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The Past, Present, and Future of the Ivoryton Playhouse

Any time you take a wander through the heart of downtown Ivoryton, you can't help but notice its history, as pretty much every building in the area has some historical significance. Standing out from the rest is the Ivoryton Playhouse, a large building sitting on the same lot as Ivoryton Green.

The Playhouse has a remarkable history in Ivoryton, and the rest of Essex, having stood in the same spot for over 100 years while hosting numerous events annually.

Here's what you should know about the Ivoryton Playhouse, a venue that you're sure to visit once you buy a home in this beautiful part of the country

Ivoryton playhouse logo

The Playhouse's History

Any discussion on the Ivoryton Playhouse should begin with its history. The building dates back to 1911 when it was constructed as a recreation hall for employees working at the Comstock-Cheney factory. These employees would use the facility after work, but the reality is that it wasn't an essential part of town life at that time.

In fact, the building would likely be long gone by this time had it not been for Milton Stiefel, a stage director and former confidant of David Belasco, making an unscheduled visit to the town.

The gist is that Stiefel had just completed a national tour and was in an extreme state of exhaustion when he, by chance, stopped in Essex, Connecticut. He stayed in Essex for a few days to rest, and during his time in town, he came across the recreation center.

Stiefel immediately thought the building would be a perfect theater venue and, on June 17, 1930, opened it with a performance of "Broken Dishes."

From there, Stiefel opened up the country's first self-supporting summer theater, featuring casts mostly featuring his personal friends. The troupe was called The New York Players, and many cast members moved to Ivoryton for the summer.

By 1938, the theater was successful enough for Stiefel to buy the building, ensuring that theater remained in Ivoryton to stay. There was a rough patch during WWII, however, when the theater closed for several years because fuel and tire rationing made reaching Ivoryton a challenge.

Following the war, the theater became one of the most prestigious places to watch a play in the country and attracted stars like Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Art Carney, Helen Hayes, Groucho Marx, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Don Ameche. 

In 1973, Stiefel finally retired, selling the building to Ken Krezel. This sale led to another tumultuous period for the Playhouse, however, as it lost money until 1979 when Krezel decided to list it for sale.

Rumors circulated at that time about a potential buyer tearing the building down to make room for a drug store. Luckily, a non-profit group called the Ivoryton Playhouse Foundation swooped in to purchase it, saving the theater for generations to come.

Despite some early struggles, the Ivoryton Playhouse Foundation stayed the course an eventually attracted The River Rep, another group of New York Players, to Ivoryton. This new group helped, once again, establish the Ivoryton Playhouse as one of the country's top summer theaters.

Today, the building has state-of-the-art heating, air conditioning, sound, and lighting systems, providing a modern experience in a historic building.

Visitors come from all over the East Coast to watch theater in this environment, which should help the Ivoryton Playhouse survive for decades to come.


What's Happening Now

Today, the Ivoryton Playhouse has 250 seats and is a destination for theater lovers from all over the country. It has won numerous awards in recent years, including being voted the best place to see live theater along the Connecticut Shoreline.

Artistic director Jacqueline Hubbard helps the theater produce seven shows annually, and there are numerous ticket options available for Ivoryton residents.

In fact, you can pick up a season's pass to ensure that you don't miss out on any of the action.

Unfortunately, the Ivoryton Playhouse wasn't able to host performances in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. All productions were canceled, and the loss of capital will put the theater's future in jeopardy if it doesn't raise some money.


A Look into the Future

The hope is that the Ivoryton Playhouse will open for the 2021 season, although there's no guarantee at this moment. The plan right now is to produce 2020: Part 2 in 2021

If this plan becomes a reality, the 2021 season would include: "The Great Gatsby," "Native Gardens," "Flashdance: The Musical," "Ring of Fire," "Ghost: The Musical," and "The Mousetrap." There is also a show created specifically for the Ivoryton Playhouse called "Forbidden Broadway Comes to Ivoryton" on the schedule.

No matter what happens, the Ivoryton Playhouse Foundation is sure to do everything in its power to keep live theater operating in Essex for years to come.

If you're planning to buy a home in this historic part of the country, you should have events at the Ivoryton Playhouse to look forward to as you make this community your forever home.

Published September 29, 2020 in Exploring Our Area