Gretna Theatre has been presenting quality, professional summer theatre since 1927 – but the original Playhouse dates back to 1892 when it was built as the centerpiece of the newly-created Pennsylvania Chautauqua.
The Chautauqua Movement was founded in the late 1800’s by Lewis Miller and John Vincent, two men from New York State who shared a vision of providing life-long education to people of all ages and backgrounds. They started a summer camp for teachers at Lake Chautauqua, New York, offering recreation; classes on religion and music; plays, operas and other entertainment and visits by dignitaries, including President Ulysses S. Grant.
The Chautauqua Movement quickly spread to towns throughout the country. While each Chautauqua was independent, they were all patterned on the original and often used programs provided by Circuit Chautauqua.
In 1891, a group of community leaders, including officials of the Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad, decided to organize the Pennsylvania Chautauqua in Mt. Gretna “for the advancement of literary and scientific attainment among the people and the promotion of popular culture in the interest of Christianity.”
In his history of the Chautauqua, Jack Bitner writes, “Most of the independent Chautauquas had several things in common with each other and with the original in New York… Most had public buildings corresponding to those in New York, although usually not quite so imposing. These included an auditorium (often open-sided), a Hall of Philosophy and a CLSC [Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle] building.”
The Playhouse, known originally as the Chautauqua Auditorium, was designed by John Cilley, a civil engineer from Lebanon, and completed in July, 1892 in time for the first Chautauqua gathering in Mt. Gretna. According to Bitner, the Auditorium was designed as ” a simple, open-air, conical-roofed structure which would be inexpensive and would provide an interior unobstructed by supports.”
A promotional booklet published in the early 1900’s by the Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad Company praised the “great, circular, conical auditorium seating 2,000 people” – somewhat of an exaggeration since Bitner estimates it would have seated 800 to 1,000 people.
Mr. Cilley later built nearly identical structures for the Mt. Gretna and Mt. Lebanon Campmeeting Associations; he also built a home for himself next to the Chautauqua Auditorium.
After World War I, the Chautauqua Movement began declining in popularity. According to Bitner, “When the Pennsylvania State supporting grant to the Chautauqua was withdrawn, the month-long schedule of daily courses, lectures and concerts ended.”
With fewer events being held in the Auditorium, the Chautauqua Board of Managers looked for a new tenant. William Muth, the Board’s president, contacted A. E. Scott, an actor and director from the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, and suggested that Scott start a summer theater in Gretna.
Bitner writes, “In the spring of 1927, the necessary alterations were made to the Chautauqua Auditorium to provide stage and dressing rooms and the first season of theater at Mt. Gretna opened in mid-June. A new play was presented each week…They were most enthusiastically received – especially the night the lights went out and the cast carried on by candlelight to a standing ovation at the end. From the first, the plays were an artistic and financial success.”
Over the years, the Auditorium – renamed the Mt. Gretna Playhouse – also became home to Music at Gretna (celebrating its 26th anniversary this year) and the Cicada Festival, both of which continued the Chautauqua tradition of bringing a wide range of cultural offerings to the area.
The Playhouse survived many natural disasters, including several major hurricanes. But the winter of 1994 proved to be too much for the 102-year-old structure. On February 12, its roof buried under an estimated 150 tons of snow, the Playhouse collapsed.
Volunteers quickly gathered to salvage equipment and costumes. Reconstruction efforts began almost immediately. By February 14 – a mere two days after the collapse – plans had been made to hold the coming summer’s performances under a large tent and committees had been formed to handle fund-raising, design and construction of a new Playhouse.
The 1994 season played in a 60- by 180-foot “three-hump” tent and featured Don’t Dress for Dinner, Talley’s Folly, Lost in Yonkers and Banjo Dancing.
By the summer of 1995, a new Playhouse – similar in size and design to the original and located on the same site – was complete. Gretna Theatre, which produces the seasons of summer stock theatrical shows, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization which rents the Mt. Gretna Playhouse for its productions. The Playhouse is wholly owned by the Mt. Gretna Arts Council, itself also a 501(c)(3) non-profit..
Coincidentally, Tom Ebright, one of the driving forces behind the rebuilding effort, lived in the home originally owned by John Cilley, the architect of the original Playhouse.