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The stone tower at the center of the courtyard was added later and became a distinctive landmark. It featured a Seth Thomas clock, so the Vanderbilts’ cows and horses had the luxury of knowing that their feeding and pasturing times were accurately kept by a clock designed and built by America’s oldest clockmaking company. Nearly every theater company that produced plays there adopted the tower or its weather vane as a logo. The native gray stone walls formed an octagon that swept upward and inward to the white louvered woodwork beneath a shake roof that was topped by a bell (later stolen by looters in the aftermath of the fire), a copper cap, and a weather vane. A slate ledge around the base of the tower almost insisted that visitors sit there to take in the surroundings.
Eleanor Roosevelt, a regular visitor to the Playhouse, called it “a delightful place to spend an evening. I cannot think of a more delightful setting than these old Vanderbilt barns, with the clock tower in the middle of the square, where you buy your tickets, and the buildings all around.”
From Barn to Brecht
In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt heard a rumor that the county was considering building a jail on the property, so he wrote directly to Elmer Van Wagner Sr., who lived next to the farm, and asked him to buy it. He did, from Frederick Vanderbilt’s niece, and continued operating the farm until the end of the decade, when he sold it to a group led by Richard Harrity, a one-hit-wonder playwright from New York, and Elizabeth Campbell Crane, a wealthy investor from Texas whose main role seemed to be underwriting the good life in New York for Harrity and his associates. Conversion of the barn into a performance space began under Harrity, with the stage going up in 1952 or `53, but little else was done and no shows ever took place. Crane finally grew tired of paying Harrity’s tab at Sardi’s, and in 1953 decided to sell the theater.
One of Crane’s associates was the well-respected Broadway stage manager George Quick, who spread word that the unfinished barn was up for sale. Among Quick’s friends was actress and singer Susan Johnson, who had toured in the road show of “Brigadoon.” Johnson’s understudy on the tour was Polly Jo McCulloch, an aspiring actress with an uncertain future on the stage but with an independent income. Both McCulloch’s and Quick’s names appear as producers in the 1954 playbill.
Few West Virginians in the 1940s would have recognized the name Polly Jo McCulloch, but many enjoyed listening to the popular radio personality “Side Saddle Sue” and her bluegrass band, Rattlesnake Hogan and His Ridge Runners. McCulloch, who came from a prominent banking family in Beckley, West Virginia, wanted to become an actress, and by the early 1950s had gone to New York and landed a role in the touring company of “Brigadoon.” Now 83, she told me in a telephone interview from her home in Ancramdale, “I knew I was never going to be more than an understudy.” So, when George Quick proposed opening a summer stock theater, she bought the place for $30,000 and threw herself into the work. “I happened to have the money,” she said, almost dismissive of the cost, which turned out to be a bargain. In today’s dollars, McCulloch would have spent about $240,000, less than the current median home price in Hyde Park.
She and Quick were determined to make a success of the theater. They finished raising the stage and laid a concrete floor in the milking parlor, converting it into a lobby. They turned the clock tower into a box office and set up a business office in the carriage barn. Installing the 500 theater seats required over 6,000 screws in an age long before power screwdrivers.
With many recollections of the Playhouse still vivid, Polly took special pleasure in describing a visitor who showed up one hot afternoon in a dusty car—“a knock-kneed, pigeon-toed woman.”
“I said, ‘My God, that’s Eleanor Roosevelt!’” She added, almost confidentially, as if Mrs. Roosevelt might overhear us, “I came from a Republican family, where she was never mentioned.”
“How do!” said Mrs. Roosevelt.
She was there to buy tickets. While Polly was delighted to have the former First Lady’s patronage, she began a practice that confounded the theater’s owner, and is best described by Polly’s ex-husband, Hilary Masters.