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Spotlight on Nyack’s Tappan Zee Playhouse

The Tappan Zee Playhouse, housed within a historic 1911 movie theater located at the corner of South Broadway and Church Street, drew crowds to downtown Nyack from 1958 to 1976. This venue hosted a constellation of Broadway and Hollywood luminaries, including household names such as Helen Hayes, Shelly Winters, Joseph Cotton, James Mason, and Joan Blondell in its inaugural year alone. Subsequent years saw a parade of stars like Faye Dunaway, Alan Arkin, Joan Fontaine, Julie Harris, Jack Benny, Julie Newmar, Betty Grable, Maureen O’Sullivan, William Shatner, and Gloria Swanson gracing its stage.

Theatergoers wore formal attire for the openings.

Despite preservation efforts aimed at modernizing and securing a spot for the building on the National Register of Historic Places after its closure, the fate of the playhouse took a winding, unfortunate turn. The Village of Nyack took ownership in 1998, overseeing the dilapidated structure until its demolition in 2004. Here lies the tale of Nyack’s acclaimed Tappan Zee Playhouse.

The Wigwam

The playhouse’s history traces back to the construction of the Wigwam, a meeting hall and general store by A. L. Christie in 1868 at the corner of South Broadway and Church Street. Horace Greeley once addressed a packed audience there in 1868. Tragedy struck in 1892 when a fire claimed the nearby Van Houten stables and claimed the lives of fifteen horses, damaging the Wigwam in the process.

The Wigwam facing South Broadway. The front of the building once had the Doersch Brothers grocery store. Courtesy of the Nyack Library.

The Broadway Theater

James Kilby acquired the Wigwam site in 1907, transforming it into the Broadway Theater in 1911. This venue initially offered silent movies and vaudeville acts. Expansion in 1920 created a larger stage and additional facilities, seating up to 1,200 people. The new theater sported a lobby, dressing rooms, a balcony, box seats with decorated bannisters, and a new open, inviting exterior with a marquee. Despite its grandeur, the theater couldn’t accommodate ‘talking pictures’, leading to the establishment of a larger theater, the Rockland Theater, in 1928.

The Broadway Theater sports holiday decorations in this photo, courtesy of the Nyack Library.

The Tappan Zee Playhouse

Photograph of the Church Street side of the theater. The higher portion in the back includes the stage area that was once a stable. Bruce Becker and Honey Waldman are shown on the left with two bankers.

In 1956, Bruce Becker and Honey Waldman refurbished the old Broadway Theater into the Tappan Zee Playhouse. A new marquee and four large glass doors opened up the front of the building.Their journey as producers and theater owners involved handling unexpected challenges, from last-minute schedule changes to a dressing room fire in 1964, requiring improvised solutions like breaking through a theater wall to access rented trailers for cast dressing rooms.

Interior of the building before the Becker & Waldman restoration.
Changing the marquee at the Playhouse

Opening Night and Early Years

Helen Hayes and Susan Strasburg at opening night. Note the band on the right. Note the brick buildings to the left of the Playhouse. These buildings were soon to be replaced with Tallman Towers during Nyack’s urban renewal.

The theater’s grand opening in 1958, featuring Helen Hayes in a walk-on role, garnered national attention. The inaugural play, “Midsummer” by Vina Delmar, boasted a cast including James Mason, his wife, Pamela Killino,, and their daughter Portland. The debut season, running from July 1 to August 17, showcased eight plays, drawing packed audiences with productions ranging from dramas like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to musicals like Damn Yankees.

Ad for the 1963 season

Pre-Broadway Tryouts and Notable Events

In 1959, the Tappan Zee Playhouse hosted pre-Broadway tryouts alongside the installation of a new air conditioning system. Significant events, such as Pete Seeger’s controversial performance in 1960 picketed by the American Legion and Jack Benny headlining a comic revue in 1965, added to the theater’s allure. Limos lined the street for the Jack Benny opener. Many spectators wore formal attire. After the show, 300 people went to a reception and buffet at the St. George Hotel.

