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It wasn’t entirely luck.
Biff McGuire was then the artistic consultant to the theater, and he’s still grateful to a plumber named Joseph Dudeck, who told firemen to direct the blaze away from his residence. McGuire and his wife, actress Jeannie Carson, lived in the southwest wing, but they were in Seattle at the time of the fire.
A group of students from the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) had been repairing the roof on the southeast wing of the building. Bob Kampf, then principal of BOCES, said the students had worked through the morning but were gone by noon. He went straight to the Playhouse when he got word that it was on fire. “It went up like a tinderbox,” he said. He later agonized over the question of whether his students might have inadvertently started the fire, perhaps by leaving an electrical tool in the sawdust (one possibility suggested by Graf), but after a thorough review he concluded that they hadn’t.
“No way,” he said, “that they could have been responsible for the fire.”
“Kid mischief,” Belcher declared, was the cause.
Asked to explain, Belcher referred me to his former neighbor, Howard Warren, who I reached in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where he and his wife Maryellen now live.
Warren recalled neighbors heading for the theater when they realized it was burning. “When my wife and I were later going toward the Playhouse, everyone was going that way except one elementary-type youngster who was riding a bicycle away from the Playhouse. It seemed suspicious to us.”
I asked what was suspicious, and Warren pointed out that the boy was going away from the theater and not toward it, and that he was “riding rapidly.” Neither Warren nor his wife saw the boy do anything at the theater, though the inference that he had still persists among the Playhouse’s neighbors.
I asked Biff McGuire, now 82, what he knew about the fire’s cause when I spoke to him at his home in Los Angeles.
When he arrived in Hyde Park, he said, “I also was told many different things. One was of a young man coming home from school. He stopped to smoke in the breezeway, then was either playing in the sawdust and threw a match in or put the cigarette out in the sawdust and couldn’t stamp out the flame, and then ran away. That was one of them. Several others were off-the-wall. That one piece kept coming up.”
McGuire said that no one seemed to think it was arson but rather that the blaze just got away from the boy—if that’s what happened.
Did McGuire ever see an official report on the fire’s cause?
“Never!” he responded firmly. “I could never get any information at all.”
He added, “I had asked many times and eventually gave up because there were so many conflicting stories.”
Patricia Graf never saw a report either.
No doubt contributing to rumors that the fire was suspicious were these comments by Dutchess County Undersheriff David Cundy in the Poughkeepsie Journal, May 15, 1987: “We haven’t ruled out that it may have been accidental, but we believe it looks more like arson.”
So, what is the “official story”?
I directed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to the Town of Hyde Park in November of last year and learned that Detective George Brazzale of the Sheriff’s Department and Walter Horton of the Arson Team were in charge of the investigation in 1987. I was referred to the Dutchess County Arson Team and the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Department for more information, specifically, to John Murphy of the Department of Emergency Response and Sheriff Adrian Anderson. I filed FOIL requests with both to obtain a copy of the arson report. As of this writing, Sheriff Anderson has not responded to my FOIL request or to my e-mails.
Murphy followed up promptly, and we exchanged several e-mails, but his last one, on January 3 of this year, sums up the conclusion. He simply stated, “We have no records in our possession to provide to you.” The bold print was his, no doubt partly to correct an earlier e-mail in which the “no” was omitted, but I also gathered from this and other e-mails that he was becoming impatient with my continuing inquiries. Still, I was astounded that the county had no public records of a fire of this magnitude and the destruction of what many considered a landmark.