The Pittsburgh Playhouse, a community theatre company, was created to fill the desire for a resident theatre left behind by the collapse of commercial venues. Motion pictures impacted live theater and forced stock companies and other theatre companies to lose their grip on the Depression Era's rare entertainment dollar. Pittsburgh's stock companies, like the George Sharp Players (Shubert and Alvin Theatres, 1927-31) or the Nixon Players (Nixon Theatre) featured a diverse fare of light comedies, farce, melodramas, and mystery but still could not meet the tastes, prices, or choices available in films. The only options remaining were the large-scale touring companies (also a dwindling possibility with the conversion of the Alvin to a motion picture format in 1932), burlesque or small local ventures. Despite attempts by the Pittsburgh Civic Playhouse, Pittsburgh Summer Theatre, and other theatre groups, little opportunity existed for Pittsburgh's residents to create and produce theatre outside the university setting.
In 1934, a group of civic leaders joined forces to form a resident community theatre -- The Pittsburgh Playhouse Association. The financial and artistic stability provided by an affluent Executive board which was complemented by an Advisory committee (including local theatre professionals), gave the new venture a strong foundation and a community impulse from which to start. The new community theatre was contributing to civic culture and developing the talents of avocational actors. The first production,
Art and Mrs. Bottle, opened in a borrowed auditorium at the Frick School and rented equipment on December 10, 1934, to social fanfare and mixed reviews. Despite a lack of permanent home and financial hard times, the recipe for a long-lived institution had been established -- wealthy patrons, knowledgeable artistic guidance and popular appeal. By the second Season in 1935, a part-time Artistic Director was replaced with a full-time position and a permanent home in the Hamlet Theater on Craft Avenue was renovated and available. Despite a briefly lived (1935-37) movement away from semi-professionals toward a professional company under its first Director, Herbert Gellendre, the organization remained committed to a semi-professional, community theater under its next Director, Fred Burleigh, for the next thirty years.
Although briefly interrupted by World War II, the Playhouse offered a varied and popular fare under Mr. Burleigh's leadership. The expanding cultural and social center was complete with a restaurant offering meals and entertainment both prior and post performances for the membership. The greatest era of growth occurred in the late 1940's with the addition of the school and children's theater. In 1947 the Playhouse began offering classes in all aspects of the theatre, formalizing the Playhouse tradition of hands-on learning. The school offered a full-time curriculum including stage techniques, radio acting, and other subjects related to theatre taught by instructors that included Edith Skinner, Shirley Jones, Sada Thompson, George Peppard, Charles Grodin, and local personalities like Helen Wayne Rauh. The second important component was the addition of a children's theatre. In 1949, Fred Burleigh approached staff member, William Leech, to organize the Playhouse Junior. Mr. Leech quickly found success with the shared use of the available acting and production talents and the development of original scripts, mostly from extant sources. Both elements reflected and enhanced the Playhouse's local reputation for quality theatre.
The period of growth continued into the 1950's and included the addition of two theatres (Craft Avenue in 1952 and Theatre Upstairs in 1958). This growth, supported by box office sales and private donations, lead to ambitious thoughts of professionalism. Unfortunately, by the early 1960's, the recent expansions and size of the organization, as well as waning public interest caused an increasing amount of fiscal distress. The decision was made to enter into a joint venture with Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) to help regain a somewhat tarnished reputation and fulfill the goal of creating a first rate professional theater. In 1965, William Ball formed a professional company called The American Conservatory Theater which resided at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. After a somewhat successful, albeit short, six month season, Mr. Ball and the Pittsburgh Playhouse parted company. The American Conservatory Theater A.C.T. thereafter settled in San Francisco and remains a major regional company and training ground. In order to further the goal of professionalizing the theater, the Pittsburgh Playhouse introduced John Hancock as the Director during the 1966-1967 season. The intellectual style of Mr. Hancock's theater, although of respectable quality, was met with disinterest by an audience weaned on light comedy and musical revues. Mr. Hancock quickly moved on.
By the late 1960's the Pittsburgh Playhouse was financially strapped and still unsuccessful in meeting the goal of professionalization. Collaboration with Point Park College managed to keep the doors to the Pittsburgh Playhouse open for a few more years and during this time the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and the American Dance Ensemble were formed, but even that arrangement proved unworkable. The Executive Committee voted to disband and close the Pittsburgh Playhouse complex in 1973. The joint venture with Point Park College was unable to sustain the distressed institution, however; Point Park acquired the Pittsburgh Playhouse facilities to expand their performing arts departments. From 1974 to the 1990's, Point Park continued the Playhouse tradition of performing arts education and until recently maintained the film repertory, children's theatre and the small professional company. Due to financial constraints, Point Park College discontinued the film series and severely curtailed the children's and professional companies.