A CAPSULE HISTORY OF THE DELRAY BEACH PLAYHOUSE
Although the recorded annuls of the Delray Beach Playhouse started in 1948, there was always a desire for arts here. As early as 1911, The Ladies’ Improvement Association was organized. They met in their hall on East Atlantic Ave., and presented plays, concerts, and held discussions. This was really the forerunner of the Playhouse.
In 1947, a small group of interested citizens met at Episcopal Church Parish Hall in Delray Beach. Among them were Robert Blake, an architect; Tommy Thames; and J. Stuart Warrington, a professional director. They felt the community would support a Little theatre Movement. The original players first performed at St. Paul’s Parish Hall, then at the Civic Center. To this end, they presented two offerings the first year. These were directed by Charles Justis (Chuck) Wick and Mr. and Mrs. Robert F. Blake. The two plays were well received and people let it be known that they wanted more of this type of entertainment. At the same time, several volunteered to work actively in all phases of the theatre. They secured the use of the Delray Beach Civic Center which was also used for U.S.O. activities. This was a wooden building adjacent to the north side of the Library. The first year, five plays were presented. J. Stuart Warrington served as director, and the group became officially became the Delray Beach Playhouse. A board of directors was elected, a budget was adopted and we began our “Stairway to the Stars.”
The next fall, an organization meeting was held. Plans were formulated and it was decided to hire a professional director. Mr. Warrington agreed to serve in that capacity. From that time until 1957, membership grew and many fine plays were produced and presented in the Civic Center. But all the while, more dreams and hopes kept cropping up in the minds of the theatre pioneers. Then again, dreams started becoming distinct possibilities. A drive to raise enough money to have our own building was very successful. Again, we knew that the people of Delray Beach and adjacent communities were with us. Yes, neighboring communities, because our reputation had spread, and we were encouraged by the response. The County Commission made land available on Lake Ida and we were off. Robert Blake, local architect and one of the original members designed the structure. It was ready for the 1957-58 season. This was the result of time, money and the effort of many dedicated people. Our first production in the new theatre was “Philadelphia Story.” With a large stage and ample room for the backstage crew to work, we became more ambitious and presented such successful plays as “My Sister Eileen”- “Teahouse of the August Moon”- and “Auntie Mame”.
The impressive plant, on the shore of Lake Ida, that houses the enterprise now was started in 1957 with borrowed money plus a lot of energy. Volunteers did much of the labor: carpentry, painting and installation. Members remember standing on a scaffold to install pulleys, and that Sunday afternoon when members turned out to install second-hand theatre seats bought from a defunct movie house. They all slanted. People had to hold on to the arms, so as not to slip off. Installation of the present red plush seats, and air conditioning and heat, marked a turning point in Playhouse history. People could, at last, sit in comfort.
By 1961, more dreams were taking shape, and hopes were high that the group might attempt a musical. But it was still in the dreaming stage. However, in 1961, “Peter Pan” was the forerunner of our present musicals. There was some singing and dancing. Again in 1963, we opened the season with “Fantasticks”. This also contained music and songs.
By this time the playhouse had added a lobby, workroom and much needed storage space. Now we could build and keep for further use, many pieces of scenery.
The 1964-6; season saw our first “real” musical, “Little Mary Sunshine”. The letters and comments convinced the board that we should include at least one musical each season. Since that time such has been the case. The musicals are usually presented in February and play to capacity houses plus at least six or seven extra performances.
As interest and membership grew, the theatre added two additions costing $400,000 in 1977 and 1995. Today stands what is considered one of the top-rated community theatres in the country: a 238-seat auditorium, expansive his and her dressing rooms with bathrooms and showers, a full complement of technical and administrative spaces, a prop loft, and the Warrington Room, a rehearsal studio.
In 1997, approximately 50 years into the Delray Beach Playhouse’s rich history, a children’s theatre program was initiated to fill a void in Palm Beach County. The legendary Dolly Workman spearheaded the efforts and the response was astounding. What began as acting classes soon evolved into a full performing arts curriculum of acting, stage movement, voice, dance and a multi-faceted staff of accredited professionals in their respective fields.
Soon, the Playhouse found itself hosting hundreds of young adults in classes and on its stage every year. However, space restrictions rendered us unable to handle all the growth. So, in 2005, a brand -new $1.25 million wing adjacent to the Main theatre was built with over 4,000 sq. ft. of performing space to support the growing programs.
Today, the space is used for Educational Workshops, Children’s theatre productions, summer camp and Youth Actor’s Workshops – the future includes cabaret, comedy and Off-Broadway style shows.
Since its inception in 1947, the Playhouse has successfully united professional-caliber theatre with solid community involvement – an unusual marriage that continues to work. Back in the late Forties, when this area of Florida was usually referred to as “a cultural wasteland,” a group of Delray residents got together to bring theatre into their lives.
They, with the help of their friends, started what is today considered one of the outstanding community theatres in the U.S., with a $250,000 plant (excluding land value) that’s far better equipped, far more comfortable and far more complete than many professional theatres.
The standards set by Warrington and his cohorts – to deliver topnotch theatre, not only in performances but in technical aspects have been consistently upheld. The professional staff that now makes things work behind the scenes maintains those standards, delivering first-class theatre to approximately 1,800 regular subscribers and countless other ticket buyers – Delray residents and visitors from all over the U.S. and the world.
What vision and dreams these people had! But such things are not accomplished by dreaming. There was much hard work – building sets, rehearsals, telephoning, ticket selling, and most of all a vigorous membership drive.
Our members have told us how much they enjoy our beautiful sets and the superb acting, which speak well for the abilities of both our stage and artistic directors. But most audiences only enjoy the finished production. Many have never been backstage. There is the heart of the theatre. Scenery must be built, props must be obtained, and in many instances, need to be researched to establish authenticity as to the period of the production. Lighting and sound effects must be synchronized. The costume and wardrobe departments are busy sewing, fitting, washing and ironing. Even make-up must be done as professionally as possible. This is the part you do not see, but it is all necessary to back up the artistic director as he works with the cast and literally “puts it all together”.
The success of the Delray Beach Playhouse is its marvelous mix of people: the nucleus of dedicated individuals who go on, year after year, working to bring the fun and culture of theatre to their community and those who come and go, some to serious careers in theatre.
Information from Grace McLaughlin Dec ‘73
And various material (no author identified).