The Show Must Go On

In a shocking development in 1965, Berth Lahr’s costar in Never Too Late, Nancy Carroll, died in Manhattan sometime before her Friday night performance. A supporting actress stepped into the lead role, and her role was read by an intern. 

Interns & Children’s Theater

Interns worked at the theater collecting tickets, ushering, serving as a star’s dresser, assisting the stage manager, selling candy, working on sets, painting the seats, and anything else that needed doing.

Photo of the ticket booth in the inner lobby.

Judith Ann Abrams’ children’s repertory theater proved to be a popular addition starting in 1965. Abrams, performing as Pixie Judy, opened the summer series with Sleeping Beauty followed by seven other musical fairy tales. Children mobbed Adams at intermission and after the show. Performances at 11a and 2p every Tuesday proved to be extremely popular.

Ad for the Children’s theater at the Playhouse

Shifts in Management and Decline

Management changes in 1969 marked a turning point. While 1971 showed promise, subsequent years saw declining revenue attributed to economic challenges, rising production costs, and the theater’s limited capacity. Efforts to sell the playhouse in 1975 and sustain it under new ownership proved futile.

A Last Gasp

Intending to keep the house open year-round, local resident Richard Mundt, an opera singer and real estate executive, formed a non-profit to acquire the theater. The Tappan Zee Foundation of the Performing Arts was able to pull off a season of six plays including Oklahoma and Annie Get Yor Gun.

However, not enough funds were generated to provide winter heating. Nonetheless, a national touring group performed Godspell, a musical, over the Christmas holidays. Space heaters filled in for central heating. No one suspected it would be the final act in the playhouse.

Ad for Godspell, the last play

Preservation Efforts

Photography of the ticket office and outer lobby after the theater closed.

Shocked at the loss of their beloved playhouse, villagers formed the Tappan Zee Playhouse Preservation Association’s to acquire and restore the empty playhouse. Over two decades, various fundraising events including plays and concerts were held in locations as diverse as the Nyack High School and the Hi-Ho restaurant. In a way, the Playhouse continued without any actual playhouse.

Architect’s plan for a restored theater with fewer seats. The box seats became more open and their beautiful design was to be repeated along the balcony. Journal News photo.

The association tried a variety of fundraising strategies including getting Liza Minelli, who once appeared at the Playhouse, to host a fundraiser at Carnegie Hall. A Celebrity memorabilia auction with Michael Jackson’s autographed fedora and Madonna’s polka-dot blouse added to the coffers. An executive director with fundraising skills was hired for two years. 

Liza Minelli, Helen Hayes, and Faye Dunaway along with an unknown person at a dinner after the Carnegie Hall fundraiser.

More than a million dollars was raised yet the renovation costs grew ever faster dashing hopes.  An optimistic cost estimate in 1979 of $100,000 became $4 million by the 1980s. Despite being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and renamed the Helen Hayes Theater in 1988, the playhouse couldn’t be revived.

While the preservation fight continued, these illustrations in the old doors greeted people passing by.

The Demise of the Playhouse

Finally in 1996, the association gave up and moved the playhouse to the former home of Cinema East in the Nyack Plaza. The Playhouse was a shell with no roof. A metal skeleton held up the decaying walls. Boards covered the front windows. The Village of Nyack stepped in and took over the derelict building. Some thought it would make a good parking lot. Finally, the village sold the building in 2004 for a building to contain a grocery store and affordable apartments for volunteer firemen. The remaining sections of the building were demolished in April 2004 marking the end of a cherished era in Nyack history.

Demolition starts on the Playhouse.

