Mountain Playhouse in Somerset County still sets the stage after 75 years

By Mary Thomas
Pitsburgh Post-Gazette

May 8, 2014

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The award for the best bat story at a straw-hat theater goes to Mountain Playhouse in Jennerstown, Somerset County, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

One of the appeals of summer stock, red barn theaters is their location in the tree-greened countryside, and Mountain Playhouse, perched alongside a small lake in the Laurel Highlands, inhabits a picturesque setting. But with the flora comes the fauna, and in the days before air conditioning, when the playhouse wasn’t tightly insulated, bats were periodic visitors inside the theater.

“During a performance of ‘The King and I’ in 1986, a bat was divebombing the audience,” said Teresa Stoughton Marafino, playhouse executive producer. “When it got to the 'Uncle Tom’s Cabin' part, Simon Legree lifted his sword and it hit the bat. The bat’s neck broke and it fell onto the stage. The actor scooped it up and removed it to the wings and, without missing a beat, continued with his next line, which was ‘Simon is a clever man.’ The audience just roared because they were so excited.”

Mountain Playhouse will open its six-show season of live professional theater on June 17 with a musical comedy, “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” and conclude in the fall with “Midlife! The Crisis Musical.” The playhouse has employed Actors Equity actors since it opened in 1939 and holds auditions annually in New York City as well as in Pittsburgh. Many of the actors remain in residence throughout the season, acting in one show while rehearsing the next.

Mountain Playhouse had its origins in a roadside sandwich stand established by James “Jimmie” Stoughton and his sister, Louise Maust, which became known for its chicken salad sandwiches and angel food cake. To ensure steady patronage as the stand grew to what is now the Green Gables Restaurant, Mr. Stoughton established a professional summer stock theater that is now one of only eight of its type left in the country. He moved an abandoned 1805 gristmill, log by log, to the site, and the theater has been active since its founding with the exception of during World War II.

Ms. Marafino and her sister, Mary Louise Stoughton, carry on their late father’s legacy.

As children, the sisters met the resident actors and memorized and sang the songs of the various productions. When Ms. Marafino was 11 or 12, she was in her first show, the musical “Plain and Fancy.” She also was interested in the technical side of the business.

In previous years, the playhouse held reunions and “people came from decades in the past,” Ms. Marafino said. “Some remembered when we were tiny, when we were teenagers.”

In addition to actors, the staff each season includes positions as varied as directors and ushers, and many become part of the playhouse family.

“Charlie Crain, our director for 33 years, was a fixture here,” she said. He had entered show business as a child on stage with his vaudevillian parents and directed over 400 shows and acted in over 200 for the playhouse. Several staff members work at the playhouse in summer and at Seven Springs resort in the winter. “Even our master carpenter teaches skiing at Seven Springs in winter,” she said.

In addition to Green Gables Restaurant, where Susan Kroft has been chef for several years, the campus offers accommodations at Huddleson Court, which has rooms, suites and cabins.

Ms. Marafino attributed the playhouse's longevity to a willingness to adapt and evolve with the times. That includes following a national trend toward plays with smaller casts and shorter running times and using actors who are also singers and musicians.

For a dozen years, the playhouse has partnered with school districts in the region, and thousands of students attend the elementary program each May.

In 2002, the Mountain Playhouse International Comedy Playwriting Contest was initiated to encourage playwrights, who in recent decades have turned to television writing. Plans called for the contest to be held every two years, but in the first year, it attracted 180 entries. Now it’s an annual contest that draws a “more manageable” 35 to 50 submissions, Ms. Marafino said. The winning author receives a cash prize and a reading of the playwright's work by a professional company.

The theater also has reconsidered its financial sources.

“You can’t run a professional theater and rely on ticket sales income alone [now],” Ms. Marafino said. To that end, the playhouse converted to nonprofit status in 1998, making it eligible for grants, sponsorships and patron donations.

The first play presented in 1939 was Maxwell Anderson’s award-winning “High Tor,” which was a plea to save from quarrying a picturesque mountain by the same name that overlooks the Hudson River.

The opener this year, “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” takes place at the 1958 Springfield High School prom, where “four girls with hopes and dreams as big as their crinoline skirts” sing such classic songs as “Lollipop,” "Dream Lover,” "Stupid Cupid,” “Lipstick on your Collar,” “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” and “It’s My Party.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is the idyllic setting.

“When we were little girls, my cousins, who were just a little older than we, lived in Pittsburgh, and their mother would send the girls to summer camp,” Ms. Marafino said. “Once she asked my mother why she didn’t send us to camp, and mother answered, ‘Well, we’re in one.’ ”

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 412-263-1925.