GROUNDBREAKING: City leaders and members of the Youngstown Playhouse break ground on the theater off Glenwood Avenue in April 1958.
Youngstown Playhouse January 7, 2009.
The Youngstown Playhouse is called America’s oldest ongoing community theater. Can the facility’s 50-year location be saved, or has it seen its final curtain?
By JON MOFFETT
Vindicator Staff Writer
Though Its actors may simply require makeup and a costume, the Youngstown Playhouse needs nearly $1 million to perform again.
A leaking roof and antiquated furnace system, coupled with a pipe that burst last month, have led Rand Becker and the rest of the Youngstown Playhouse board of directors to abandon their longtime home.
“It’s just been one thing after another,” said Becker, the president of the board, as he toured the 50-year-old structure off Glenwood Avenue.
The leaking roof and broken pipe have created significant water damage to the facility, Becker said. Though the building is structurally sound, the interior needs extensive work.
The theater is in such dire need of maintenance and repair, estimates from local contractors now reach $800,000.
The facility, which opened Jan. 4, 1959, cost $350,000. The first production, a 25-skit “Open House,” was performed in front of an audience of 500, according to Vindicator files.
But the theater’s death certificate may have been signed when the performing group suspended performances at the facility last fall. John Holt, then executive director of the board, announced the group would postpone productions until the building reopened in the spring.
“We have lost the majority of our regular annual giving from grant houses and foundations, and we are going into the toughest part of the year,” Holt said in the October announcement. “Our utility costs multiply by four or five times during the winter months.”
Becker said the decision was made, in part, because of the antiquated furnace that could only heat the building to about 65 degrees. The cost to heat the building exceeded $9,000 per month in the winter.
“You can’t have people sit in a theater for three hours in 65 degrees,” Becker said. “You just can’t.”
Though the furnace signaled the end, the water problems brought down the final curtain.
A tour with The Vindicator revealed many problems with the performance hall. Fallen ceiling tiles litter back hallways and rooms, and the pungent aroma of mildew greets patrons the way a ticket taker once did. The carpet in the main foyer squishes beneath shoes, and the orchestra pit appears moatlike, surrounded by puddles. The warped stage holds the skeleton of the unfinished set from the last planned production – Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.”
The water also damaged a number of seats, Becker said. Of the 520 seats in the building, Becker said about 100 need to be replaced. He said the cost for replacing a seat can range from $50 to $400.
Becker, who was named president of the board in July, said he “walked into a buzz saw” when he took the job. The building was behind on bills, he said. Despite the financial instability, Becker said most of the utility companies have been understanding.
Once the building is clear of those debts, the cost of repair looms.
Until any headway is made with the facility, the Youngstown Playhouse group will perform at other locations, Becker said. And though the group would like to return to its home, nothing has been scripted.
“We’re going to clean it up, dry it out and make a decision,” Becker said. “It’s too early to write it off just yet.”
If the structure isn’t salvaged and repaired, many current and former members of the Playhouse feel the city will be to blame for its death.
Bentley Lenhoff, former president of the board, was adamant in his position on saving the local landmark.
“I think the announcement of the Playhouse being dead is premature,” he said. “I think the Playhouse can yet be saved and saved in its present location. This area has very few assets like the Playhouse ... I don’t think this area can afford to lose the Playhouse ... If the city of Youngstown, the mayor and the city council and this area’s donors sit idly by and allow the Playhouse to die, shame on them, and that death should be on their conscience.”
Lenhoff said he has much respect for the board but feels they haven’t explored all avenues for the repairs. He suggested talking with local plumbing and roofing unions and inquire about pro-bono work.
Becker said the executive board is exploring options.
“I’ve got a group I trust, and that is what counts.”
Joe Scarvell, current board member and actor with the Youngstown Playhouse, said despite the problems, the building is crucial to the group.
“The sour part is that it’s an old building, and it needs a lot of work, but let’s put that aside,” said Scarvell. “The great part is that this is the greatest theater between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and you cannot find a theater that is physically prepared to do almost any kind of play that we as players do.
“There is no theater like this around.”
Bill Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, said the building provides historical importance, as well as cultural significance.
“For those of us who grew up in this community, it was part of our lives,” he said. “We had youth theater classes and other productions throughout the year. During my lifetime, it has always been a fixture of Youngstown.”
Lenhoff suggested some people are afraid to invest in the theater because of its neighborhood with a negative reputation.
“To those critics and potential investors who said they wouldn’t give a dime to the Playhouse in its present location, I think prejudice is part of it, and I don’t think it should be,” he said.
Becker indicated that the old show business adage applies to the Youngstown Playhouse: The show must – and will – go on with or without the facility. Despite rumblings of relocating elsewhere, the performing group wants to stay within the city limits.
“It’s the Youngstown Playhouse,” he said. “And we want to stay in Youngstown.”