Theater companies large and small dot the southwestern Pennsylvania region, but none but Apple Hill Playhouse stages productions in a pre-Civil War barn.
"Apple Hill is one of only a few remaining converted barn-style theaters in the state," said Pat Beyer, artistic director, who bought the theater in 1982 and has been at the helm ever since.
Confessing that the Apple Hill's early history is hard to come by, she said the theater opened around 1956 in the barn that was part of the Martz Farm in Delmont. After a group from the Pittsburgh Playhouse leased the barn and shoveled out the "leavings of the animals," including those of a team of mules that hauled coal from a nearby mine, they added a stage and a balcony and christened their new enterprise the William Penn Theater.
"They did mostly melodramas, built up an extensive audience base and added a board of directors," Mrs. Beyer said. "The theater was out in the country and a cool escape from the city with lots of trees and quiet. ... The slogan 'The Best Little Theater in the Country' is now a misnomer because everything around it has grown. It's now the best little theater in the suburbs."
In 1964, a trio of actors from the Mountain Playhouse in Jennerstown bought the theater when it went up for sale. Renamed the Apple Hill Playhouse, its first production was a one-woman show starring comedian Totie Fields.
"Legend has it that John Chapman (a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed) planted his seeds in the area," Mrs. Beyer said. "There's still quite a few apple trees in the nearby orchard, although I had to cut down the biggest one last year to make way for a ramp for the disabled and a new porch."
Since purchasing the theater in 1982, Mrs. Beyer has produced a mix of eight to 10 comedies, dramas, mysteries and musicals every season. Each year the 150-seat theater employs 75 to 100 actors, including a team of regular actors plus others added through "scouting around and networking."
"After the summer of 1988, when the temperature reached 102 degrees and we did three musicals, we installed air conditioning and brought the playhouse into the same century as everyone else," Mrs. Beyer said.
Over the years, other improvements included new bathrooms, insulation and siding and new dressing areas. To make room for a larger stage, staff also removed some of the seats and replaced the rest with larger ones.
"The theater still looks like a barn, which causes us a lot of problems," she said. "For one, the roof is too low to allow for adequate fly space, and there's not enough wing space as well."
A few years ago when Mrs. Beyer's husband was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, she became acutely aware of the obstacles faced by people with disabilities and decided to add a ramp to the theater. After choosing the wrong contractor, she experienced what she calls "a season from hell" because of construction issues.
This winter she had everything he constructed pulled out and started anew with another contractor. Not knowing when the project might be completed, the 2013 season was delayed by two months until June with "Why Do Fools Fall in Love."
This season, children's programming has also been abbreviated from five to four shows.
"We used to do children's theater outdoors until development exploded around us," she said. "We used to compete with the wind, rain, weed wackers, lawn mowers, helicopters flying over head and the fire whistle. We've since moved indoors and find it a great comfort."
Each summer the theater also offers a summer camp for children aged 4-18. One instructor, Andy Meholick, "wears a Johnny Appleseed hat and tells stories on the porch prior to the children's theater performances," Mrs. Beyer said.
Jennifer James, an assistant to Mrs. Beyer, has used her many connections in Pittsburgh to bring new talent to the theater.
"Apple Hill Playhouse has been a wonderful training ground for many theater people who've gone on to have wonderful careers," Mrs. Beyer said. "They often come back and tell me what a great time they had here and what a great experience it was. That alone has been a very satisfying reward for me."
Highlights of Apple Hill Playhouse's remaining 2013 season include:
"Caught in the Net" by Ray Cooney runs from July 4 through 21.
"Southern Hospitality" by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten runs from Aug. 1 through Aug. 11.
"On Golden Pond" by Ernest Thompson runs from Aug. 22 to Sept. 1.
"A Little Family Business" by Jay Presson Allen runs from Sept. 12 through 22.
"Murdered to Death" by Peter Gordon runs from Oct. 3 through 13.
"Dracula: The Musical?" by Rick Abbot runs from Oct. 24 through Nov. 3.
Dinner theater packages are available in cooperation with the Lamplighter Restaurant of Delmont.
The 2013 Johnny Appleseed Children's Theatre productions include:
"A Winnie-the-Pooh Birthday Tail" by James W. Rodgers from July 4 through 12.
"Fe Fi Fo Fum" by Vera Morris and Bill Francoeur from July 18 through 26.
"Alice in Wonderland" by William Glennon from Aug. 1 through 9. In the production, Mrs. Beyer will play the role of the Mad Hatter.
A summer camp class for children aged 6 through 12 will be offered from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. daily from July 15-26, with a performance at 11 a.m. July 27. The class uses an age-appropriate musical script to develop skills in acting, singing and dancing, culminating in an ensemble performance that emphasizes responsibility, reliability, commitment and cooperation.
Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer; firstname.lastname@example.org First Published July 3, 2013 9:00 AM