It’s hard to believe that the historic Bedford Playhouse — celebrating its 75th anniversary — faced extinction seven years ago. Bow Tie Cinemas, which had been managing the movie theater, pulled out and the stage, so to speak, was set for the red-brick building to be converted into a commercial space — most likely a gym or a CVS, according to Michael “Hoagy” Hoagland, the playhouse’s executive director.
That was when local resident John Farr — independent viewer’s advocate, film curator and founder and operator of a movie-buff website, “Best Movies by Farr” — stepped into the breach. Spearheaded by Farr, other interested locals came together and formed Friends of the Playhouse, mounting a campaign not only to save the historic theater but to renovate and revitalize it. The friends found the start-up capital they needed. An early seven-figure donation from legendary music producer Clive Davis got the ball rolling, and they raised a further $2.5 million in 10 weeks flat. No stop-gap measure, this was to be a complete restart, a physical makeover along with a rethink of the theater’s raison d’être, to make the playhouse relevant not only for the present but for future generations.
Clive Davis — who discovered Janis Joplin and Bruce Springsteen and whose Arista label attracted artists like Lou Reed and Carly Simon while launching the careers of Barry Manilow and Whitney Houston, among others — now found additional fame as the reborn Bedford Playhouse named its Clive Davis Arts Center in recognition of its benefactor.
On a recent Zoom call with WAG, Davis — a gracious nonagenarian living in Pound Ridge — recalled how distressed he had been when he learned that the theater was closing. Asked how he had first become interested in the playhouse, he said he had always been impressed that the playhouse showed not just blockbusters but old films, classics and movies “demanding a stronger intellect.” He was grateful, he said, that the playhouse wasn’t just showing cartoons or special-effect movies (two of his particular bugbears, it would seem, although he did not express it like that). “For those of us who are interested in the best work,” he said, “I was concerned that communities like Bedford and Pound Ridge should have a (proper) movie theater.”
When he was first approached to see if he were interested in helping preserve the playhouse, he saw it as a chance to build back better, as it were. “Here was an opportunity to broaden the playhouse, to offer quality films, yes, but also to really create an active arts center with lectures and concerts.” And that, he says, was what motivated his investment. But, of course, there was a philanthropic aspect to it, too. “I also considered it because in my lifetime, with both my parents passing away when I was a teenager, I was really dependent on the beneficence of others in order to go through college and law school. And this was a definite opportunity to give back.”
Inside, the “old” playhouse was gutted. The main floor now boasts a small, 40-seat movie theater, named The Clive, while the smaller theater opposite it has high tables and chairs and seats that recline, so that audience members can lie semi-flat — the last word in moviegoing comfort. The main foyer also houses a café and bar. On the lower level, meanwhile, the main, 167-seat theater offers a similar kind of comfort, with a pukka concession stand in the foyer and a green room that serves as a winetasting room and also a “ready room” for visiting performers and speakers. The design is by Bedford interior designer Brittany Bromley, who, along with stylish touches (like the Oscar-replica door handles) has thoughtfully preserved the original restrooms, with their somewhat kitsch, lady-silhouette decorations.
As for the upcoming calendar, it is breathtaking in its scope, although Hoagland explained how a fairly robust program had already begun pre-Covid. In line with Davis’ vision, the “new” playhouse was going to be more of a holistic arts center and not just a movie theater. The music programming, he told WAG, had really taken off and so had music in the café. “Then, 18 months later, the pandemic hit and that just changed everything,” he said. “Suddenly, there was no certainty in the film industry.”
So Hoagland, whose career to date had been in live entertainment and who had only joined the playhouse mid-pandemic, had to think quickly and creatively. He recalled, “I started to think a little more along the lines of, “What does this place mean to our community?”, hoping that the answer to that question would assure the playhouse’s survival through the crisis.
His approach would appear to have worked and in the last year, as the playhouse has started to bounce back, he has brought all his talents to bear, “building-out the programming” (as he terms it) so that there is even more variety. “All this, while still staying true to our roots, which is a movie house. We show first-run films. We have classic Tuesdays. We do a lot of documentaries. That’s what we do and it’s what the facility is set up to do.”
Beyond that, Hoagland said, “we have to get (even more) creative, because we don’t have a proscenium stage. We have a small stage in front of the main theater, so that anything we do has to live in that small space, organically.” It’s the same thing, he added, with the café. “We have a limited amount of space, but we do piano bar nights. We do quiz nights. We do all kinds of different programming that hopefully people are attracted to.”
He also points out that one of the things that started during the pandemic, that nobody ever thought was doable, was outdoor programming. “There’s a beautiful lawn next door, which is attached to the playhouse and is perfectly situated — flat at the bottom with a perfect natural gradient.”
In 2020, while everything was still closed down, the playhouse offered two outdoor programs — one, a local singer and the other a presentation from the LawnChair Theatre company — both popular events not least because social distancing could be easily practiced.
Indeed, they were so “wildly successful” that, last year, Hoagland said he decided to expand the performances and “see what would happen.” That’s how the “Broadway in Bedford” series got off the ground, with the playhouse bringing up four Broadway performers for four different outdoor concerts through the summer. That, too, he says, was a “huge success.”
The series in turn laid the groundwork for further expansion this summer. Nine outdoor programs are on the bill, including a film festival in partnership with Katonah Classic Stage, a Sherlock Holmes radio play and a large number of music performances — classical performances from Orchestra914, classic rock from Grandpa Moses and glorious song from singing sister duo, Lisa & Lori Brigantino. “It’s a lot more formalized this year. We even have a stage. And if it does well,” Hoagland said, “who knows, maybe there could be a plan for an amphitheater in the future?”
Pressed to reveal his favorite act, he demurred, before rhapsodizing again about the “Broadway in Bedford” series. “It’s just some of the most spectacular things you would ever see on stage. The good thing is (the performers) do exactly what they want. It’s not like they’re stuck singing the songs from “Wicked” or whatever it is they happen to be currently in, or are associated with, or have to do every night.”
He paused momentarily carried away by his own enthusiasm. “It’s a different type of joy that you see on their faces.” And that, it can be assumed, goes for the audiences, too.
For more, visit bedfordplayhouse.org.