quite a history of its own. "If only those walls could talk!" one would say. The interesting thing is, they do. For scrawled on just about any available surface backstage is a written legacy of those who brought the joys of live theatre to Hampton year after year after year. It was on these walls and woodwork that they recorded their names ... chronicled the years they were a part of the theatre company ... listed the titles of the shows they were in, the parts they played, the technical work they did to bring those productions to life. Our daughter was one of them; her "board" is now at home with us.

Little notes, poems, musings, comments, messages, drawings and more -— they're all written there. And though they are silent, they speak volumes. In fact, there is one particular offering located backstage near a stairway which leads up to the lighting booth, near the entrance to the Equity Membership Candidates' dressing rooms. It reflects the emotions of one of its players at the end of what must have been for them a great season of live theatre. Its message is uncomplicated and honest, and it perfectly sums up what I wish to say to my dear, beloved Hampton Playhouse. It reads, beautifully and simply, "I love you. Goodbye."