Backtracking: In Our Times: Theatrical comeback from fire fell short in Cooperstown in 1971

Mark SimonsonThe Cooperstown Playhouse, formerly known as Duke’s Oak Theatre, once stood behind this house on state Route 80 north of the village of Cooperstown. Cast members lived here during summer seasons dating back to the 1930s. 

The physical flames may have been put out, but the flames of entertaining and keeping a local theater alive could simply not be doused. At least, temporarily.

Fire destroyed the Cooperstown Playhouse on state Route 80, north of the village in the early morning hours of May 29, 1971. The theater had been a tradition for entertainment in northern Otsego County for decades, so now the question on many minds was, what next?

The answer was given quickly, as readers of The Oneonta Star of June 1 learned, “Long before the embers had cooled in the ruins of the Cooperstown Playhouse, the word was out in the immortal tradition of the theater that ‘The show must go on.’

“The word came from the owners of the playhouse, JoAnn Miller and Phyllis Gorgas. Undefeated by their loss, the two were squarely back on level Sunday and said, ‘We are going to open as planned on June 29, one way or the other, even if it has to be in a pole barn. We have too many years in the theater to let this beat us.’”

Bold as those words may have been, Miss Miller was aware of the insurance coverage, adequate as it was. However, there was a limit as she explained, “The irreplaceable things, the antiques accumulated over the years or the little things that made the playhouse atmosphere so delightful,” were gone.

While it was called the Cooperstown Playhouse since 1967, the organization was hardly new.

The Star continued to tell it was previously known as the Duke’s Oak Theater. Dating back to 1934, “It was the summer home of the New York University Washington Square Players.

“Professor Randolph Somerville, dean emeritus of the university’s drama department, guided the early days of the summer theater. Many local residents recalled the dignified professor walking about the village wearing a Scottish cap, jauntily on his head.

“In 1954 the professor’s health prevented him from continuing, there was an era under Henry Beckman, and the theatre was dark until revived by JoAnn Miller and her partner.

“In 1960 the barn, by then quite modernized, was extended to include a restaurant (The Daring Dutchess), later known as Act IV. Miss Miller and her associate worked together until 1962, when she sold her share to Dorothy Shay.”

Miss Shay departed in 1965, and the theater went dark until Miss Miller revived it again in 1967.

While revived several times, now came the task of recovering from the fire. It appeared there was no shortage of people wanting to help.

As The Star of June 11 followed up, “First things first, decided JoAnn Miller and Phyllis Gorgas. ‘First we must clean up the ruins, do the job of sweeping away the debris.’

“Every day now since May 29, friends of the theater, neighbors and several members of last year’s company, have assembled as a work force, all covered with charcoal instead of makeup.

“Sunday, when more people have more time to spend, over 75 volunteers were sweeping down the ruins, pulling nails from boards and cleaning fixtures that can be salvaged, doing all the small ‘firsts’ that must be accomplished before a job of rebuilding can start.”

Miss Miller was working to find or prepare a place for a June 29 performance of “Plaza Suite.” It may have been rustic, but as Star readers of June 23 learned, a place was found.

“While the Playhouse was totally destroyed, the part of the building housing the restaurant, though an empty shell, remained standing.” It was cleaned and a roof was put on, allowing the show to go on.

Dinner was still served nightly, except Mondays, and two shows were given at 9:30 and 11:30 p.m. There was music and dancing, as well as other entertainment at 8:30 p.m., until the shows began.

Valiant as the 1971 comeback may have been, it was short lived. In June 1972 Miss Miller announced that due to construction costs, union and government demands on small businesses, and the increasing competition from subsidized and non-profit art groups, it was impossible to rebuild.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly in The Daily Star. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/opinion/columns/.

Trending Video

Recommended for you