|Location||Main and Summit Sts., Ivoryton, Connecticut|
|Area||0.6 acres (0.24 ha)|
|Built||1910 and 1938|
|Architectural style||Classical Revival|
|NRHP reference #||82003769|
|Added to NRHP||April 15, 1982|
The Ivoryton Playhouse is a small professional theater located in the village of Ivoryton in the town of Essex, Connecticut, USA. The theatre is believed to be the first self-supporting summer theatre in the United States and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It produces shows year round, March through December. As Comstock-Cheney Hall, it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Construction began in 1910 and was completed 1911 as a recreation hall for the Comstock-Cheney factory. The building includes Classical Revival architecture. When listed the property included three contributing buildings on an area of 0.6 acres (0.24 ha).
The New York Players
Milton Stiefel was an actor who eventually became the right hand and confidant of David Belasco, considered one of the greatest directors to emerge from American theatre. After Belasco's death in May 1931, Stiefel continued as manager and stage director for many extravagant shows which traveled nationally, playing in every major American city. At the end of one of these tours, Stiefel came to Essex in order to rest, saw the unused recreation hall and thought it would be well-suited to accommodate a resident stock company. A Broadway comedy play titled "Broken Dishes" had just closed in New York (reportedly with Bette Davis in her first Broadway role), and Stiefel opened it in Ivoryton during the week of June 17, 1930. Thus the Ivoryton Playhouse came to be.
Stiefel's actors lived in private homes in Ivoryton, from which most of the sets and props were borrowed. The company did not break even until the last week of summer, but that was enough to convince Stiefel that the theatre could be a success. Throughout the ensuring years, he continued to produce and direct in Ivoryton, and in 1938 he bought the building. Stiefel continued at Ivoryton until his retirement in 1973, when he sold the theatre to Ken Krezel.
The theatre is believed to be the first self-supporting summer theatre in the United States. The listing is described in its NRHP nomination document. Although there were older theatres in Dennis, MA and Skowhegan, ME, they were endowed by foundations of wealthy families and not self-supporting. The Westport Country Playhouse was established one year after the Ivoryton Playhouse.
The theatre gained in prestige to the point that invitations to work there were highly prized in the theatrical profession. Its reputation grew nationally and Paramount Pictures produced a film short showing its complete operation. Established actors like Henry Hull and Norma Terris signed on to perform at Ivoryton, and newcomers like Katharine Hepburn and Cliff Robertson came along to help mold the Ivoryton legend. Ivoryton's fame as one of America's leading summer showplaces continued to grow until the outbreak of World War II, when the theatre went dark for several seasons, mainly due to tire and gas rationing making it virtually impossible for audiences to get to the Playhouse. Stiefel went to Hollywood where he served as a director for Columbia Pictures, but he reopened the Playhouse after the war and presented a parade of stars such as Marlon Brando, Ethel Waters, Art Carney, Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Betty Grable, Groucho Marx, Myrna Loy, Gloria Swanson, Dorothy Lamour, Maureen O'Sullivan, and many others.
Ivoryton Playhouse Foundation
Krezel decided to sell the property in 1979 and it was then, amid rumors that the historic theatre might be torn down to make way for a discount drug store, that the non-profit Ivoryton Playhouse Foundation was organized and negotiated a mortgage to buy the property. The Foundations' early years (1979–1986) however, were difficult as four different productions failed to put the summer season back on the road to lasting success. In 1987, River Rep, a professional acting group based in New York City, arrived on the scene and its productions were an artistic success from the start. The River Rep spent 19 years in Ivoryton, producing shows during the summer months only. The Foundation began producing shows during the fall and winter months. In 2005, the River Rep and the Foundation failed to come to terms on a new contract, and so the River Rep decided to leave the Playhouse. As a result, the Foundation expanded its productions from just the fall and winter to the spring and summer as well. Continuing this labor of love, the Foundation has also dramatically improved the physical plant, installing comfortable seating, state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, air conditioning, etc. The Playhouse is on the National Register of Historic Places, as is indicated on the front of the building.
The Ivoryton Playhouse season runs from early spring (March) through December. A typical season has three or four plays and two or three musicals. Nearly every show runs for three weeks and the current performance schedule is as follows:
- Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30
- Thursdays at 7:30
- Fridays at 8
- Saturdays at 8
- Sundays at 2
Every main show is produced by the Ivoryton Playhouse Foundation, Inc., although shows not actually locally produced (but paid for) by the Foundation are occasionally brought in.
During the summer months the Playhouse has children's shows, which occur Fridays at 11 am and run for about an hour. In addition, Carmela's Comedy Nights feature top of the line stand-up comedy every few months in the evenings.
Location and Contact
The Playhouse is located in the center of Ivoryton on the corner of Main Street and Summit Street (at 103 Main Street). The Playhouse has a small lobby, where the box office is housed, and then the theatre itself, which seats 284 people in both an orchestra and a balcony section. Behind the balcony is the control booth. Below the theatre are the dressing rooms and storage areas. Behind the Playhouse is a small barn-like structure where much set construction occurs. The Ivoryton Playhouse Foundation has its main offices in the Essex Industrial Park in Centerbrook, where the main rehearsal studio is also housed. The Foundation offices can be reached at (860) 767-9520. However, when the offices are closed, all calls are re-routed to the box office.
- National Park Service (2009-03-13). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
- David F. Ransom (November 10, 1980). "NRHP Inventory-Nomination: Comstock-Cheney Hall / Ivoryton Playhouse". National Park Service. and Accompanying eight photos, exterior and interior, from 1980 (see photo key page 13 of text document)
- National Register of Historical Places - CONNECTICUT (CT), Middlesex County