Mountain Playhouse in Jennerstown marks 75 years
JENNERSTOWN – More than 75 years ago, Mountain Playhouse founder James Stoughton ran into where his sister, Louise Maust, was having breakfast one morning and said, “How much money do you have, Louise? We’re going to open a theater.”
That family anecdote is well-known, Stoughton’s daughter and playhouse producer, Teresa Stoughton Marafino, said on a recent afternoon while talking about her family’s “entrepreneurial spirit,” among other matters, inside the playhouse situated on her great-grandparents farmland.
Not so well known, is that the playhouse – a one-time gristmill from the Roxbury area of Somerset County that was moved log by log to its current home along old Lincoln Highway – caught fire the winter after it opened in 1939 and was back open for business for its second season in 1940.
Thanks to the fire, the grist mill itself is a bit shorter than that first year, Teresa said.
“So you can’t beat them down, you know what I mean?” she said of her family who opened the playhouse 75 years ago this year.
“Strong spirit,” said Laura Argenbright, director of marketing, sitting nearby.
“Yes,” Teresa said.
That “entrepreneurial spirit” coupled with a “group effort” is what has kept the playhouse going all these years, Teresa said, sitting on the arm of an aisle seat in the empty theater, the set for the comedy “Funny Money” lit in watery shadows on the stage behind her.
The Mountain Playhouse “is the oldest professional resident summer theater in Pennsylvania, and one of only eight left in the Council of Resident Stock Theaters,” a playhouse press release said.
James Stoughton started out in 1927 with a sandwich stand, which is now the office located to the right when entering the Green Gables Restaurant, Teresa said.
The first year proved successful enough to add a room to the stand. Then, in 1928, a $3,000 prize for winning a Rockefeller family-sponsored roadside stand contest paid for the addition of the restaurant’s front dining room, Teresa said.
Although Teresa, whose father died in 1972, doesn’t have all the dots to make the connections, she knows her father sat on the theater board of the Paintshop Players in Somerset, and the players’ building was condemned in 1937. She suspects the closing of that building and the opening of her father’s playhouse were not mere coincidence.
The grounds include cabins, suites and rooms for overnight stays, and Stoughton Lake, sitting behind and down from the playhouse and restaurant.
An open concession area on a patio tucked under the playhouse boasts a fireplace big enough to step into. Chairs facing out line the curve of the patio, ready for guests who want to admire the lakeside view and check out a flock of Canada geese.
The fine-dining restaurant also has patio seating. Inside are dining rooms and a banquet hall where four Oak tree trunks, once survey markers of the family farmstead, square up the dance floor.
Fifty to 70 weddings a year are held on the grounds, Teresa said.
In the playhouse, which opened 75 years ago with a production of “High Tor,” artists are showcased in the Jenner Art Gallery.
In celebration of the anniversary, a playhouse hallway across from the gallery has become a showcase for photos from the productions through the years.
The many productions over the years include “Animal Kingdom,” “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “The Sound of Music,” “Anne of Green Gables,” and “Barefoot in the Park.”
From 1943 through 1945 the playhouse was closed because of World War II. The 1946 season re-opened with “Blithe Spirit.”
The playhouse auditorium seats 393.
Ray and Pat Rizzo of Somerset have taken up two of those seats at shows for about 30 years, 20 for which they have been season ticket holders, Ray said in an email.
“We enjoy the outstanding acting ability of the performers at the Mountain Playhouse. Our favorites are both musicals and comedies,” he said.
Longtime playhouse actor David Garwood, who retired about five years ago and now lives in Missouri, said he did 200 shows in the 32 years he worked there. He wore several hats during his time there, including a stint as musical director, but mostly he acted on stage.
He has good memories from his time at the playhouse, he said.
“To be able to play so many characters over that many years, because so many of our shows you’d never get hired to do if they were only doing one show, and being part of a resident company then you get to do a lot of roles. Because most of that time we were doing new shows every two weeks. In the early years we did the big musicals for about four weeks each but that all changed,” he said.
“Oh, I just remember … I would say 12 or 15 years, it was basically the same group of people we got to work together and it was like a big family and it was just wonderful to work with people you knew and everybody worked together and enjoyed each other,” he said.
“It was just a wonderful experience and working with really good actors who became really good friends and a lot of us still keep in touch,” he said.
Tuesday the playhouse begins its production of Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie.”
The playhouse has put on original works too, producing some of winners of the Mountain Playhouse International Playwriting Contest. The contest has received entries from around the world, including Greece and Iran, since it started in 2002, Teresa said.
In 1998, the theater became a nonprofit.
They told “everybody in the area, if we’re going to do this and keep ticket prices affordable so we can stay open, we’re going to need your help,” Teresa said. “The real financial need to do that started way back in 1978, like 20 years before, when 25 percent of the population moved from Johnstown, and so that was something that had to be overcome and eventually it resulted in becoming a nonprofit.”
The 75 years is “a testament” to her father’s vision, which his family, in particular his sister, Louise, supported, Teresa said.
The “next generation” and the community are “keeping shows on the stage,” she said.
“Between donations and ticket purchases and volunteers and then our professional company, it’s a group effort to do this on a daily basis. … So it’s just terrific that we’re able to keep professional theater in this rural setting and accessible to the people who live here,” she said.
Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030. Follow her on Twitter (@AmandaGabeletto), Facebook (Amanda Gabeletto Altoona Mirror) or on her Mirror blog “House of Gab” at www.altoonamirror.com.