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With Closure Imminent, A Look At Oakland's Historic Pittsburgh Playhouse

Later this spring, the end of an era in Pittsburgh theater arrives with the shuttering of the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland.

The complex of three mismatched, cream-colored buildings near Magee Women’s Hospital has hosted theater continuously since 1935, longer than anyplace else in town – ironic, as hardly any of it was actually built with theater in mind. 

But with Point Park University, which has operated the Playhouse since the 1960s, preparing to move its performing-arts operations to a new building Downtown, the old Playhouse takes its final bow, this time as a vault of stage memories.

Before it ever saw such talents as Gene Kelly and Shirley Jones among the thousands of performers and crew who mounted shows there, the original Playhouse building was a 19th century German social club. In December 1935, the group hosted its first theatrical production, called The Wind and the Rain, a drama staged by a fledgling troupe that called itself the Pittsburgh Playhouse.

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Point Park's Kim Martin in the Rauh Theater.

According to Pittsburgh In Stages, a history of local theater by University of North Carolina at Charlotte theater professor Lynne Conner, the troupe was launched in 1934 by a group of local arts patrons who wanted to demonstrate that Pittsburgh had culture. Co-founders included businessman Richard S. Rauh, who would play perhaps the key role in supporting the Playhouse in its first two decades, until his death in 1954.

The Playhouse wasn’t the only company staging theater in town, but Conner said that back then–even as touring theatrical productions visited Downtown, and amateur theater was practiced around the city–it was perhaps Pittsburgh’s best expression of the mid-20th century’s so-called civic-theater movement: an independent troupe with a mission that was artistic rather than commercial. (In that sense, it was a precursor of companies such as City Theatre and Pittsburgh Public Theater, which were founded in the 1970s.)

Early productions at the small, 250-seat Hamlet Theater included Noel Coward’s Private Lives, Sinclair Lewis’ anti-fascist drama It Can’t Happen Here and Thornton Wilder’s then-new Our Town, which had just won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Many of the earliest productions featured a young actress and Carnegie Tech graduate named Helen Wayne Rauh, who was married to Richard Rauh and quickly became the Playhouse’s signature leading lady.

Credit University of Pittsburgh Archives
University of Pittsburgh Archives
A 1938 production of "It Can't Happen Here" at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.

The Playhouse also staged lighted fare like the musical revue Hold Your Hats–a show that young Pittsburgher, dancer and choreographer Gene Kelly worked on and performed in just months before getting his big break on Broadway that would ultimately lead to a legendary Hollywood career.

Later, the Playhouse added a conservatory for pre-professional music and dance students. In the early 1950s, one of its students was a local girl and Miss Pittsburgh winner named Shirley Jones.

“Shirley Jones performed many times on this stage,” said Kim Martin, Point Park’s producing director, giving a tour of the complex. “She had her career start here.”

In 1955, just three years after completing her Playhouse studies, Jones launched her Hollywood career by starring in the hit musical Oklahoma! To a later generation of Americans, she’d be better known as the mom on television’s The Partridge Family.

Credit University of Pittsburgh Archives
University of Pittsburgh Archives
A 1955 production of "Our Town" at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.

The ’50s were boom times for the Playhouse, which around 1951 purchased a neighboring old house as a lobby and the decommissioned Tree of Life synagogue, which it outfitted to host the 450-seat Rockwell Theatre.

The Playhouse Restaurant, in the complex’s basement, also sat about 250. It once had its own water features, meat locker, onion-and-potato cellar and ice-cream parlor. By this time, the Playhouse was the city’s largest noncommercial theater and an indisputable cultural hub, said Conner. It had even added a children’s theater troupe, the Playhouse Jr., in 1949.

“We’re talking about a very large operation, with two main stages operating pretty much all the time; a restaurant; a bar; the Playhouse Junior -- a very significant children’s theater -- a conservatory for pre-professionals; and then a Saturday conservatory for teenagers, a lot of activity,” she said.

This is the era when Richard E. Rauh first visited the institution his father, Richard S., co-founded.

The younger Rauh, today a noted local philanthropist, recalls his mother (the actress) taking him to see a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those were the salad days of the old Playhouse.

“It was a glorious period,” he said.

Rauh spent a lot of time there and remembers dining on site with special fondness.

“The restaurant was one of the best in the city,” he said.

But in the 1960s, the Playhouse lost its financial footing. The 1965 season was a turning point, according to Conner's Pittsburgh in Stages: That year, the Playhouse served as the first home of the famed American Conservatory Theatre. But the troupe, whose performers included Cicely Tyson, ran a big deficit; the next season it moved to San Francisco where it remains today. 

The Playhouse’s fiscal woes set the stage for the takeover by Point Park.

Credit University of Pittsburgh Archives
University of Pittsburgh Archives
Helen Wayne Rauh (center) stars in a 1960s production at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.

The school continued the Playhouse’s programming, absorbing the pre-professional theater and dance training into its academic offerings, and even added a repertory film series, which was run for years by the younger Richard Rauh. (The series, remembered fondly by a generation or two of Pittsburghers, continued into the 1990s; Martin, who studied theater at Point Park in the 1980s, recalled it as the place she first saw Casablanca. It was long the place to go for classic art cinema as well as new arthouse films.)

