Hedgerow Theatre: Nurturing dreams Newcomers found artistry there - and marriage.

Posted: July 11, 2003

Eighty years ago in April, the Hedgerow Theatre in Delaware County's Rose Valley opened. Jasper Deeter, a Harrisburg-area native, founded the theater in 1923.

I met Deeter in 1930 backstage at the Playhouse in Wilmington, where he had staged the University of Pennsylvania's annual Mask and Wig production. Heading home for Christmas break from Dartmouth University, I made an appointment to be interviewed for a summer job.

"I'll take anyone named Solomon Jacobson," the whip-thin Deeter said, shaking my hand and looking me over. "Why?" I asked. "He was the only man in Mechanicsburg, your grandfather, who read Shakespeare as he sewed in his tailor shop window," he replied.

I didn't dare confess that the present Sol Jacobson wasn't big on the Bard of Avon, but was more drawn to the Irish - George Bernard Shaw, Sean O'Casey, Oscar Wilde, John Millington Synge. I needn't have worried; all my favorites turned out to be in his eclectic repertory.

Until I walked down Rose Valley Road that June day in 1931, I had never seen the magical place called the Hedgerow Theatre. Its doors were open, and no one was around except a burly guy hauling the set flats up through the trapdoor by himself. He was Harry Bellaver. I was startled to learn he would play the title role that night in Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape.

Bellaver had been kicked by a mine mule in his native Illinois and his punched-in face made him ideal for the oceanliner stoker. He was cast all his life as a tough guy, playing Sitting Bull in Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun with Ethel Merman. His sole line: "No put money in show biz."

My first night, and all summer, I washed dishes after dinner in Hedgerow's house across the street from the theater parking lot. Some of the actors bunked upstairs.

The big breakthrough for the Hedgerow came in an offer from two regional booking managers to make a national tour. It would take six months away from Rose Valley and was set for 1934.

I wanted to be part of the adventure even though it meant checking out of Dartmouth before my senior year. Archibald Henderson, Shaw's first biographer, tossed a party for us when we played at Chapel Hill. The following summer, Henderson became our adviser on a Shaw Festival, which premiered on the playwright's birthday, July 26, and ran for two weeks. It was the first such event in North America.

Hedgerow championed author Lynn Riggs' regional works - his play Green Grow the Lilacs was the basis of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! - creating another rich repository. The plays attracted reviewer Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, who drove down Route 1 with illustrator and caricaturist Al Hirschfeld to see them. Atkinson became a frequent visitor to Rose Valley, reveling in bird watching along Ridley Creek.

Well-known authors Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson took up temporary residence while Deeter staged their respective plays An American Tragedy and Winesburg, Ohio; Wharton Esherick, the brilliant Paoli wood sculptor, whose works are now in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, paid for his daughter's acting classes at the Hedgerow by making tables and ax-handle chairs and carving woodcuts. Today, Esherick's furniture is used at intermission and during Saturday-morning children's birthday parties. His woodcuts are the theater's logos.

Many happy marriages were forged at the Hedgerow. I once counted 27 such alliances, including my own to Bobbie Scott, and after her death, to her cousin, Barbara Saul Sprogell. The theater has shaped many lives in its first 80 years, and as the oldest living Hedgerovian, I am proud to have been an eyewitness.

After Hedgerow Theatre, Sol Jacobson spent his career as a theater press agent in New York, and he now lives with his wife in Key West and Foulkeways at Gwynned.

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