Shuttered Bucks County Playhouse hopes for summer revival

Theater people are a scrappy bunch. They do whatever it takes to get through the show.

That philosophy works well for summer stock, not so well for building maintenance.

The seating in the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope is held together by red duct tape.  The electrical system is a mess, as is the sprinkler system for fire emergencies. You can see roof rafters that need replacing through gaping holes in the ceiling.

New management plans to raise a new red curtain for an audience in new seats on July 2nd.

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“Get people in the doors again, get this part of town vibrant,” said Michael Schnoering of Mills+Schnoering Architects. “It’s a big dark spot on the waterfront in New Hope that needs to become light again.”

Since the old grist mill opened as a theater in 1939, the Bucks County Playhouse had been the summer stomping grounds for Broadway talent, including Robert Redford, Grace Kelly, and silent film star Lillian Gish. But it’s fortunes declined in recent years, going into foreclosure in 2010.

After a couple potential buyers came and left, the Bridge Street Foundation stuck. The non-profit based across the river in Lambertville, N.J., founded by private equity financier Kevin Daugherty and his wife Sherri, bought the building for an undisclosed amount (estimated around $2 million).

The Daughertys, as recent transplants to Bucks County, never saw a performance at the old theater. “We literally stumbled across Playhouse with a sign saying it was for sale,” said Kevin Daugherty.

The building may have been foreclosed, and in ill repair, but it was not alone. The Bucks County Playhouse Conservancy, headed by Doylestown resident Peggy McRae, had been for years trying to raise money and hope for a revival.

“If we had not had that sort of structure going into it, there is no way we would have touched this,” said Daugherty. “There’s a lot of pressure on a building like this. While we’re happy to do the acquisition and do the construction, and make it sulf-sustaining, I don’t know how to run a theater.”

The theater will be run as its own non-profit entity seperate from Daugherty’s Bridge Street Foundation. Producing director Jed Bernstein, a veteran Broadway producer, faced his audience for the first time Thursday night.

“Thank you all for coming on this rainy, gloomy night,” Bernstein said to about 300 people, mostly locals, who came to an open house to see architectural drawings, and hear Bernstein’s vision for the theater. Their questions ranged from decorative — the interior color scheme will change from stark black-and-white to warmer purple and red hues — to how the programming will integrate into the community.

“The Bucks County Playhouse is going to return to equity status,” said Bernstein. “It’s going to return to being able to attract and accomodate actors from New York and Los Angeles. It will be a first class theater. It will be a part of people’s career resumes as it was in the ’40’s, ’50’s, ’60’s.”

Equity status means it will employ performers from the stage actors labor union, a move which promises higher quality productions, higher ticket prices, and imported talent. When an elderly man asked if the $22 ticket price he remembered will be maintained, Bernstein told him prices will undoubtedly go up.

Another audience member asked if local, non-union actors will have a chance on the boards. Bernstein replied that he is committed to the theater’s legacy as a training ground for talent.

One of those non-equity actors is Tyler Horn, a native of New Hope who recently moved back home from Colorado.

“It’s thrilling to think, I can be in my hometown and have artistic opportunities right in my backyard,” Horn said, adding he was willing to sweep floors to get involved with the theater.

Long-range plans for the theater include expanding the woefully small lobby and backstage areas, and building out the wooden deck overlooking the Delaware River. For now, the rush is just to get the theater safe and comfortable for the two yet-unnamed performances this summer.

At four and a half months from when Daugherty hopes to open, a contractor has not yet been identified.

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