Paying tribute to Hampton Playhouse

By Michael Bisceglia

Hampton Union, January 29, 2008

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

Hampton Playhouse in 1998
The Hampton Playhouse in 1998 [Atlantic News Photo by M. I. MacDonald]

Good Housekeeping magazine labeled it, "the ideal summer theatre." "Good Morning America" featured it on morning nationwide TV. It was 10 weeks of summer magic inside a 200-year-old barn, and the magic lasted for more than 50 years.

The structure once housed livestock, but beginning in 1948, the old barn took on new life and became a Hampton institution. With its original timbers and balcony area, the theatre was simply a delight.

Joe Pesci, Danny DeVito, Frankie Valli came from Belleville, N.J. So did Alfred Christie.

Christie became a teacher at Richmond High School in New York City and teamed up with a playwright named John Vari to bring live theater to the seacoast of New Hampshire, and the little barn at 357 Winnacunnet Road was the launching pad.

By today's standards, the very early years of the playhouse were endearingly primitive, but over the first several years of operation, conditions did improve. Indoor dressing rooms and a larger box office were some of the first additions.

Shortly, the parking lot was expanded and the bathroom facilities were modernized. The old barn was fast becoming a very classy summer theater.

Back in the '50s and '60s, Maddy Meredith's house and barn on Mill Road were home to many of the actors. Blankets strung down the center of the barn separated the girls from the boys.

In those early years, after-hours parties were considered a necessity. The cast and crew often frequented Shannon's in Salisbury, Mass., until liquor became available in New Hampshire. Favorite watering holes for both the actors and audience members were cultivated during those momentous summers. Some of these included the Galley Hatch, the Ashworth and the Widow Fletcher's.

All of those summer performances were legendary, and some of the actors went on to become legends. A bikini-clad Rue McClanahan ("The Golden Girls") sang "Come Take a Bite of My Apple" as she starred in "Burlesque." Katherine Helmond ("Who's the Boss?") starred in "Any Wednesday." She met actor David Christian while performing here and married him.

Marcia Wallace (Carol on "The Bob Newhart Show") starred in "Wally's Cafe." Van Johnson ("The Caine Mutiny") is remembered in "Lend Me a Tenor." The list doesn't end there; far from it. Quite honestly, the number of stars on the list of stage celebs is staggering.

The entertainment at the playhouse was top shelf, but that isn't to say that the theater didn't have some spectacular unrehearsed moments. Actress Karri Nussle remembers singing in "Anything Goes," when lightning hit the theater. The lights went out, but the show went on!

Lani Brockman recalls how often she was blinded by photographers while on stage. On one memorable night, she brought her camera on stage and told the audience to "Say cheese!" in the middle of a performance. She snapped the picture and the audience loved the moment.

The playhouse closed its doors in January 2001. The last production performed there was "South Pacific" in the summer of 1999. Sadly, the production didn't turn a profit and the property was razed. Parts of the theater were carted off to a number of regional theater locales. The glory of the playhouse, the terrific music, the magnificent acting, and the resounding applause are becoming fading memories now.

The old barn is gone, but Playhouse Village on Playhouse Circle does give at least some testimony to its once grand existence.

A special thanks to Ann J. Carnaby for her assistance in writing this article, and kudos to her for her many years of costuming at the Hampton Playhouse.