Likewise, the Point Park era has launched a couple generations of theater and dance talent. Students from the 1970s who went on to prominence include Tome Cousin, who studied dance at Point Park and has amassed dozens of directing, choreography and performing credits on Broadway, off-Broadway and internationally.

“It’s a holy place to me,” he said of the Playhouse. Cousin, who now teaches dance at Carnegie Mellon, said that in some sense, he’s never left the Playhouse.

“From that particular theater, I judge every other theater in the world. I’ve performed all over the world, and directed, but from the Pittsburgh Playhouse stage, main stage, is how I relate to the audience,” he said. “I still think I’m on that stage.”

There’s also a literal sense in which Cousin hasn’t left; by his count, dating back to his student days, he’s directed, choreographed or performed in some three dozen shows on Playhouse stages.

Credit Bill O'Driscoll / 90.5 WESA
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Tome Cousin

Robin Walsh, who studied theater at Point Park around the same time as Cousin, recalled the Playhouse with similar reverence as “the place I first felt at home.” In those days, she said, students practically lived at the complex: classes, rehearses, performances and more, including after-hours parties. Indeed, Walsh remembered at least one homeless student who actually did live at the Playhouse for a while.

“You were there all the time,” she said. “You owned it, you cleaned the toilets.”

She graduated in the 1980s, but such loyalty was still being generated into the new millennium. Joshua Kessler studied theater education from 1993 to 1997.

“The moment I stepped into that building, it changed my life,” said Kessler, who is now a television producer in Los Angeles. He said he was “overwhelmed” by the sense of history in the place.

The Playhouse changed lives of audience members, too.

In the mid-1960s, Steve Pellegrino was a kid from the Mon Valley on a junior-high field trip there to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The production had surrealistic touches like a giant platform that rotated like a turntable as the characters ran around it, and a Puck who summoned songs by feeding quarters into a vintage jukebox, he said.

“It was just totally mind-blowing,” said Pellegrino. “And I went, ‘This, this is the real deal. This is what I want to do.’”

Pellegrino is now a long-time musician and performance artist who, decades later, staged one of his own shows at the Playhouse.

There’s still plenty at the Playhouse to attest to such history.

Credit Courtesy of Point Park University
Courtesy of Point Park University
A 1985-86 Point Park University production of "A Chorus Line" at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.

Right up through the current season, Point Park has continued programming there by its Conservatory Theatre Company with student performers known for their musicals, its professional theater company The Rep, its nationally ranked Conservatory Dance Company, and the Playhouse Jr., now the second-oldest continually operating children’s theater in the nation. The three stages include the original theater, now known as the Rauh Theater, the Rockwell, and the black-box Studio Theatre in the basement.

Backstage at the Rauh, there’s a bare brick wall with a gap performers pass through just before facing the audience. It’s covered in colorful signatures commemorating shows from The Crucible to Urinetown. The signatures date to a 1963 staging of the musical Take Her She’s Mine. More signatures lay beneath this visible top layer, said Martin.

“There have been many, many walls like this that have been painted over,” she said. “This is all the students, all the actors that have come through here and left their mark.”

The dressing rooms at the Rauh, with their makeup mirrors framed by oversized light bulbs, likewise speak of the past: They’re the only ones the building has ever had, and they’re quite small and susceptible to the leaky roof.

Down in the basement, the old Playhouse Restaurant has largely been given over to storage space for props: mounds of chairs, walls of shoes and hats, a cast-iron bathtub and much more.

It looks like a place that would have ghosts, and the Playhouse doesn’t disappoint. Fabled spirits here include the Rauh’s "Lady in White" (supposedly a suicide over an unfaithful husband) and the Rockwell’s resident haunt, an actor who supposedly had a heart attack on stage, died while being carried to the dressing room and now occasionally appears in the seats.

Walsh, who now teaches at Point Park, has her own.

“The one theater, I had someone come up behind me before an opening, and very comfortingly stroke my hair. And I turned around to thank them, and there was no one there,” she said.

Despite its multitude of legacies, many agree that the Playhouse has served its time. Martin, the producing director, deals with the facility’s aging bones on a daily basis, and cited its ancient boiler, lack of soundproofing and a basement theater that floods. With Point Park’s brand-new, state-of-the-art, $60 million facility beckoning Downtown, she doesn’t sound very sentimental.

“We can’t wait," she said. "We cannot wait to go to our new facility.”

But many alumni like Walsh are more wistful.

“[The move is] bittersweet,” she said. “And aren’t I lucky to have been on those stages?

Point Park’s Conservatory Theatre Company will stage one final show at the old Playhouse opening Friday, Anton Chekhov’s classic Uncle Vanya. The university officially bids farewell June 18 with Lights Out, a community party.

UPDATED: 4:27 p.m. Wednesday, April 4, 2018, to reflect the correct years that Joshua Kessler attended Point Park University.