The Playhouse’s Legacy 

Playhouse memorabilia including some of the plaster decorations put together by Susan Reed, folksinger and longtime Nyack shop owner

Each passing year dims the memory of the time when Nyack sparkled during the summer months. The memory of the Tappan Zee Playhouse endures as a symbol of a bygone era, where celebrities and artists illuminated Nyack’s summers. Even today, passing by the former site, one can almost sense the echoes of a captivated audience’s applause on a tranquil summer evening.

The building that replaced the Tappan Zee Playhouse echoes some of the original architectural features. Photo by author.

Photo Credits: Unless otherwise indicated the photos come from the permanent collection of the Historical Society of the Nyacks


Michael Hays is a 35-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike

Editor’s note: This article is sponsored by Sun River Health. Sun River Health is a network of 43 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) providing primary, dental, pediatric, OB-GYN, and behavioral health care to over 245,000 patients annually.

 

Theatergoers wore formal attire for the openings.

Despite preservation efforts aimed at modernizing and securing a spot for the building on the National Register of Historic Places after its closure, the fate of the playhouse took a winding, unfortunate turn. The Village of Nyack took ownership in 1998, overseeing the dilapidated structure until its demolition in 2004. Here lies the tale of Nyack’s acclaimed Tappan Zee Playhouse.

The Wigwam

The playhouse’s history traces back to the construction of the Wigwam, a meeting hall and general store by A. L. Christie in 1868 at the corner of South Broadway and Church Street. Horace Greeley once addressed a packed audience there in 1868. Tragedy struck in 1892 when a fire claimed the nearby Van Houten stables and claimed the lives of fifteen horses, damaging the Wigwam in the process.

The Broadway Theater

James Kilby acquired the Wigwam site in 1907, transforming it into the Broadway Theater in 1911. This venue initially offered silent movies and vaudeville acts. Expansion in 1920 created a larger stage and additional facilities, seating up to 1,200 people. The new theater sported a lobby, dressing rooms, a balcony, box seats with decorated bannisters, and a new open, inviting exterior with a marquee. Despite its grandeur, the theater couldn’t accommodate ‘talking pictures’, leading to the establishment of a larger theater, the Rockland Theater, in 1928.

The Tappan Zee Playhouse

In 1956, Bruce Becker and Honey Waldman refurbished the old Broadway Theater into the Tappan Zee Playhouse. Their journey as producers and theater owners involved handling unexpected challenges, from last-minute schedule changes to a dressing room fire in 1964, requiring improvised solutions like breaking through a theater wall to access rented trailers for cast dressing rooms.

Photograph of the Church Street side of the theater. The higher portion in the back includes the stage area that was once a stable. Bruce Becker and Honey Waldman are shown on the left with two bankers.

Opening Night and Early Years

Helen Hayes and Susan Strasburg at opening night. Note the band on the right. Note the brick buildings to the left of the Playhouse. These buildings were soon to be replaced with Tallman Towers during Nyack’s urban renewal.

The theater’s grand opening in 1958, featuring Helen Hayes in a walk-on role, garnered national attention. The inaugural play, “Midsummer” by Vina Delmar, boasted a cast including James Mason, his wife, Pamela Killino,, and their daughter Portland. The debut season, running from July 1 to August 17, showcased eight plays, drawing packed audiences with productions ranging from dramas like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to musicals like Damn Yankees.

Pre-Broadway Tryouts and Notable Events

In 1959, the Tappan Zee Playhouse hosted pre-Broadway tryouts alongside the installation of a new air conditioning system. Significant events, such as Pete Seeger’s controversial performance in 1960 picketed by the American Legion and Jack Benny headlining a comic revue in 1965, added to the theater’s allure. Limos lined the street for the Jack Benny opener. Many spectators wore formal attire. After the show, 300 people went to a reception and buffet at the St. George Hotel.

The Show Must Go On

In a shocking development in 1965, Berth Lahr’s costar in Never Too Late, Nancy Carroll, died in Manhattan sometime before her Friday night performance. A supporting actress stepped into the lead role, and her role was read by an intern. 

