Interviewee: Robert Freed (RF) – Historian, old Academy Playhouse Interviewer: Ellen Sheehan (ES) Date of Interview: March 26, 2009
Robert shares his memories of Old Academy Players.
ES: Bob, I would like to ask you about growing up, where were you born, what section of the city?’
BF: I was born in Logan but grew up in Germantown. 1 went to Immaculate Conception grade school and I lived at 5342 Wingohocking Terrace. 1 had an older brother and sister, both of whom are now deceased. My father was Raymond and my mother was Kathleen Gallagher. I attended Northeast High School and LaSalle College and received my masters from University of Penn.
ES: Bob, tell me about your acting career. When did you become interested in acting?
BF: Actually the very first was in grammar school. We used to have a parish musical on St. Patrick’s Day, Minstrel shows, and I appeared in a couple of those. Then in High School at Northeast I was on loan to Little Flower and St. Hubert’s. The way 1 got involved in Old Academy was directly from that because there was a women named Emily Chinnery Pierve, who lived on W. Chelten Ave., in a big old house, and she took care of older people or something. In retrospect, I don’t think she took care of them too well, but she was a nice lady and she called us at school and was looking for actors for a play she had written. Fr. O’Connor sent myself and a couple of others from the drama group over to Mr. Pierce. She had written a play called “The Witch of Hogstown.” Again she was a nice lady but a bit eccentric. We were in awe because she told us of all these elaborate plans that were going to happen and that we were on our way to Broadway and we were excited because we were kids and we went into rehearsal for this show. I played Billy Hall, the all-American boy in “The Witch of Hogstown.” But at that same time she had also called Old Academy and several people from Old Academy came over to be in this play of hers. Two of them were, Jean Shaefhauser and Ida Smith, who was a Charter member of Old Academy. Delightful-woman, very short and so nice and she got us involved at Old Academy. This “Witch of Hogstown” never came off and she wrote a number of other plays. It sort of petered out because it became apparent that it was all in her head. She rented out to the Pennypack Theater, way up in the Northeast and we were doing plays up there. It was a dilapidated old theater with a hole in the roof and it was pouring rain and nobody showed up. No customers showed, so that was kind of the end of that.
I went over to Old Academy and I saw quite a few of their shows over there, but I was going to College the next year, so I got involved in the “Masque” at LaSalle, so 1 really didn’t do anything at Old Academy. It wasn’t until 1 got out of college that 1 joined Old Academy. I did shows at LaSalle, 1 did “Babes in Arms,” “The Male Animal,” “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” and ‘Winterset”.
ES: When did you join Old Academy?
BF: What year? 1957.
ES: Are you presently the longest continuously active member of Old Academy?
BF: Freda Gowling is.
ES: Bob, tell us about your first play at Old Academy.
BF: Well, I joined the Old Academy in January, 1957. The first show 1 was in was April. It was “The Torch Bearers” and was directed by Tommy Phayre and written by George Kelly. Of course, the Kellys had a big connection with Old Academy. The people here were very nice, the cast, Cece Jones, Ida Smith was in it too. They had done it twice before over the years and this was the third time they did it. They did a lot of the Kelly shows. After that the show right after that I was in was the first time we did “The Mouse Trap.” I was in that, it was directed by Cece Jones. Then the next season 1 was in “Mrs. Moonlight.” It was not one of our big successes. I acted in usually two or three a year.
ES: Tell us about the Kellys. You are speaking of the playwright here.
BF: One of his play was “The Torchbearers.”
ES: Did you do any other of his shows?
BF: No, actually that was the last time they did one of his shows here. But they had previously done “Craig’s Wife.” Years later they did “The Fatal Weakness” which had Pat McCauley and Don LeVine, who was Lizanne Kelly’s husband, were in that but they bad previously done “Craig’s Wife” and also several times they did “The Showoff,” the play that Kelly won the Pulitzer Prize for.
ES: Did you ever act with any of the Kellys?
BF: Yes, I was in “The Critic’s Choice” and Lizanne Kelly LeVine was my ex-wife in it. I was a theater critic, my current wife in the play had written a play and through my ethics decided to review it and 1 gave it a bad review. It’s a comedy. My ex-wife was the bitchy type who came in and decided to make trouble.
ES: Was her husband in that show?
BF: No, I was never in a show with Don, just Lizanne.
