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The building that is now the Ivoryton Playhouse was built in 1911 as a recreation hall for the employees of the Comstock-Cheney factory. In all likelihood, the building would have been demolished long ago but for its chance encounter with a remarkable man. Milton Stiefel started his long career in theater as an actor, playing with such famous personalities as Julia Marlow and Lionel Barrymore. Eventually, his career took him backstage and he became nationally known as “The Assistant Director,” right hand man and confidante of David Belasco, considered by historians as one of the greatest directors in American theatre.
After Belasco’s death, Stiefel continued as a manager and stage director for many extravagant productions, which, as was the custom in those days, traveled nationally, and played in every major city in the United States. At the conclusion of one of those tours, Stiefel came to Essex in a severe state of exhaustion in order to rest and recuperate. He saw the unused recreation hall, knew it would be perfect for a resident stock company, set about drafting contracts, and putting a cast together. “Broken Dishes” had just closed in New York (reportedly with Bette Davis in her first Broadway role), and Stiefel opened with it during the week of June 17, 1930.
Thus the Ivoryton Playhouse became the first self-supporting summer theater in the nation. Older theaters as in Dennis, MA, and Skowhegan, ME, were not self-supporting, but endowed by foundations of wealthy families. The Westport theater was established a year after the Ivoryton.
Stiefel’s company, made up mostly of his friends, called themselves The New York Players. They lived in private homes in Ivoryton from which most of the sets and props were borrowed. The company did not break even until the last week of the summer but that was enough to convince Stiefel that the deal was possible. Throughout the ensuing years he continued to produce and direct in Ivoryton, and in 1938 he bought the building.
The theater gained in prestige to the point that invitations to work there were highly prized in the theater profession. Its reputation grew nationally and Paramount Pictures produced a short film showing its complete operation. Established actors like Henry Hull and Norma Terris signed on to perform at Ivoryton. Newcomers like Katharine Hepburn and Cliff Robertson, both on their way to Broadway and Hollywood stardom came along to help the Ivoryton legend.
Ivoryton’s fame as one of Americas leading summer showplaces continued to grow until the outbreak of World War II when the theater went dark for several seasons, mainly because severe tire and gasoline rationing made it virtually impossible for audiences to get to Ivoryton. So Stiefel, physically unable to qualify for military service, went to Hollywood, where he served as a director for Columbia Pictures. He vowed to return – and did – reopening the playhouse after the war and resuming a parade of stars that included, among many others, Marlon Brando, Ethel Waters, Art Carney, Talullah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Ezio Pinza, Betty Grable, Madge Evans, Vivian Vance, Groucho Marx, June Lockhart, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Don Ameche.
Stiefel continued at Ivoryton until his retirement in 1973, when he sold the theater to Ken Krezel. Stiefel, however, remained active in an advisory capacity until his death in 1983. Krezel, meanwhile, was having difficult times with the Playhouse and finally, in 1979, decided to sell the property. It was then, amid rumors that the historic theater might be torn down to make way for a discount drug store that the non-profit Ivoryton Playhouse Foundation was organized and with the help of The Essex Savings Bank, came up with a mortgage to buy the property from Krezel for $115,000.
The Foundation’s early years (1979-1986) however, were also difficult as four different producers tried and failed to put the Playhouse summer season back on the road to lasting success. Then, in 1987, another group of New York Players – The River Rep – came to Ivoryton and from the start their productions were an artistic success. They spent 18 years in Ivoryton and built a loyal following and re-established the Ivoryton Playhouse as one of the leading summer theatres in the nation.
Over the course of the past 28 years, the Ivoryton Playhouse Foundation has completed a total renovation of the building, including new shingles, a new heating and air-conditioning system, new seats and state-of-the-art theatrical sound and lighting systems. In the fall, 2008, the Playhouse received a grant from the State of Connecticut to replace the roof and the old furnaces. The building is now prepared to face the second century of its life. In 2006, under the Artistic Direction of Jacqueline Hubbard, the Foundation began producing a year round season of professional theatre.