“We’re going to have a theater right in our backyard. How much money do you have?”
With that statement and question by James Stoughton to his sister, Louise Stoughton Maust, in 1938, the idea for Mountain Playhouse was born.
Stoughton, the late father of present playhouse producer Teresa Stoughton Marafino, was on the board of the Paint Shop Players in 1937 when their building in Somerset was condemned.
After finding an abandoned gristmill along Route 31 in Roxbury, which is between Somerset and Bedford, Stoughton was determined to tear down the mill and move it log by log to the Maurer family farm in Jennerstown, where he would create another theater.
“The mill dated to the early 1800s and had ceased operations,” Marafino said.
“He got the idea to tear it down and number the logs. We call it the biggest Lincoln log project ever.”
Stoughton, who was known as Jimmie, grew up on his grandparents’ 200-acre farm along Route 985.
The family business started with a roadside sandwich stand in 1927, which later became Green Gables Restaurant.
“Route 985 was the only road between Johnstown and Somerset, and there was no turnpike yet,” Marafino said.
“We don’t understand what traffic was like then. Traffic on Route 30 was more intense than it is today. We weren’t as out in the country as we are now. There was more commerce.”
Marafino said putting in the theater next to the restaurant, which was named for the book “Anne of Green Gables,” made it look better.
“The theater was dubbed the Pioneer Theater of the Alleghenies, and its rural setting was a big deal,” Marafino said. “The beauty of the local scenery was a big draw.”
The playhouse’s first production, “High Tor” by Maxwell Anderson, opened on June 24, 1939, with ticket prices at $1.10 and 60 cents.
Marafino said she and her husband have named their home High Tor.
The playhouse had two to three seasons before World War II closed it down.
“America was shut down with gas rationing, and my father and uncle went to fight in the war,” Marafino said.
“We were closed for four years, and that’s the only time we’ve been closed.”
Once the mountain theater opened again, it flourished since most people had no television sets in their homes.
“Today, there is a choice for entertainment, but then there were no options,” Marafino said.
“There’s nothing like live theater, but it’s a different world now. There are more choices.”
Stars come out
In its early years, various stars visited Mountain Playhouse, including actor Jimmy Stewart and his mother.
“He told my father to never hire stars,” Marafino said. “He felt people would only come when the stars were in a production. He told my father to cultivate a company of actors, and the audience would want to see them.”
In the late 1940s, playwright Tennessee Williams came to the playhouse for the first summer theater production of his play, “Summer and Smoke.”
“A cousin remembered seeing my father walking with Williams,” Marafino said.
Other celebrities at the playhouse include actresses Gloria Swanson in the 1950s and Ruth Buzzi in the 1960s.
Buzzi was there to act in “Auntie Mame” before her days on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In.”
When the playhouse started, there was a new show every week, a practice that continued into the early 1970s.
“It got to the point where the audience was more interested in seeing more polished shows,” Marafino said. “We started to do less than one a week because we had so much audience, we had to do it. They liked more rehearsal time. Shows evolved into three- to four-week runs if we thought they would be popular.”
Change in status
Mountain Playhouse had been a for-profit theater until 1997.
“We became a nonprofit because it became clear we weren’t going to survive on ticket sales alone,” Marafino said.
“Now, we could solicit donations and apply for grants.”
Jimmie Stoughton died in 1972, but his dream of having a summer-stock theater didn’t die with him.
Mountain Playhouse has always been owned by a family member.
Marafino, her aunt, Louise Stoughton Maust, and her sister, Mary Louise Stoughton, have shared ownership, and the theater is now owned by the two sisters.
Various family members also have served on the board and been producers.
“It’s important that this theater is the community’s theater,” Marafino said.
“We survive because people want to see shows. It’s not about any one family. It’s a collective effort, and the community is interested.”
From the first season, the process has been the same for the resident stock theater whose premise is to have actors in residence while doing the shows.
There are auditions in New York the first part of the year, and a reading at the first rehearsal when actors figure out movements and try on costumes.
They also figure out where they will be living during their stay in the Laurel Highlands.
A place to stay
Marafino said actors can stay in the three apartments that were built in the original farmhouse in the 1950s, at other housing built where the barn used to stand or at a house the family owns in Jennerstown.
“It’s part of a giant puzzle figuring out where everyone will stay,” Marafino said.
“Most actors like the bucolic, healing setting, some don’t. Those who don’t take to it usually don’t work here for long.”
Actors might enjoy the scenery, but it’s always about doing the shows and focusing on their craft.
Mountain Playhouse has always been a union theater, with a contract with the Actors Equity Association.
They also have a contract with the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.
“We’re one of 10 summer stock theaters on contract,” Marafino said. “There are some as far north as Maine, as far south as North Carolina and as far west as Wisconsin.”
While some things have stayed the same, others have moved forward with technology.
Mountain Playhouse’s most recent advancement is having ticket sales computerized on its website at www.mountainplayhouse.org.
“We had to be competitive,” Marafino said. “Everything needs to be available all the time now.”
Lighting for the stage has advanced, and actors started using microphones to project their voices as recently as 1995.
“That reflects our aging audience,” Marafino said. “We wanted them to be able to hear the show.”
“For the overall makeup of our audience, the age is getting older, but I remember seniors being here in the ’70s. It’s generations who are coming now, for family outings or mom and dad getting away for the night.”
Audiences have always come from a 60-mile radius to see a show at the playhouse.
Marafino said the theater is always evolving into what the people want to see.
It is her job to figure out what they see as time progresses.
“I’ve seen a movement toward small-cast shows, because large casts can be expensive,” she said. “There also has been the birth of solo shows and two-handers, shows with two people. There are more of them because of the cost of production.”
“We’ve done some two-people shows. The one-person show is trickier because you have to like that person because they’re the only one onstage.”
Marafino also has seen a trend toward shorter productions.
“Shows used to be three to four hours long and have two or three intermissions,” she said.
“There is a definite trend to shorter shows.”
The well-kept grounds of the playhouse also are constantly evolving.
“We’re tempted to overdo, to make it too formal, but we work hard not to do that,” Marafino said. “We have indigenous plants brought in and put in specific places.”
The major feature of the landscape is Stoughton Lake, which was only a stream before being engineered by Marafino’s uncle in 1951.
And with the lake comes the swans, a favorite of those who come to the shows early to walk the grounds.
Marafino said there are some baby swans, or cygnets, present at the lake this year.
“This set of swans come back, but there’s no guarantee they will stay,” Marafino said.
Marafino feels Mountain Playhouse has contributed to the region’s tourism industry.
“There’s not much to do in the evenings in the Laurel Highlands, not many places with evening hours,” Marafino said.
“The tourism people are interested in visitors not passing through, but staying. We’re quite active with the tourism promotion agency. We’re excited to keep on doing shows. It’s through the efforts of everyone – tickets sales, sponsors and donations.”
The following productions are scheduled at Mountain Playhouse in Jennerstown:
“Ring of Fire” – through July 1.
“Alone Together” – July 10-22.
“The Fox on the Fairway” – July 24 to Aug. 5
“SUDS: The Rocking ’60s Musical Soap Opera” – Aug. 7-19.
Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” – Sept. 18-30.
“Nunsense Jamboree” – Oct. 2-14.