ES: Now, they both acted here?
BF: Yes, quite a bit. Lizanne. From early girlhood she was in “The Philadelphia. Story” and “Light Up the Sky.” After “The Critic’s Choice” she was in “Mary, Mary” and several others. Don did even more shows that she did. He was in “A Thousand Clowns” and “Sunday in New York,” “Come Back Little Sheba,” “Bus Stop.”
ES: Did they meet here?
BF:No. I’m not sure where they met. When they did “The Moon is Blue” together, they were still engaged. That was 1955, and that was the last time her sister, Grace Kelly was at Old Academy. She came to see them in that show. And this was just after she had won the Academy Award. She did take an interest in the club. She donated money and sent us a telegram thanking us for our congratulatory note when she won the Academy Award. Don came down once and said that Grace was at the house and really wanted to come down but her schedule was so tight that she really couldn’t. The Old Academy usually gets mentioned in her biographies, because this is where she started. They must have a real thing for her in Japan because four separate filming companies carne from Japan to film us along with other companies, a British Company was here as well.
ES: How did the people from Old Academy respond to Grace when she came back?
BF: Well, I wasn’t here then.
ES: Bob, I understand there was another famous actor at Old Academy, Robert Prosky.
BF: Yes, he just passed away a few months ago. He was at Old Academy for almost ten years. He came actually when he was still at Roxborough High School. He looked older than he was and they had him playing older parts when he was still in his teens. He did a bunch of plays here.
ES: So Robert Prosky acted here. Do you remember any plays that he was in?
BF: He was in ten, “Laura,” “Rebecca, “”Room Service,” ‘For Love or Money” and several others (from 1949-1955) He was a very good actor obviously. He went into the service and then he went down to Washington, DC, to the famous professional group there. He stayed there for 25 years. He was really a late bloomer as far as national recognition. He then went on to a career on Broadway where he had two Tony nominations. He went to Hollywood where he appeared in movies. He was in “Hoffa” the second filming of “Miracle on 34′ St.” He was in quite a few movies. He came back here and did a benefit a few years ago at Old Academy and he showed a retrospect of his career. We all did go up to see him when he was on Broadway, the last show he did on Broadway. A group of us went to see him last year at the Walnut when he was appearing in “The Price.” “Democracy” was the last show he did on Broadway.
ES: Did you go to meet Bob after the show?
BF: Yes, actually, when we were in New York he took us backstage, spent some time with us, introduced us to some of the other cast, including the fellow who played “John Boy” In the “Waltons” He was also in it. He spoke to us afterwards when we went down to see him at the Walnut in “The Price.”
ES: Bob, why do you think people stay so long at Old Academy and act in shows here.
BF: Well, we have had differences over the years. There have been feuds, people leave, but overall it’s a very family like feeling. People are made to feel welcome, there aren’t cliques like you have in some other groups and people develop great loyalty to the place. People come back years after they have moved away and when they are back in Philadelphia they come to Old Academy to see if there is anyone here that they used to work with. So it really is a homey atmosphere. We have “Life Members,” which means you have been a member for 15 years at least. We have a bunch of them. We owe so much to the first people who turned the “Moment Musical Club” into Old Academy. We named the group after the building. We changed it from the “Moment Musical Club.” They turned it into – this was the depths of the Depression – they took a dilapidated old building which was not a theater and turned it into a theater. Finances were extremely precarious for years and years. They had their ups and downs financially. Don’t tempt the fates – we seem to be in pretty good shape at the moment.
ES: Is there a particular instance that may have threatened the life of the theater to continue?
BF: Well, we have had several of those. One was in 1952, when a disastrous fire burned and destroyed the whole attic. It was because of faulty electrical wiring. The Fire Marshall forced them to replace the whole electrical system. It was 1952, and of course, the prices were much lower but there was over $ 10,000.00 worth of damage done at that time. It was right at the beginning of the season and they were doing a play called “Three is a Family” and so they only postponed it a week. There was a hole in the roof. They placed a tarp over the roof and managed to go on just a week late. There were other things too. As recently as the early ’80’s a letter went out because the insurance rates were so high. Our attendance was down and we almost faced bankruptcy. A letter went out to the members as an appeal. Fortunately, there was a good response and attendance started to pick up but we have had our ups and downs. We have also bad waning and waxing interest.
