The Jewish history of theater in Pittsburgh
Enthusiasts took a look back at the history of Pittsburgh theater as the Pittsburgh Playhouse, a pillar of the thriving theater scene, gets ready to move downtown.
Theater enthusiasts gathered Sunday at the Senator John Heinz History Center to explore the history of Jewish involvement in Pittsburgh theater as one of the city’s iconic playhouses relocates to an upgraded space.
The Pittsburgh Playhouse, once a pillar of a thriving theater scene, will close its doors to its Oakland facility and open a $53 million state-of-the-art theater complex downtown, ushering in a new era in the Playhouse’s storied history. The move has been in the works for over a decade.
The Playhouse — now associated with the performing arts program at Point Park University — was at one time a burgeoning independent theater organization that symbolized the accessibility of theater to the masses. While downtown theaters were mostly the domain of elites, the Playhouse comprised one of multiple civic theaters around Pittsburgh that catered to a middle-class audience.
At a time when a Jewish middle class in Pittsburgh was beginning to emerge, the Playhouse — though not expressly a Jewish institution — was in many ways associated with the Jewish community. A large proportion of its patrons, actors, founders, critics and subject material was Jewish.
It started in 1933, when a summer repertory group, which included aspiring Jewish actor Helen Wayne, formed the Pittsburgh Civic Playhouse in order to create a permanent theater company. It soon received much-needed financial help from Richard S. Rauh, who restructured the organization into a nonprofit called the Pittsburgh
Playhouse. Rauh and Helen Wayne — who became Helen Wayne Rauh — were married in 1935.
Despite the modest facility, relatively small crowds and low budget, the Playhouse’s productions starred top-tier actors, gaining the attention of local theater critics.
“I’ll always believe that Nat Elbaum was one of the most talented actors I’ve ever watched perform,” wrote Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Joe Browne in 1980, referring to the longtime Jewish actor who starred in numerous Playhouse productions.
Many of the Playhouse’s lead actors undoubtedly passed up more lucrative careers in New York City or Hollywood. As local legend goes, Rauh financed the reorganization of the Civic Playhouse in an attempt to coax Wayne, whom he was courting, to stay in Pittsburgh instead of pursuing a career on Broadway. As to why others stayed, Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives expressed uncertainty.
“That’s the perpetual question,” Lidji said. “People who love Pittsburgh love it for a specific reason and it’s not something that you can necessarily replicate in another city, even if the opportunities are better there.”
But the Playhouse’s finances began to unravel in the 1960s. Partnerships with the American Conservatory Theater and Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a fundraising campaign led by Pittsburgh Ballet co-founder Loti Falk Gaffney, only temporarily staved off financial collapse.
Finally, in 1968, Point Park College agreed to take over the Playhouse’s operations, preventing the Playhouse’s name from facing obscurity but ending the organization’s independence.
The declining fortunes of the Playhouse were most likely caused by decreased demand for theater among Jews and other city residents, according to Lidji, forcing the remaining organizations to compete for a smaller population of theatergoers.
“In the Pittsburgh Playhouse’s heyday in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, you had a Jewish middle class that was becoming larger and stronger,” Lidji said. “There was more time to go to the theater, there was more interest in it.”
Although the Playhouse became the nucleus of the Jewish theater scene in Pittsburgh in the mid-20th century, overshadowing many of the other small theater companies formed during the so-called “Little Theatre Movement,” these smaller organizations — some of which explicitly catered to Jews — left a celebrated legacy, helping to paint a picture of an insular yet cosmopolitan Jewish community.
The Lando Theatre, for example, produced plays in Yiddish, a relic of a past age in which Eastern European Jewish immigrants flocked to Pittsburgh and other Midwestern cities in search of jobs, yet at the same time sought to retain their cultural identity.
In time, the Jewish theater scene adapted to meet the needs of the surrounding community. As the Hill District — once a hub for Jewish life in Pittsburgh — became more diverse in the 1940s, the still sizeable Jewish community helped to support one of the first racially integrated theater organizations in the city, the Curtaineers. PJC
Jonah Berger can be reached at email@example.com.