Curtain rises once more at historic Bucks County Playhouse

    Seventy-three years ago, New Hope, Pa., had a red-carpet event to launch a new theater on the banks of the Delaware River. Dorothy Parker was there. Cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart came.

    Hiding in the bushes outside was an 8-year-old kid name Jim Hamilton.

    “I sneaked out of the house and came over and stood in line here to watch the opening because I heard it was a real exciting thing,” said Hamilton, who still lives over the river in Lambertville, N.J.

    “My mother would have whipped my rear end if she knew I was here. And then I looked up, and my parents were coming down the roadway from Logan Inn,” Hamilton recalls. “She’s in a formal summer dress and dad had a white dinner jacket on.”

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    The Bucks County Playhouse transformed a century-old grist mill into Broadway’s country retreat.

    It was the place where Oscar Hammerstein would try out material, where Dorothy Parker would come to be seen, and Robert Redford worked the boards.

    Chris Hart, the son of playhouse co-founder Moss Hart and the co-producer of the current, Tony-winning production of “Porgy and Bess,” was theatrically born at Bucks County Playhouse.

    “There’s an old tradition of introducing a new member of the theatrical community after a matinee,” said Hart Monday at the ribbon-cutting of the renovated theater. “They brought me out in my mother’s arms. I was 6 months old, and presented to the audience.”

    For all its pedigree, the last few decades have not been kind to BCP. The small theater that had drawn both talent from Broadway and audiences from Manhattan had been on a downward slide. The quality of performance was dropping, as were the ceiling tiles.

    A sudden plot twist

    By the time it closed in December 2010, the playhouse was little more than amateur community theater with seating held together by duct tape.

    On Monday, it got a second grand opening.

    The deep pockets that bought the theater for $1.75 million, and then poured $3 million into renovations, were primarily those of Kevin and Sherri Daugherty, and their Bridge Street Foundation.

    The Daughertys set up the Bucks County Playhouse as a nonprofit, but Kevin Daugherty announced that the business model will be revenue-driven.

    “We have a vision of something that will be self-sustaining,” Daugherty announced to a crowd gathered at the steps on a hot July evening. “Not relying on generosity, we’re talking about making something that survives.”

    Daugherty paid for minimal but critical repairs to quickly get the playhouse into shape for a short summer season. Holes in the ceiling were repaired, the seats were replaced, the electrical system was improved. More ambitious renovations are on the horizon, including making a more hospitable river deck and expanding the lobby.

    Overseeing all these changes are Bridge Street Foundation president Tanya Cooper and playhouse producer Jed Bernstein. On Monday night, the veteran Broadway producer was busy running the show.

    “You’re on auto-pilot. You have a list of things to do,” said Bernstein. “On the other hand, you have these deeply emotional moments interspersed with putting one foot in front of the other.”

    Emotional moments like seeing live musicians tune up to perform musical theater, something that has not happened at BCP in more than 20 years. Or, giving a preview performance for the construction workers hired to bring the theater back up to snuff; and seeing them stand for an ovation.

    Setting the scene for revival

    The town of New Hope, itself, needs the playhouse to succeed.

    “I still always consider the Bucks County Playhouse the core of everything,” said Larry Keller, mayor of New Hope for more than 14 years. “Everything else runs off of that. This is the hub.

    “When we were missing that for 18 months — it was amazing to see the activity and the change just as this was being worked on.” Keller said. “You can see people getting excited.”

    The theater opened with “A Grand Night for Singing,” a theatrical revue of songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The performers are members of the union Actors’ Equity, which promoters say will bring higher caliber productions than New Hope has seen in years.

    It will be followed later in the summer by Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” a comedy first performed with Robert Redford at Bucks County Playhouse 50 years ago, prior to its Broadway premiere.

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