We are in a very fortunate position right now. We have a lot of wonderful directors. In fact, we have people waiting to direct. But we have had years when two or three people have directed all the plays. That makes the quality suffer, really, if you have the same people doing the same thing. They get tired and so forth. We have also had some really way up there things. We have had shows which were total sell outs, “Lady in the Dark, ” ‘Mary, Mary,” I think “The Corn Is Green” and more than several others that have sold out their entire runs.
ES: Bob what were your favorite acting roles? Is there a show that stands out as memorable?
BF: Well, I’ve been very lucky. In the course of my time at Old Academy 1 have been in 53 plays. 1 do have certain favorites. 1 guess my all-time favorite is “The Hasty Heart.” I played a Scottish soldier who is dying. It was a comedy-drama. I got to use a Scottish burr and it’s a beautiful play. I played Lachie. Also, “The Corn is Green,” a wonderful play and I enjoyed doing that. “The Matchmaker,” “The Fantastiks,” The play I just did was really enjoyable, “The Incorruptible.” I played an Abbot. It was a lot of fun. Also, “The Night of January 16,” “Separate Tables,” “Say, Darling.” I also did a few musicals which is pretty good. I enjoyed them.
ES: How many in all?
ES: Would you like to tell us a little “aside” about one of the shows you were in?
BF: Well, going back to “The Mouse Trap” which was the second play I did. If you are not familiar with it this, it is an Agatha Christie play which is still running for over half a century. It’s still running in theaters. It is set with a bunch of people snowbound, trapped in an inn in the country. In their wisdom, the production committee at that time chose to do the play in June. It was one of the hottest June in history. Everybody was bundled in these heavy, winter clothes. There was an actress in it named Esther Petri, who was playing Mrs. Boyle, a mean character, who is the first to get killed. Anyway, she comes in the room and she says, “Brrrr, who left that window open?” And a man in the audience yelled “Leave it open, Lady.”
ES: Are there any other anecdotes or asides?
BF: This comes to mind. I won’t name names. We did the show “Anastasia” about the woman who claimed to be the lost heiress of the Czar. In the show, she and her- supposed grandmother, the Dowager Empress, are going through the Romanov family picture album, looking at the various pictures to see if she can recall anything. She does and doesn’t. In any case, we borrowed the album from two members, so the two woman were sitting on stage it was, Phyllis Rogers and Ruth Ely and they were going through this book and looking at the pictures and very, very intense and out of the audience came this shout: “That’s our album,” said the mother of the donors to the father.
ES: Bob, could you tell us about your job as second vice president of the Production Committee?
BF: Well, this is my third go round at this job. I had it for five years at one point and a couple of years at another point. Right now, I have had it since 1992. Our job is to select the season, cast the parts and get people to produce the shows. The producers are then to get a staff. They have to get people to build the set, get the props, do the lighting, do the sound, do the prompting, all those jobs, so it is an interesting and rewarding job that has gotten more difficult in later years because there are fewer plays coming down. Years ago, Broadway had lots and lots of straight plays. Now they are heavy on musicals and they don’t do that many straight plays. So if we can we try not to do too many repeats.
The only reason we do repeats, perhaps once a year, is because we like to give younger people a chance to do parts that they may have been too young to do originally. In any case, this makes us go out sometimes and have to do plays that never played in New York, so we don’t know too much about them. We have to get them in, read them, a lot of them turn out to be terrible. But some of them tum out to be gems. The playwright today is not as lucky as the earlier playwrights. Once they had a career and make a hit in New York, they were set. But now, a playwright will have to open a show in some residential theater in perhaps, Nebraska. Then he has to do it again in Alabama and again in Arizona. It’s not the same thing; we have to select the plays and we try to balance. Old Academy has always been and still is, without apologies, sort of “middlebrow.” We hopefully don’t go for the typical high school play but we also don’t go for the avant garde, way out sort of play. We are still a little prudish. Some of the older members would turn in their graves if they heard some of the language used on our stage now, but compared to what other people do, it’s very mild.
ES: Could I ask you about some of Old Academy own playwrights?
BF: Oh, yes. We have been very fortunate. We have two right now, very gifted playwrights. One is Nancy Frick, currently the president of Old Academy. The other is Barbara Weber. We have done four of Nancy’s original plays to great success. We have done three of Barbara’s. To prove it wasn’t just nepotism, Nancy’s plays have been done by a bunch of other places as well as ours. Barbara has had her plays accepted into the Baker Collection, this is like Dramatist or French’s where people go to their catalogues to choose their plays and her plays have been done in Texas and other places.
