The Philly theater that launched Grace Kelly's career (and others) turns 100 – The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Old Academy Players in East Falls turns 100 and celebrates the community of theater with an open house and its 530th production.
Just as the Roaring Twenties roared into Philadelphia, 19 members of Philadelphia’s Falls Methodist Church decided to put on a play. They called their theater company the Moment Musical Club and opened with “The Minister’s Wife’s New Bonnet.” By all accounts, it was a tremendous success. Bonnets off to them, now known as the Old Academy Players.
That play marked the first season of the amateur, all-volunteer acting group now celebrating its 100th season and truly living the theater motto that the show must go on. And go on the Old Academy Players did — through the Depression, through two World Wars, through global conflicts and recessions.
At first, the group staged shows wherever they could get a stage until, in 1932, they were offered the use of the Old Academy, a building erected in 1819 as a schoolhouse on Indian Queen Lane in East Falls. Later, they also acquired the Carfax Building next door, which had housed the Young Men’s Association.
Remember Grace Kelly, the actress who became Princess Grace of Monaco? She got her start at the Old Academy performing in six plays between the ages of 11 and 14. One of them was “Craig’s Wife,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama written by her uncle, George Kelly. Her father, John Kelly, an Olympian rower who earned his fortune in the brick business, and brewer John Hohenadle donated money to improve the building. Another famous alum? Robert Prosky, nominated for Tony Awards for his performances in “A Walk in the Woods” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” and known for his role as Sgt. Jablonski in the television show “Hill Street Blues.” He appeared in 10 Old Academy performances from 1947 to 1955.
That was just before 1956 when Freda Gowling, now 88, who has a role in the Old Academy’s upcoming production, “ShakespeareaPalooza!,” joined the Old Academy Players. “I’m playing a witch, which is what I always wanted to do. It was on my bucket list to be a witch,” she said. “But we’re not dressed like witches. We’re dressed like bag ladies.”
Gowling, who started there in her 20s, said she was first cast in ingénue roles, including her first role in “Gold in the Hills, or the Dead Sister’s Secret.” “I’m still the ingénue to myself,” she said with a laugh.
She can’t remember what part she played, but she remembered being in the cast when Grace Kelly, then Princess Grace, returned to the Old Academy to see a production. “I had eye contact with her, and she was smiling.”
Carla Childs, who joined the Old Academy Players in 1991, is directing ShakespeareaPalooza!, its 530th production. Childs describes it as the bard’s greatest hits, including famous scenes, jokes, insults, and songs. A cast of 29, the largest in the company’s history, ranges in age from 8 to Freda Gowling’s 88.
In a typical six-play season, shows range from silly to serious. This season includes both “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “Agnes of God” as well as a Stephen Sondheim musical, “Company.”
“Sometimes the audience wants to be spurred to think and sometimes they just want to sit back and laugh,” Childs said.
To Childs, Old Academy represents a “community of people who help each other. You have to cooperate to put on a show. They talk about teamwork in sports, but teamwork from plays is intense,” she said. “Sometimes you are giving a speech. Sometimes you are directing. Sometimes you are pulling the curtain. You learn that you are not always the center of attention, but you are always part of the team.”
With other celebrations planned throughout the year, the Old Academy Players will hold its first centennial celebration from noon to 4 p.m. Sept. 17. Scheduled are an open house and refreshments, backstage tours, a chance for visitors to perform monologues on stage, lots of time to sign up to join the group as an actor or behind the scenes. In the evening, the show must go on, as it has for 100 years.
Sept. 16-Oct. 2, Old Academy Players, 3544 Indian Queen Lane, Philadelphia, 215-843-1109 or oldacademyplayers.org
A struggling comedian is quarantining in his parents’ attic when Dolly Parton appears to him — and what a vision it is, with Tricia Paoluccio playing the country-western superstar in “Here You Come Again,” a world premiere musical by Bruce Vilanch, Gabriel Barre, and Paoluccio. It’s on stage at the Delaware Theatre Company. Paoluccio, by the way, is the only person that Parton has approved to play her. Here’s how it happened. The Delaware County Theatre folks knew Barre and Vilanch from early productions and were eager to produce the Dolly Parton-themed work. Coincidentally, the theater company’s attorney, Thomas Distler, a New York-based entertainment lawyer, knew Parton’s lawyer/manager and made the connection. Vilanch, Barre, and Paoluccio sent off scripts, audio, and video, and later received the nod from Parton’s team. When you listen (scroll down a bit), you’ll see why. Their voices are uncannily similar. Jamison Stern pays the comedian.