Interns & Children’s Theater

Interns worked at the theater collecting tickets, ushering, serving as a star’s dresser, assisting the stage manager, selling candy, working on sets, painting the seats, and anything else that needed doing.

Judith Ann Abrams’ children’s repertory theater proved to be a popular addition starting in 1965. Abrams, performing as Pixie Judy, opened the summer series with Sleeping Beauty followed by seven other musical fairy tales. Children mobbed Adams at intermission and after the show. Performances at 11a and 2p every Tuesday proved to be extremely popular.

Shifts in Management and Decline

Management changes in 1969 marked a turning point. While 1971 showed promise, subsequent years saw declining revenue attributed to economic challenges, rising production costs, and the theater’s limited capacity. Efforts to sell the playhouse in 1975 and sustain it under new ownership proved futile.

A Last Gasp

Intending to keep the house open year-round, local resident Richard Mundt, an opera singer and real estate executive, formed a non-profit to acquire the theater. The Tappan Zee Foundation of the Performing Arts was able to pull off a season of six plays including Oklahoma and Annie Get Yor Gun.

However, not enough funds were generated to provide winter heating. Nonetheless, a national touring group performed Godspell, a musical, over the Christmas holidays. Space heaters filled in for central heating. No one suspected it would be the final act in the playhouse.

Ad for Godspell, the last play

Preservation Efforts

Photography of the ticket office and outer lobby after the theater closed.

Shocked at the loss of their beloved playhouse, villagers formed the Tappan Zee Playhouse Preservation Association’s to acquire and restore the empty playhouse. Over two decades, various fundraising events including plays and concerts were held in locations as diverse as the Nyack High School and the Hi-Ho restaurant. In a way, the Playhouse continued without any actual playhouse.

Architect’s plan for a restored theater with fewer seats. The box seats became more open and their beautiful design was to be repeated along the balcony. Journal News photo.

The association tried a variety of fundraising strategies including getting Liza Minelli, who once appeared at the Playhouse, to host a fundraiser at Carnegie Hall. A Celebrity memorabilia auction with Michael Jackson’s autographed fedora and Madonna’s polka-dot blouse added to the coffers. An executive director with fundraising skills was hired for two years. 

Liza Minelli, Helen Hayes, and Faye Dunaway along with an unknown person at a dinner after the Carnegie Hall fundraiser.

More than a million dollars was raised yet the renovation costs grew ever faster dashing hopes.  An optimistic cost estimate in 1979 of $100,000 became $4 million by the 1980s. Despite being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and renamed the Helen Hayes Theater in 1988, the playhouse couldn’t be revived.

The Demise of the Playhouse

Demolition starts on the Playhouse.

Finally in 1996, the association gave up and moved the playhouse to the former home of Cinema East in the Nyack Plaza. The Playhouse was a shell with no roof. A metal skeleton held up the decaying walls. Boards covered the front windows. The Village of Nyack stepped in and took over the derelict building. Some thought it would make a good parking lot. Finally, the village sold the building in 2004 for a building to contain a grocery store and affordable apartments for volunteer firemen. The remaining sections of the building were demolished in April 2004 marking the end of a cherished era in Nyack history.

The Playhouse’s Legacy 

Each passing year dims the memory of the time when Nyack sparkled during the summer months. The memory of the Tappan Zee Playhouse endures as a symbol of a bygone era, where celebrities and artists illuminated Nyack’s summers. Even today, passing by the former site, one can almost sense the echoes of a captivated audience’s applause on a tranquil summer evening.

The building that replaced the Tappan Zee Playhouse echoes some of the original architectural features. Photo by author.

Photo Credits: Unless otherwise indicated the photos come from the permanent collection of the Historical Society of the Nyacks


Michael Hays is a 35-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike

Editor’s note: This article is sponsored by Sun River Health. Sun River Health is a network of 43 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) providing primary, dental, pediatric, OB-GYN, and behavioral health care to over 245,000 patients annually.

 


Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.


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