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Fade to Black
Polly and Hilary Masters actively ran the Playhouse from 1954 through 1956, but by then they had children, and Polly’s enthusiasm for the theater faded, Hilary said, as she turned her attention to her family. They had decided not to raise their children in New York City, but Hilary chuckled as he said that no one wanted to hire a press agent in Hyde Park, so he turned to journalism and in 1956 founded the Hyde Park Record, which later became the Hyde Park Townsman. They built a house near the theater, and George Quick took over day-to-day management of the theater. Later, they leased the theater to several successors, eventually selling it in the late 1960s to Albert Ward, an advertising executive who had been tied to the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. Subsequent owners included actor Eddie Bracken in the early 1970s, with Peter O’Rourke as the theater’s producer. Dottie LaClair and Jean Morsbach, both New Yorkers in the ad business, purchased the theater in 1973 and sold it to Biff McGuire in the late 1970s. McGuire donated the theater to the Hyde Park Festival Theater Corporation about two years before its destruction.
Over the 33 years of the theater’s operation, many hundreds of performers, technicians, designers, and apprentices worked there. The list of celebrities who performed is extensive (see box), but that list leaves uncounted and uncredited all those who were part of the story both offstage and onstage during those three decades. I recall, for instance, eating dinner from a Styrofoam container on the Playhouse lawn between the matinee and evening performances of “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1971. Probably 50 people surrounded me, also eating and wandering about, many in costume, some, like me, dirty from backstage work, but only two names from that show made the Playhouse celebrity list—Mike Kellin, a talented and well-known actor who now shares Marjorie Gateson’s fate; and the show’s director, “Frank” Coppola. The life that so many others brought to the theater remains an untold story. One such story is that of Abraxas Resident Theater (of which I was a part for the `74 and `75 seasons), a nonprofit company assembled from professional off-Broadway talent (some of whom used pseudonyms because of their Actors’ Equity memberships) and regional amateurs. None of their names would make the list.
The demands of the building itself were exhaustive. A plant of that size requires large reserves of cash for everything from landscaping to roof repairs (and it always needed repair). Gate revenue and sponsorships never came close to covering the costs for most who operated there.
None Dare Call it Arson
My first question to Patricia Graf, when I spoke with her by telephone in Hyde Park, was “How did the fire start?” I expected a simple answer, but she responded with a question of her own: “Do you want the official story or the rumor?”
Anyone who ever set foot inside the Playhouse knew that from the hemp fly system over the stage to the shake siding, it would go up faster than dry kindling. (It astounds me today to think that we used to smoke inside when we were working—or partying.)
The fire started late on the afternoon of Tuesday, April 28, 1987. Brad Lynch, who lives in the Masters old house behind the Playhouse, recalled that the place “went very fast.” He could feel the heat from his house and remembers the transformers on the utility poles exploding. His ex-wife, Nina Lynch, was driving home from work in Poughkeepsie at the time and was stuck in traffic. Firemen had run a half mile of hose across Route 9 and down to the Hudson River, which caused a major traffic tie-up. When she saw smoke up ahead, she knew what it was. “Only one thing could smoke like that,” she said. “The Playhouse.”
Charles Belcher has lived across from the Playhouse for 50 years and used to run the theater bookstore. He saw smoke when he arrived home from teaching at Poughkeepsie High School and called the fire department.
“I was among the first that called it in,” he said.
According to Belcher, “The fire came down both sides [of the Playhouse complex]. On the east side, they didn’t save anything….On the other side they had a lot better luck.”