Salisbury Press

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PRESS PHOTO BY PAUL WILLISTEIN The restored Bucks County Playhouse, New Hope, has reopened. PRESS PHOTO BY PAUL WILLISTEIN The restored Bucks County Playhouse, New Hope, has reopened.

Bucks Playhouse gets back in the act

Wednesday, August 29, 2012 by PAUL WILLISTEIN Focus Editor in Focus

Nothing says summer theater like Bucks County Playhouse.

And nothing says Bucks County Playhouse like the Straw Hat Circuit.

Bucks County Playhouse, New Hope, was one of the stops on a circuit that stretched from the Mid-Atlantic to Maine.

It included Woodstock Playhouse, Woodstock, N.Y.; Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, Conn.; Ogunquit Playhouse, Ogunquit, Me.; and Cape Cod Playhouse, Dennis, Cape Cod, Mass.

Pocono Playhouse, Mountainhome, Monroe County, and Falmouth Playhouse, Falmouth, Cape Cod, Mass., were destroyed in fires.

Young talent got a break, and established stars took a break from Broadway and Hollywood. The milieu was memorialized in the movie, "Summer Stock" (1950), starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly.

The circuit may have hung up its hats, but last month after a $5-million renovation, including the $1.8-million purchase of a property that includes a parking lot, plaza and separate building, Bucks County Playhouse reopened.

"Barefoot in the Park" (the original debuted at Bucks in 1963 starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley) continues through Sept. 2.

Upcoming: "In the Mood," a Big Band and American Songbook era revue, Sept. 18 - 23, and "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play," Dec. 13 - 30.

During the 1960s, "star packages" were put together for the circuit. Marquee talent rehearsed in New York City and their shows were booked on a circuit that once was 52 theaters-strong nationwide.

For families with children who can't get to Broadway during the school year, summer theater is very accessible. The experience can leave an indelible impression.

That was the case when my parents took me to see George C. Scott in "A Lion In Winter" at Bucks Playhouse. Scott played Henry II opposite Colleen Dewhurst, his then wife, as Eleanor.

My juvenile mind was impressed later that summer to see TV personality Gene Rayburn ("Match Game" host) smile and wave from a car entering the lot at Bucks before his stage show there that I also saw with my parents.

Years later, I am still enthralled with Bucks Playhouse, founded in 1939 by, among others, playwright-screenwriter-director Moss Hart ("You Can't Take It With You").

Grace Kelly made her stage debut in 1949 at Bucks in "The Torchbearers." Legendary actors who strode the stage include: Lillian Gish, Ethel Merman, Helen Hayes, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Bert Lahr, Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Angela Lansbury, Dick Van Dyke, Liza Minnelli, Jack Klugman, Walter Matthau and Leslie Nielsen.

The Bridge Street Foundation, a nonprofit named after the New Hope-Lambertville bridge, was founded by Kevin and Sherri Daugherty to purchase the playhouse, closed for nearly two years. Jed Bernstein, a longtime Broadway producer, is Bucks producing director.

The Playhouse has never looked better. It has been beautifully restored. It has a new roof, new exterior paint and logo, Americans With Disabilities Act access ramp and impressive brick-covered plaza.

Inside is new paint, as well, plus new carpet, varnished wood floors, new theater seats, renovated bathrooms and new lighting and sound.

You can hang your hat at Bucks County Playhouse again, straw hat circuit or not.

Day Trippers is an occasional column about a destination that can be reached in a one-day's drive from the Lehigh Valley Press circulation area.