On Route 117 between Mount Kisco and Chappaqua, the quiet summer road belied what, in 1932, had become Westchester’s virtual (and booming) Walk of Stars.
For more than a decade, the Westchester Playhouse—a stucco barn turned country theater—raised the curtain on ascendant actors like Anna May Wong, Henry Fonda, Herbert Berghof, Uta Hagen, Montgomery Clift, and Vincent Price.
What was once a stucco barn became the Westchester Playhouse, where many of Hollywood’s A-list actors perfected their craft.
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The story of the Playhouse began years earlier, when John Lawrence acquired the cattle ranch of industrial titan Moses Taylor. An ambitious developer, Lawrence had a vision for a country club with winding horse trails, endless lawn sports, and lakefront real estate. Lawrence Farms Country Club opened its gates in 1927.
As crowds from New York City headed toward the suburbs, so, too, did the theater. In 1932, directors Frank Day Tuttle and Richard Skinner converted the old Lawrence Farms barn into a full-fledged production space. They were a potent duo, and, with a keen eye for young talent, the Rodgers and Hammerstein of Northern Westchester billed a range of musicals, comedies, and dramas. They were able to develop a strong following by appealing to Northern Westchester’s socialites and the theater’s intellectuals.
That following included an impressive list of Hollywood royalty. In 1933, a young Henry Fonda traveled to Mount Kisco not only for prime parts, but also to paint sets. Joan Crawford and Elia Kazan soon reached out about open roles. Vincent Price took on a character in Tuttle and Skinner’s What Every Woman Knows. Up-and-comers from across the country traded Hollywood auditions for perfecting their craft and bunking at manors in Bedford and Chappaqua.
The theater’s “straw-hat” season (as high-society summer was coined) garnered a reputation for priming fresh talent. But summer theaters were by no means new to the area; Westchester’s artist colonies and discerning commuters had a history of patronizing the arts. But, in many ways, the county’s repurposed chapels and cowsheds represented an anti-Broadway sentiment—a break from a Gatsby era that no longer made sense amid the Depression’s bread lines and bank runs. Westchester’s rolling hills exposed Manhattan’s lavish façade.
In turn, room for theatrical expression expanded. Northern Westchester’s farms provided natural backdrops, just as outdoor theaters along the Aegean did in Ancient Greece. Thespians, stagehands, and other creative types joined casts for little more than a bed and a pillow.
Of the 31 summer playhouses the New York Times listed in 1935, three called Westchester home: The Ridgeway Theatre of White Plains, the New Rochelle Playhouse, and the Westchester Playhouse of Mount Kisco. The Westchester Playhouse was one of the first, and it was deemed “top bracket” in a 1937 LIFE magazine article.
LIFE called the theater a renowned “grooming ground for movie stars.” Critics and agents headed north to find the next big-screen idol. Tuttle and Skinner were soon tapped to lead the nearby Westport Playhouse along with their duties at the Westchester Playhouse.
The Westchester Playhouse was especially meaningful during the Depression—a time when wallets were thin and opportunities for entertainment were even thinner. Show business emerged as a diversion, a welcome distraction from encircling poverty. The Playhouse’s 50-cent admission made each performance a decent deal for the hundreds of theatergoers who braved the summer heat in town-tailored dresses and double-breasted suits.
In 1940, the last Tuttle and Skinner production, Margin for Error, closed. After more than 100 programs, the two were ready for a change. Tuttle went on to oversee radio shows and teach at Smith College in Massachusetts. Skinner bounced between Broadway and country theaters in Montclair, New Jersey; Westport, Connecticut; and Princeton University.
By the 1950s, a postwar transit boom made moving to and from Manhattan easier than ever. The rise of television and international air travel drew attention and dollars elsewhere. The site of the Playhouse eventually evolved into the Mount Kisco Country Club.
But, summer theater has not been forgotten. A collection of treasured memorabilia from the Westchester Playhouse was featured at a New York City auction house in 2011. Today, the county is home to more than a dozen theaters that host top talent and have the comfort of air conditioning.