Sept. 14-Oct. 2, Delaware Theatre Co. 200 Water St., Wilmington, 302-594-1100, or delawaretheatre.org
Remember “Moonlight,” the stunning coming-of-age movie that won the Academy Award for best picture in 2017? It was based on a semiautographical unpublished play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” by Tarell Alvin McCraney. McCraney, whose play, “Choir Boy,” was presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company in February, is the author of “The Brothers Size,” a play interweaving the bonds of brotherhood, themes of incarceration, poetry, music, and Yoruba mythology, now being produced by the South Camden Theatre Company. Damien J. Wallace directs.
Through Sept. 25, The Waterfront South Theatre, 400 Jasper St., Camden 404-409-0365 or southcamdentheatre.org
The Ritz Theatre Company presents “The Bisley Boy,” the world premiere of a gothic musical fantasy based on the life of Bram Stoker, author of the novel “Dracula.” Opening Sept. 16 at Haddon Township’s Ritz Theater, it’s the work of three South Jersey residents: Joshua Bessinger, of Mount Holly, an actor and elementary school teacher in Delran; Krysten Cummings, of Pennsauken, who originated the role of Mimi in “Rent” in productions in Toronto and London; and composer Collin Maier, of Mount Holly, who has worked on shows at the Walnut and Act II Playhouse.
Sept. 16-Oct. 2, Ritz Theatre, 915 White Horse Pike, Haddon Township, 856-288-3500 or ritztheatreco.org
Get ready for five days of laughs at the Crossroads Comedy Theater’s Comedy Hub within the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. In “Extree! Extree! Comedy Inspired the News,” improv pros riff off current events. Academic types and others deliver short lectures in “Study Hall: Comedy Inspired by Lectures.” Watch how the “students” react. Crossroads and Runnin’ Late present The Marathon, a varied lineup of comedy shows hosted by comedians Cab Washington and Marcely Jean Pierre. “Latinx 2044 with Che Guerrero” is comedy entirely en español. There’s also “The Nitty Gritty: A Philly Themed Storytelling Show,” “The Sideshow: A Variety Comedy Showcase,” “The Sideshow: Emo Singalong Idiot Show,” “Borrowed Time: An Indie Comedy Showcase,” and “Not Yet Rated: An Improvised Rom-Com.” If you want to get into the act yourself, Crossroads offers an improv jam, plus an opportunity to learn a few basics as part of the festival.
Sept. 14-18, Crossroads Comedy Theater’s Comedy Hub at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St., Philadelphia, 215-650-7360. Get an overview at xroadscomedy.com/shows/ or search for shows by title on fringearts.com
No tigers, dancing bears, or elephants, but lots of high-wire, acrobatics and juggling on tap at another hub within the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Circus Campus Presents includes 14 shows at the Circus Campus in Mount Airy. The shows run weekends through Oct. 1, but here’s what’s coming up soon: “Pink Lemonade” by Sweet & Sour Circus, a childlike carnival of movement, fun, dropping and rolling, offered as a double feature with “Pocketbook Diaries” by Magic Fingaz Productions — a satirical look at the survival of the average handbag, both at 6 and 8 p.m., Sept. 16; Character Juggler Chris Ivey in a Broadway-like show at 7 p.m. Sept. 17; and Lindsey Noel in “I’m a Magician” at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Sept. 18. Check the website for the rest of the schedule.
Through Oct. 1, Circus Campus Presents, Circus Campus, 6452 Greene St., Philadelphia. Tickets available through fringearts.com or circuscampusphiladelphia.com, 215-944-4430.
What’s going on here? Talking toilets, walrus mamas, fights among puppets, and nine aliens living together in one house — it’s all happening in “Real PlaNet Life,” a play about a reality TV show made by and for aliens. As an audience member, you can watch, even if you aren’t an alien. Presented by Applied Mechanics, a longstanding immersive theater group, Real PlaNet Life incorporates a film created by Applied Mechanics as part of their Other Orbits project. Other Orbits is a serial performance piece that began in 2021, using different modalities able to accommodate both theater and the pandemic. The pieces fit together, but each also stands alone, as does Real PlaNet Life at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
Sept. 17-20, Applied Mechanics, Vox Populi, 319 N. 11th St., 3rd floor, Phila., 215-413-1318, fringearts.com
We could stop at the setting, the Villa Aphrodite Italian Restaurant. But that wouldn’t be enough to explain how eight nefarious characters with out-of-whack moral compasses happen to come together on one fateful night. It’s especially fateful for the murder victim. Detective Harry Mankowitz is on the case, but the audience can help by writing lines of dialogue, questioning witnesses, and even voting on the ending. No two performances of “Larry’s Late Show” will be the same. Presented by Chelsea Cylinder and Julianne Kastner for the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
(Sept. 16-18, Adrienne Theater Mainstage, 2030 Sansom St., Philadelphia, 215-413-1318 or fringearts.com)
Check with individual venues for COVID-19 protocols.