Summit Playhouse A Cultural Heritage

By Robert A. Hageman

The Summit Playhouse is the longest running community theatre in New Jersey and one of the oldest continuously operating community theaters in the United States, Although it is an amateur theatre it is described and known as a theatre with professional standards.

Marjorie Cranston Jefferson (one of the Playhouse's original founders and its director for 51 years from 1928-1979) represented the tradition of the Plavhouse Association when she once replied to a question regarding the word - amateur" She declared " I never allowed the word amateur to be used in conjunction with The Summit Playhouse Association except in its true meaning: Someone who does something for the love of it."

And this tradition continues today! For eighty-four years the Summit Playhouse has performed acclaimed classics, dramas. mysteries, comedies, and in recent ' years musicals, in more than 270 productions.

In 1992 the Playhouse presented the first American Production of The Romantic Age by A. A. Milne It drew the attention of New York producer's who were so charmed with the performance of Beatrice Miles that she turned Professional.

The Summit playhouse Association, traces its origins back to 1918 when a group of twenty three people interested in theatre organized the Summit Dramatic Club. Its primary motivation at that time was to raise funds as a World War I relief organization.

Through the years its objectives have been fourfold to (1 ) learn and enjoy dramatic arts. (2) bring, theatre to Surnmit, (3) raise funds for local welfare and educational agencies. and (4) give an annual scholarship award to a high school senior for achievement in the Performing arts and an annual donation for theatre books to the Summit Public Library.

Each play has one benefit performance (three per year) which raises from S4,000 to'$5,000. Last year two $500 scholarships were awarded.

The Playhouse is uniquely located on a triangle of land bordered by Locust Drive, New England Avenue and Tulip Street in Summit just off Springfield Avenue The building itself was Summit's first library. Its construction was completed on June 10, 1891 with funds privately subscribed. by Summit residents.

The building had been a long time in coming The Summit Library Association was formed and incorporated in 1874 and its books were, kept in a private home, a public school, and in the rear of a dry goods store.

In 1889 the library association ,was offered a section of land by George Manley if it could raise funds for a building. Two years later the building was completed and a formal library base began serving Summit.

In 1893 the stockholders (the library was corporate owned) voted to become a free library if public financial support could be obtained. After several years and much discussion theTown Committee voted $150 a year in public funds and in 1901, following a public referendum. the building became fully tax supported as a free public library.

The library operated on this site until May, 1911 "when a new Carnegie building was opened on the corner of Maple Street and Morris Avenue (the present site of the current library building).

Enter the Summit Dramatic Club! The original library building on its triangular piece of land remained vacant until May, 1918 (seven years) when it was leased to the Summit Dramatic Club (now The Summit Playhouse Association) for $1.00 a year. In 1967 the Library Association deeded the property and the building to The playhouse Association.

The early vears for the theatre were a period of organizational work and a lot of physical labor to make the necessary improvements. Originally, the building had no water, the thespian room had a dirt floor, there was no heat except for a hand fired coal furnace, and the stage-theatre floor consisted of planks laid across cinder blocks.

Improvements were continuously made throughout the years and in 1961 the Marjorie Jefferson Auditorium was added which tripled the size of the stage. The former theatre (small and cramped) became the stage which now faced the new auditorium. A new lobby was also constructed. The theatre currently holds 121 people. Air conditioning was installed in 1996 (see sketch of the Playhouse).

The first director of the Playhouse was Norman Lee Swartout (an original charter member) who served as director until he passed away in 1928. Initially the per formances emphasized a series of one-act plays and were sometimes performed in other towns as part of the Little Theatre Movement of the time. Within a few years four full-length plays were the norm. In 1950 the three-play season was launched and remains today.

There is a light-hearted story concerning Mr. Swartout. He was experienced and very strong in drama and classical productions (the Playhouse's philosophical emphasis at the time) but he avoided love scenes at all cost. In one play it is told that he held a girl so long that a member of the audience screamed "for God's sake kiss the girl!"

In 1928, with the passing of Norman Lee Swartout, his assistant Mrs. Majorie Cranston (an original Charter member who later married Mr. Floyd Jefferson in the 1940's) became the director of the Playhouse. Her tenure lasted for 51 years until 1979 after directing more than 130 plays.

Her personality and approach to theatre were interesting and unique in many respects, some of which carry over today. She was above all, meticulous about the scenes and costumes. Everything had to be authentic to the period of the play, from the furniture and the draperies to the gloves of the actors. The actors were also not allowed to have understudies in order to keep the performances at a very high level. She abhorred musicals. They are performed today, however. To sustain the mood of the play there were no curtain calls whatsoever. Obviously, they exist today. The audience also had to be seated on time. She was punctilious and the curtain went up at the precise time listed in the program. This tradition of the curtain going up on time is one that continues today at the Playhouse.

The subscribers in the early years dressed in formal evening clothes on opening night. This tradition, unfortunately, has not continued except for a couple of individuals seen once in a while.

A few of the physical features of the Playhouse are the murals in the lobby painted by Jack Manley Rose as a memorial to Norman Lee Swartout in 1937 (originally they were in the auditorium, but a small section was preserved and moved to the lobby during the 1961 expansion). Also in the lobby is a drinking fountain from the Old Metropolitan Opera House which was donated by Floyd and Marjorie Jefferson in memory of J. Campbell Howard (a former vice president and member of the Board of Governors).

Covering the rear wall of the auditorium is a mural painted in 1961 by Joan Rose Thomas in memory of Walter Livingston Faust (President 1933-1935 who took part in many productions and wrote several plays).

The Playhouse Association has approximately 90 active members, 25 retired active members,.and 250 subscribers. Active membership is by invitation of the Board of Governors and only after a prospective member has participated in a production (either onstage, backstage or on staff). Members must also contribute 10 hours to a Playhouse activity each year. Retired active members are those who have worked and been active for 10 years, but are not required to do so now. The fee for active and retired members is $30 per year which includes a ticket to the three shows.

Subscribers are important supporters of the Playhouse paying a fee of $40 a year. Each subscriber receives a discounted ticket to the three productions.

Special donations (four different categories) ranging from $100 to $1,000 and more are acknowledged in the programs.

The Association also has a summer program for young people called Kaleidoscope Theater whose financing and ticket sales are separate.

The high quality of the productions including the sets and costumes continues today for this cultural treasure of Summit. The 85th season of the Summit Playhouse Association features the following three plays: (1) Moon Over Buffalo from November 8-23, 2002; (2) Wit from February 21-March 8, 2003, and (3) Is There Life After High School? from May 2-8, 2003. The adult ticket price is $20 for musicals and $15 for non-musicals. Student tickets are priced at $15 and $10, respectively.

In order to bring their historical building up to 21 st Century standards the Playhouse is currently raising funds through the Summit Playhouse Accessibility Fund to make their theatrical experience accessible to all.