So we have launched two and we have had other members who have written plays. We have actually rejected some of the plays by other members because we put them to the same standard of quality. Every play cannot be a Pulitzer Prize winner, but we have a certain floor. If you wanted to grade it, we don’t want to do anything less than a B minus. That’s as low as we want to go. We don’t want to do any C’s and certainly not any D’s or F’s. Hopefully, as many A’s as we can get. Not that many A’s are coming down the pike so we have to choose. We try to balance. Our audiences do like Comedy. We try not to underestimate our audience. If we give them good drama, they enjoy it and like it. Sometimes word of mouth helps in that regard. Something can start out slow. In fact, we have wonderful word of mouth on the last play we did, “Wrong Turn at Lungfish.”
I also handle the ticket reservation. So many people called in about the show, bow good they thought it was. In the last few years, the quality of our shows has really gone up. It’s been noticeable and reflected in our increased ticket sales. We are selling better than we had been for a while.
We have theater parties that we sell to outside groups for a flat sum and they sell the tickets for what they can. We sold them to different church groups and so forth. We also have reserved seats for our season ticket holders. This gives you the exact same seat for every show. We have floaters where you can call in for each show and pick the seat for that particular show, at a discount price, of course. In looking over the history of the place, we have now close to 200 season ticket holders. At one time, we were up to, I think the highest was 448 season ticket holders. That was in the days when we only ran for 2 weeks as opposed to 3 weeks as we do now. We also sell theater parties, we perhaps sell maybe 12 now. At one point, when we ran for two weeks, we were up to selling 26 or 28. There are several reasons for that. I’s not entirely our fault. We used to get theater parties who would buy the whole season. Lions Clubs, We had the Bala Lions would come to every show, The Olney Lions, would come to every show. We had the North Penn Lions. Many of these fraternal groups have either disbanded or are much less active then they use to be so we have lost all that.
We’re in the Falls and the Falls is prospering and doing very well. Most of our people use to live within 3 or 4 miles of the Old Academy. The season ticket holders also lived within that radius. Demographically speaking that is now not so. We get cast members and season ticket holders from New Jersey, Bucks Co., Montgomery Co., Chester Co., Delaware Co. – even northern Delaware. That does lessen the number to a degree, because people have to come further.
It has also, cut into our social aspect, to a degree. We have an actress in an upcoming show who lives in Princeton. When people live that far, after rehearsals, they really have to get home because they have to work the next day. But in the old days, there was a lot more conviviality in that regard. People at Old Academy used to hang out at Cranes in Germantown, which had a great bar. It had great food, very reasonable and all their drinks looked like doubles. After they went, people went to Imhoff’s which we sort of turned into our personal cocktail party. Imhoff’s left the place open to us. We had an ex-president who was a regular there, so much so, that she had a seat at the bar. She had dinner there every night. The stamina of these people was amazing. They often closed the place and then went to work the next morning, if they didn’t stop at the American Legion Place or someplace like that afterward. Not too much of that goes on now. People are better behaved.
ES: Bob, what has it meant to be a part of the East Falls Community? The fact that this theater began in East Falls, how did that help it or deter it and how does the neighborhood effect it today?
BF: Old Academy was originally the “Moment Musical Club” which was founded in 1923 at the Falls Methodist Church, which unfortunately, closed its doors a few years ago. But in any case, when they came to the Old Academy building, in 1932, and did all this work and they have been a real part of this community ever since. We have been real lucky and are grateful. The East Falls Community Council has given us many grants for which we are appreciative. But on the other hand, we have been here since 1932 and we continually find people who live in the Falls who still don’t know that there is such a place as the Old Academy Players. They have never been here. Not only have they never been here, they have never heard of us. This is kind of hard to believe after all these years and all the efforts we have done with publicity. One thing, of course, is we are on Indian Queen Lane. There is not much business on IQL, so people are not driving down it. We drew most of our early members from East Falls, now we draw from just about everywhere. Members come from a 30 mile radius. East Falls itself has done wonders. There has been such a Renaissance in this place.
