Restoration of Bucks playhouse includes reunion with its old signs

Hugh Marshall, a New Hope businessman and Bucks County Playhouse memorabilia collector, in a trash container with some of the theater's signs he rescued. The signs span 45 of the playhouse's 72 seasons since it had been converted from a gristmill.
Hugh Marshall, a New Hope businessman and Bucks County Playhouse memorabilia collector, in a trash container with some of the theater's signs he rescued. The signs span 45 of the playhouse's 72 seasons since it had been converted from a gristmill. (BILL REED / Staff)
Posted: February 21, 2012

Waiting for the curtain to rise, theatergoers could trace more than 60 years of Bucks County Playhouse shows from signs on the theater's walls listing each season's lineup.

"What happened to the signs?" the Playhouse's new owners and operators were asked at last week's open house, when they announced plans to restore the closed theater to "its former glory."

Hugh Marshall has them - at least 20 of them - and he is willing to give them back.

"It was after the 2005 flood, and stagehands were throwing out the signs," Marshall said Monday. "They were covered in mud and silt - I could barely tell what they were.

"I saved as many as I could. It breaks my heart that I could have saved more."

Marshall, 45, runs a landscaping and trash-container business in New Hope that feeds his collection of local memorabilia. After the 2005 flood, he grabbed the signs from the trash bin in the playhouse parking lot, cleaned them at his business outside town, and tucked them away in his garage.

Until now.

Marshall's signs span 45 of the playhouse's 72 seasons since it had been converted from a gristmill. The sign for 1940, the second season, lists The Royal Family and Candida among the 13 plays produced by Theron Bamberger and Kenyon Nicholson.

The following 15-show season was started with George Washington Slept Here.

The most recent sign, for 1985, lists such classics as Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and Oklahoma!.

Besides the signs, Marshall collects postcards that depict the playhouse through the years and Playbills that are like time capsules. One 1964 program is for Sunday in New York with Alan Alda; another is for Time Out for Ginger featuring Liza Minnelli.

"These guys were just starting out - they were nobody," said Marshall, who finds some of his artifacts at flea markets and on eBay.

In a 1955 Playbill, a Manhattan tour operator advertised a round-trip bus ride from Broadway to New Hope, dinner, and a show for $7.50, $8.50 on Saturday.

Marshall also has the front page of the New York Times Drama-Screen-Music section for July 9, 1939, with a detailed Al Hirschfeld sketch of the playhouse's original opening night one week earlier. The caption identifies Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman and his wife, Burgess Meredith, and Kenyon Nicholson - "all owners or friends or neighbors." In the background are "non-Broadway residents of this new Athens of Pennsylvania."

It's this kind of memorabilia, plus photos and film, that the playhouse's new producing director, Jed Bernstein, requested at the open house.

Bernstein and owners Kevin and Sherri Daugherty of Doylestown announced plans to give the playhouse a face-lift in time for a July 2 gala and opening.

The tattered red chairs, patched with duct tape, will be replaced by refurbished deep-purple seats, they said. There will be new red carpets and curtains, upgraded lighting and sound system, ramps and a bathroom equipped for handicap accessibility, a patched and repainted facade, and a new roof.

The shortened summer season will offer a play and a musical through Labor Day, with live music and Actors Equity performers, Bernstein said. The Playhouse will then close for renovations, reopening in November for a holiday show, leading to year-round operation next year.

In the audience, Marshall - the Daughertys' landscaper - held the secret of the long-lost signs and his trove of playhouse memorabilia.

He said he would gladly lend his Playbills and postcards for display. As for the signs, "they belong in the Playhouse. Nobody should have them but them."



Contact staff writer Bill Reed at 215-801-2964, wreed@philly.com, or @breedbucks on Twitter.

Read his blog, "BucksInq," at www.philly.com/bucksinq.

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