A Brief History of the Forestburgh Playhouse

Founders Al Maissel and John Grahame working on the barn in May 1947

In the mid 1940's in Greenwich Village, John Grahame and Alexander Maissel had been leasing the legendary Provincetown Playhouse, whose previous tenant had been Eugene O'Neill, for their Provincetown Repertory Company. When they became aware that New York University was quietly buying up much of the property in the neighborhood for their future expansion, Grahame and Maissel became alarmed that they might lose the Provincetown Playhouse, and they began to look for an alternative space. Their search took them to the Klebs farm in Forestburgh, New York, which they decided to purchase as a summer home for their Provincetown Repertory Company, with the idea that it might become the full time home of the company if NYU forced them out of the Provincetown Playhouse.

In the spring of 1947, they arrived at the site with their wives, Aida Grahame and Sally Maissel, and a troupe of actors and apprentices and began the renovation of the building into a theatre. Sullivan County was a far different place in 1947: Grossinger's was king, the resort hotels were jammed, and the Catskills was electric with excitement every summer. A small summer stock theatre in an already old barn probably seemed unlikely to survive in the face of such competition.


Read Co-Founder Sally Maissel's Letter


Nevertheless, by July 8, 1947, enough work had been done to transform the barn into a theatre, and the Forestburgh Playhouse, then called the Forestburgh Summer Theatre, opened its first of more than 250 subsequent productions, Blithe Spirit.

For the first 25 years of its existence, the Playhouse operated as both a theatre and a school. Apprentices paid to attend for the summer, and took daily classes in acting, speech, and movement. They also spent many hours in rehearsal and many more hours working building sets, costumes and props. They performed in both the main stage productions and the children's shows. 

1947 Renovations of the Klebs Barn viewed from the rear


John Grahame acted as Artistic Director, stage director, and leading actor. Al Maissel acted as musical director and overall manager of the theatre. Aida Grahame ran the Box Office and was Business Manager, while Sally Maissel acted as set designer and author of children's shows. Although John and Al are usually remembered as the founders of the Playhouse, the theatre could not have survived without the contributions of their talented and hardworking wives. During this time, the theatrical repertoire was far different than what it is today: Shakespeare, Shaw, and Ibsen were most commonly performed, and musical productions consisted almost exclusively of Gilbert and Sullivan.

In the 1960's mortality took its toll on the founders of the Forestburgh Summer Theatre. Aida Grahame died in the Box Office of the Provincetown Playhouse in 1962, and John Grahame died in the dressing room before a performance a few months later. Al and Sally then ran the Forestburgh Summer Theatre themselves, but it was increasingly difficult without the Grahames. Al died in 1974, and this left Sally to run the place by herself. 

In order to keep the place going, Sally rented the barn to various companies during the 1970s including the Outpost Theatre Group (1974, Mi-Ed Productions (1975), and Project Grow Repertory Company (1976). In 1977, John C. Barron and his mother Jane Barron leased the theatre, and he spent the next three years as producer, director, and occasional actor. In 1980, when John chose not to renew the lease, Sally began advertising for the sale of the property. In that year, Gregg Harlan and Craig Sandquist, in association with Gregg's sister, Cindy, purchased what had become a somewhat run down property.  The name was changed from the Forestburgh Summer Theatre to the Forestburgh Playhouse, and a new era began at the theatre.

John C. Barron About 1978

The Harlan-Sandquist era lasted only 10 years (1981-1991), and yet it represented some of the most dynamic growth that the Playhouse had experienced since its early years. Continuing and building upon a trend that had started in the 1970s at the Playhouse, they eschewed the classics and produced hit Broadway musicals and comedies. For the first time, members of Actors' Equity played many of the leading roles. They doubled the seating capacity of the Playhouse, doubled the seating capacity of the Tavern, and boosted the rate of audience subscription to nearly 35%. In the Tavern at the Forestburgh Playhouse, they evolved over a number of summers, an entirely new type of show for Forestburgh: the cabaret. From casual evenings in which the actors from the main stage show would each take a turn at the piano, while the small audience enjoyed coffee and desserts, the cabaret developed into what we know today: an original musical revue performed every night with a full food and cocktail service. 

Gregg Harlan and Craig Sandquist About 1984

What they might have accomplished had they lived, we will never know since early death robbed the Playhouse of their talents forever. Gregg died in 1986, and Craig continued by himself. In 1991, realizing that the end was approaching for himself, Sandquist contacted an old friend Norman Duttweiler, and asked him if he were interested in buying the Playhouse and continuing its legacy. Duttweiler had been in the theater in the 1970s, but had spent the 1980s on Wall Street as a computer executive. He decided to return to the theatre, and on June 16, 1992 opened the 45th Anniversary Season of the Forestburgh Playhouse, exactly two weeks after the death of Craig Sandquist.

Producing Director Norman Duttweiler

Slowly, the Playhouse started to revive and climb out of the downturn of the previous five years.  Duttweiler concentrated on four elements:  increasing the subscriber base, improving the quality of the product, repairing and renovating the physical plant, and building the quality and morale of the staff.  A feature story that CBS Sunday Morning presented on the Playhouse in 1995 marked a turning point.  Another major turning point occurred when Ron Nash, a director with Broadway and major national credits on his resume, began to direct at the Playhouse as well and eventually consented to become full time Artistic Director.   By the summer of 1997, the Playhouse celebrated its 50th birthday with a record breaking season, and management and patrons were able to begin focusing on the future, rather than repairing the past.

Since 1992 under the leadership of Producing Director Norman Duttweiler, the Forestburgh Playhouse has continued to offer its own unique version of summer theatre to audiences of Sullivan County.  Children’s theatre (YAFF – “Young Audience Festival at Forestburgh”) was instituted in 1998, and has been an integral part of the summer season ever since.  Among the dozens of improvements to the physical plant that Duttweiler has implemented, some of the most significant include installation of air conditioning in both the theatre and the tavern, complete replacement of all roofs, repair and renovation of patron decks and rehearsal decks, renovation of audience seats, repair of parking lot, replacement of exterior fencing, installation of the county’s largest perennial gardens and related landscaping with water features, installation of new septic system,  renovation of all patron rest rooms, installation of on-site water chlorination system, installation of new bar and walk-in refrigerator in the Tavern, and the installation of a computerized ticketing system with online ticket sales in the box office. 

Dubbed the "Miracle of the Forest," close to 30,000 patrons attend various performances every year, and the growth shows no signs of slowing down.   As the Forestburgh Playhouse approaches its 67th season in 2013, it continues to thrive and make summer nights special for residents and visitors alike.