Next door to us for years was the Young Men’s Association which was a private boys club. It wasn’t affiliated with any other boys club. All the boys in the area for years and years went there, but it sort of petered out by 1970. It went out of business. They offered the building to us for a dollar. We took it. It gave us a whole new other building to store things. It gave us an area which evenuial1y we were able to convert into a parking lot, which is one thing the Falls lacks is parking. It was in very, very bad shape. We have spent lots of money and lot of effort and lots of sweat equity in the place. Right now, it was built in the 1850’s. Like this building itself, built in 1819, it requires constant upkeep. We do now have an apartment in the upper floors, so we are receiving revenue from this apartment. We use the back for rental for wedding receptions, birthday parties, showers, etc. We did have a lot of help in refurbishing from Sherman, a contractor and builder in this area. He did refurbish the floors in Carfax, which is what we call the place. He put in new windows and so forth. The name Carfax is interesting. We were doing the show “Dracula” and Dracula’s residence in England was called Carfax. On the condition of the building, we started calling it Carfax and that is what it is still called.
Actually, the Old Academy building itself, back in 1941, there was an addition put on the back of the building. This is the original building, but this addition gives us an additional staircase and space out there. That was built with a donation, in 1941 it only cost us $2400.00 to build it. The Old Academy took out a loan which was backed by people for $2400.00. John B. Kelly contributed $1 ‚000.00 and Hohenadel, who owned the local brewery up the street from Old Academy contributed $1,000.00.
ES: Could you read from some of the entries from the Minutes that you compiled?
BF: These are just a few examples of how tough they had it in the beginning. Here is an entry from 4/3/34, “$1.25 in the treasury.” On 4/17 of that year it had zoomed up to $20.91. But by September, they were back to $1.44. This was the depths of the Depression. In 1936, on August 18, they “had a new ceiling on second floor completed. Painting and redecoration will follow. Fall season will resume giving fall length plays suspended during the Depression in favor of several one-act plays.” For several years, to give people more for their money, they only charged .50, they would do three one-act plays instead of full length plays. In 1936, they came back to their original policy.
Here is an entry from 7/5/1938: “Season tickets proposed. $8.85 in the treasury, $60.00 in bills.” They always did very charitable stuff, in fact, it is part of our charter which we haven’t lived up to as much as we should. This is from 10/1/40, “a motion was passed to give $2.40/week for milk to needy children at Mifflin School. Christmas cards to be sold at the fund raiser.” From that same level in that same year 11/5/40,” members are contributing .1 5/week for children who are refugees from the European war. Christmas cards proceeds will go for staging. A benefit will be given for the Young Men’s Association.” They gave to lots of benefits. During the war they were very active. They took shows to Camp Dix and the Naval Hospital. They sent candy and things to make blankets for the different places. We had one member, Bill Bender, who was killed in the war. They really did a lot. They had benefits for the air raid groups that were around here at that time. One interesting thing during the war. This was 8/13/42 suggestion: “Cast women in male parts because of men going to war, defeated.” Fortunately!
ES: Bob, how are you keeping the history? Do you have archives?
BF: That’s a sad story. A few years ago, Patricia McCauley, Liz Logan and 1 got all the old programs, the old minutes and so forth, and put them in the office in Carfax. However, that office is not usable at the present time because the floor is collapsing. We have to have that floor done. We don’t even have a computer at this point, which is sad, in this day and age. They are in there, but the newer stuff we really have to regather. Fortunately, on the computer there are a lot of things that are not erased which we can get off. People have things on their own computers. I have a lot of things on my personal computer. Copies of old Prompters which we could update. We have a history of Old Academy from 1933 up to 2001. I’d like to update that to the present, by going through the minutes and gathering them from the various secretaries, which isn’t always easy and from old Prompters.
Another interesting thing is we had a meeting of our trustees, who are the custodians of the building for the interest of the people of East Falls. It was built in 1819 and given to East Falls. Everything happened here, all the churches, shows and libraries and that sort of thing. From Gar Emmert, who had gotten it from his mother, Ruth, who had gotten it from Dave Budenz, a member of the trustee, we have a copy of the original charter, from 1815. It’s fantastic and we have the minutes all through the 19 century of the trustees of the Old Academy building. It is fabulous and it is something we want to preserve. 1 think it’s wonderful, and if Old Academy comes to an end, as everything does sometime, that sort of material could go to the East Falls Historical Society, so that there would always be a record that there was such a place as the Old Academy.