Vagabond celebrates 75 years

September 13, 1990|By Winifred Walsh | Winifred Walsh,Evening Sun Staff

The Vagabond Players, one of America's oldest little theaters in continuous operation and Baltimore's first community theater, marking its Diamond Jubilee season with a number of significant events.

From humble beginnings in a small storefront on Centre Street in 1916 to its current address in Fells Point, 806 South Broadway, the group has, over the 75 years of its existence, survived the Great Depression and two world wars to stage at least 600 plays for Baltimore audiences.

Salty Sunpapers columnist H.L. Mencken wrote a comedy mounted by the company. The group also staged a work by Zelda Fitzgerald whose script was drastically cut by her husband, Scott.

The Vagabonds served as training grounds for such stage stars as Mildred Dunnock, Mildred Natwick and Evelyn Varden. Former radio and TV host, Garry Moore (Garrison Morfit) appeared in one of the group's plays before moving on to New York and national fame.

In 1976, Kathleen Turner made her Vagabond debut in an original adaptation of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." The rest of her career is popular history.

Six productions from each previous 15-year period highlight the 75th season, beginning with "The Heiress," which opens Saturday and runs through Oct. 14.

The musical "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," the thriller "Angel Street," the domestic drama "The Country Girl," the Samurai drama "Roshomon," and the hilarious Noel Coward comedy "Hay Fever" follow the opening bill.

As a special gift to the community, the Vagabond Players are offering four free evenings of theater with a series of works from the pens of playwrights Neil Simon, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill and Lillian Hellman.

On Dec. 15 the non-profit organization will present a 75th Anniversary Gala Dinner Dance open to the public in the Hollyday Room of the Cross Keys Inn.

"There will be a live band, dinner and entertainment," says John Bruce Johnson, president of the Vagabond Players for the past 22 years and one of the group's stable of stage directors. (Johnson succeeded, after a five-year interval, Helen A.F. Penniman, whom he remembers fondly as the major force behind the Baltimore group for 40 years).

"Prepared readings of plays with a theater theme will be given," he adds, "monologues, scenes . . . that depict the agonies and joys of participating in the theater experience."

This 75th year will also mark a major effort to raise money for needed renovations. "We are meeting with architects Atelier 3, who originally designed this building, once a deserted bar, in accordance with federal guidelines," Johnson said as he rummaged through papers and old photos of former Vagabond players in the theater's third floor catchall room.

The place stores a fascinating collection of old props, stage furniture and costumes.

"Cusack Construction will execute the work to make this a state of the arts theater. We have already put in circular stairs, several bathrooms, new air conditioning and heating. But there are no more small jobs to do. We will have to take six months off and produce somewhere else temporarily while the work is being done."

Plans are being drawn to increase the 102-seating capacity to 140 and to move the present stage to where the courtyard is now. The seats currently in use were purchased from Morris A. Mechanic Theatre for $3,600 when the professional venue installed new ones.

"We will have more storage space and badly needed rehearsal space," Johnson says. "The light booth will be moved upstairs where it should be. Downstairs will provide two restrooms for customers.

"We are in the process of obtaining federal grants. Currently we have a building fund of around $25,000 to $35,000 that people have generously contributed to," Johnson says. "Now we are requesting people to be Diamond Angels and contribute gifts of $25 to $75 for our Building and Remodeling Fund. We estimate the cost of the whole project to be about half a million dollars."

Through the years, the Vagabond Players lived up to their name roaming from one location to another performing productions at locales on Centre and Monument streets. The group then lucked into what became its halcyon time at the Read Street playhouse.

Later locations included a long tenure at the Congress Hotel, a disastrous season at the Peabody Institute and a few seasons at the University of Baltimore.

In 1968, while looking for another place, Johnson and other Vagabond members discovered the Fells Point waterfront and staged their 1969 production of "Anna Christie" at the end of the Recreation Pier.

In 1973 the Vagabonds found the rundown Fells Point bar that is now their home and presented a production of Tennessee Williams' "Small Craft Warnings," which called for a barroom setting.

"The building was condemned at the time because of a prospective road that never went through," Johnson says. "We did the show in front of the theater where the lobby is now. The audience sat in back facing Broadway.

"People would come by and thinking it was still a bar, would walk in, sit at the bar and order drinks," Johnson says, laughing. "We had to put them out."

In 1980 the company bought the building from the city for $25,000. "We were vagabonds when we moved here," Johnson says, "but we're not vagabonds anymore."

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