Wednesday, July 25, 1962 was rather pleasant for a Washington summer’s eve, with the temperature hovering around 70 (though humidity lingered near 80%). Excited theatergoers were piling into the Washington Theatre Club’s carriage house theater to catch a performance of Tennessee Williams’ racy farce Period of Adjustment, then in its eighth straight week packing in theater-starved Washingtonians.
Two DC detectives made their way through the crowd and stepped up to the box office to purchase tickets. Having bought the most expensive seats in the house at $3.50 each, the police officers declared the show shut down. No one had bothered to ask them for their membership cards. Chaos ensued.
Many present that night thought the play had somehow given the authorities offense. Williams’ comedy portrayed what now is known as “post-traumatic stress syndrome” suffered by two returning Korean War veterans. The performance explored the men’s feelings of inadequacy towards the women in their lives; a sensitive subject for a Washington audience. The play had enjoyed a modest 132 performance run on Broadway the previous year and was finding more appreciative audiences in the Nation’s Capital.
A beleaguered Third Precinct police Captain Raymond S. Pyles told disbelieving journalists the next day that the play’s content had nothing to do with his detectives’ actions. Rather, he charged, the club was violating its occupancy permit which specified that only club members could attend performances. The play’s success combined with its posters, radio and newspaper ads, claimed Pyles, demonstrated collusion to avoid the public hearing process required of public hall licenses in residential areas.
The city’s theater-going public wasn’t buying this explanation, especially in light of otherwise lax enforcement of such permits elsewhere. Letter writers to the city’s papers saw the police action as one more instance of official harassment of culture within a city lorded over by Congressionally-appointed commissioners intent on running the town for themselves.
The club posted a $100 bond and the production continued its run until being displaced later that summer by a teen production of Rumpelstiltskin and chamber music concerts. The challenges posed by its unusual legal status as a “club” would plague the group for years to come.
Between 1957 and 1974, the Washington Theatre club staged ten world premieres, four American premieres, thirty Washington premieres, and works by 64 writers who had not been performed previously in the Washington region. Among the club’s noteworthy productions were future Tony Award winning actor Lester Rawlins 1965 turn as Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest; Billy Dee Williams’ performance later that year in William Hanley’s Slow Dance on a Killing Ground; the 1968 world premiere of future Pulitzer-Prize winner Lanford Wilson’s play about interracial marriage, The Gingham Dog; and the 1973 world premiere of Arthur Laurents’ Enclave featuring Peg Murray and Hal Linden.
In January 1970, President Richard Nixon invited the company to the White House to perform a segment of their production The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter.
Quirkily extravagant Midwesterner Davey Marlin-Jones (see as previously introduced in our 1970’s Culture Clashes article) came from New York to take over the company as its artistic director in 1965. Over the next seven years, the club mounted some of its most ambitious productions. In 1968, Jones and the company received the coveted Margo Jones Award honoring pioneering leaders in American regional theater for in 1968 (Subsequent Washington honorees include Zelda Fichandler and Arena Stage , long-time Washington Post critic Richard Coe , and Howard Shalwitz with the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company ). Jones remained in town as art critic for the CBS-TV affiliate (presently WUSA-TV) until 1987, when he moved to Las Vegas.
At its height, the club attracted 9,000 subscribers, nearly all of whom paid an extra dollar each year to retain membership. For much of its existence, the company offered actor training to children and teens as well as professional training for adults. Its chamber music ensemble – the Theater Chamber Players founded by Leon Fleisher and Dina Koston in 1968 — served long-term residencies at the Smithsonian Institution and the Kennedy Center; and remains active to this day.
Hungry for innovative drama, theater mavens John and Hazel Wentworth established the group in 1957 to promote fresh dramatic forms, to present new ideas, and to support novice playwrights and their work. John Wentworth already directed the amateur Unitarian Players and looked to expand his presence on the city’s professional stage. Hazel would assume leadership for the group following the couple’s divorce during the 1960s.
The Wentworths further sought to present quality productions performed and enjoyed by diverse casts and audiences outside the noisome racial boundaries and Jim Crow customs that still marred the city. They nurtured a slightly bohemian tone, often presenting non-mainstream works such as poetry readings accompanied by modern dance; and Ionescu’s The Lesson. In 1962, they offered a residency to Academy award-winning actor Anne Revere, who still suffered from having been black-listed during the McCarthy era for her earlier Communist Party affiliation. Such actions made the company an easy target for defenders of moral and political rectitude.
The Wentworths launched their efforts in an old carriage house at 1632 O Street NW half-way between Dupont and Logan Circles. Located next to a large church along a residential block, the building had moved beyond horses, carriages and automobiles to become a non-descript warehouse. The neighborhood’s declining fortunes combined with its use for storage resulted in a price the budding company could afford.
The site carried various encumbrances which would shape the theatrical venture in unexpected ways. As Capt. Pyles noted, residential zoning codes prevented the opening of a “theater.” The ever-creative couple therefore launched a theater club to own the building. The club, in turn, rented the space to the Washington Drama Center, which formally operated the company throughout its early years. The club eventually reincorporated as a standalone non-profit organization in 1963, claiming an educational purpose as justification for tax-exempt status. Such arrangements necessitated “members,” so the company charged subscribers and other patrons a $1 “membership fee” above and beyond the official ticket price.
The diminutive 1632 O Street NW stage remained the club’s signature venue for much of its existence. The carriage house offered just enough room for an Elizabethan-style thrust stage surrounded on three sides by 142 seats. Many theater-goers initially found the space to be “sweet,” “intimate,” and “endearing.” Audiences especially welcomed the new theater’s state-of-the-art air conditioning system which remained something of a rarity at the time. Positive reviews followed.
Before too long, however, the old carriage house became “cramped,” “uncomfortable,” and “confined;” its once venerated air conditioning system now simply “noisy” and “annoying.” “Old as charming” transmuted into “old as dilapidated.” While such disquiet lead the club to overextend its financial reserves for a second stage, the space remained much beloved by many. 1632 O Street continued to serve as a home to children’s productions, poetry readings, dance and music performances as well as puppet-theater.
The club, which proudly declared itself for years to be the smallest professional repertoire company in America, looked to expand. As 1969 became 1970, Hazel Wentworth moved their primary operations to a remodeled African American church in the city’s West End neighborhood. With three-times the number of seats and plentiful backstage space, the new home suited the company well; at least until tax authorities and real estate developers had their way. A once noteworthy blue collar neighborhood, the West End had fallen into disrepair after having been targeted for demolition to make way for an inner beltway circling downtown. The neighborhood came “on-line” once highway planners lost their battle to plough an interstate highway through the area. A neighborhood renewal plan released in 1972 envisioned a “new town for the West End.” A Ritz Carlton hotel now stands on the site of the Washington Theatre Club’s final home.
The club’s declaration that it offered educational opportunities eventually became the company’s undoing. In the early 1970s, various courts rejected the assertion of educational status, leaving the club with an expensive property tax bill that it could not cover. Bankers soon foreclosed on their loans. The company folded in 1974, a victim of an emerging real estate boom that would devour poor neighborhoods across the city in its wake.
Editor’s note: Much of Washington DC’s theatrical history is lost, or resides in personal or library collections not available to the public. We hope, through this Roots Series, to bring that history to light. Anyone with remembrances or images to share about the Washington Theatre Club please email [email protected].