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O'Reilly Theater: Pittsburgh Public Theater Timeline

Sunday, December 05, 1999

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

1866: Mercantile Library Hall (library, lecture/music hall) erected on Penn Avenue site that would later be site of O'Reilly Theater. The hall subsequently evolves into the Bijou, Lyceum, Academy and Variety, before being torn down for parking lot in 1937.

1889: President Benjamin Harrison dedicates Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall on North Side, future home of Public Theater.

1965-66: Professional theater briefly flourishes then dies at the Playhouse -- William Ball's American Conservatory Theatre runs huge deficits and subsequent company led by John Hancock offends Pittsburgh taste.

Early '70s: Nixon Theater loses such tours as "Company" and "Applause" because Pittsburgh audience doesn't justify $40,000 weekly guarantee.

1972: North Side Music Hall renovated as Allegheny Theater by city.

1973: "Let's face it, son. Meaning no disrespect, Pittsburgh never was much of a theater town." -- actress Ruth Gordon.

1973-74: Joan Apt and Margaret Rieck start raising support for a professional theater from foundations and corporate community still smarting from the expensive failure of the Playhouse.

Fall, 1974: Apt and Rieck invite Ben Shaktman (characterized as "rare combination of artist and businessman") to Pittsburgh to do groundwork. Shaktman bets them they can't pull it off, later gives them gold pins saying "Ben was wrong."

April 3, 1975: With major gifts already pledged toward a first-year budget kept strategically under $400,000, the campaign goes public. "Public" name chosen to counter perception that Playhouse was a clique. Shaktman, 37, appointed vice president and general director; Rieck, president; Earle Gister, secretary; and Apt, treasurer. Office is in Fulton Building, Downtown. First season to be three plays for four weeks each in Allegheny Theater.

Sept. 17, 1975: "Glass Menagerie" opens with Mayor Pete Flaherty in capacity audience. Temporary in-the-round performance space designed by Peter Wexler, with 250 seats arranged in three tiers of scaffolding. PG critic George Anderson quotes the play: "We won't be brilliant, but we will pass inspection."

Oct. 22, 1975: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" with Tom Atkins is a huge popular and critical hit, putting the Public on the Pittsburgh map.

Nov. 26, 1975: Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" with Leonard Nimoy as Malvolio completes first season. His comic stroll through the audience in "letter scene" thrills some, offends others as shtick.

Dec. 1975: Public ends its first season at better than 95 percent capacity with 7,100 subscribers, over budget of $384,000 but also $40,000 over box office projection. Worst reviews go to "slingshot seats" (continuous canvas strip, so when one person moves, people on either side bounce); money is easily raised to improve them.

1976: Season 2: "Uncle Vanya," "Sizwe Bansi Is Dead," "Henry 5" (so titled to stress modernity). Subscriptions rise to 10,800, budget to $613,000.

Oct. 1976: Pittsburgher August Wilson, 31, inspired by "Sizwe Bansi," his first professional play.

1977-78: Season 3: Seats increased to 310, season to five plays over seven months. "Ideally we'd have 750 seats, and I think the market is here," says Shaktman. Subscriptions to 11,115, budget to $813,000.

1978-79: Season 4: Expansion to 8 1/2 months, September to March, at Allegheny Center (now expanded to 350 seats, still in-the-round), plus March to May at Chatham College. Subscriptions to 13,350. "Of Mice and Men" hit of the season. Begin irregular series of new play workshops.

1979: Saturday Review article says Shaktman proved "that no town is a bad theater town. There is a right theater for every city."

March 1979: City extends Public's use of theater from six to nine months, which squeezes City Players out of building.

April 1979: PG editorial says "There is every reason to share [the] hope that the institution will become to theater here what the Pittsburgh Symphony is to music."

Aug. 1979: Market study claims Public can attract 30,000 to 50,000 more audience.

Nov. 1979: Mayor Caliguiri makes three-year, year-round commitment of Allegheny Theater to Public, in anticipation of expected subsequent move: "Any permanent theater of sufficient size should be located Downtown," he says. Elks Hall on Penn Avenue one of many possible sites scouted.

1979-80: Public comes of age, surviving two controversial shows, Joe Orton's irreverent "Loot" and Sam Shepard's disturbing "Buried Child." Subscriptions reach early peak of 14,453; expenses at $1,700,000. Added Spring Stage Festival includes Fionnula Flanagan in "Joyce's Women."

July 1, 1980: Howard Millman hired as first executive director to relieve pressure on Shaktman, now artistic director. Millman leaves in October 1981.

Dec. 15, 1980: Allegheny Theater renamed Theodore L. Hazlett Jr. Theater after visionary head of the Mellon Foundation.

1980-81: Strong season of "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road" (first musical), fine "Death of a Salesman," spooky "Terra Nova," frothy "Two Gentlemen of Verona," first premiere (forgettable "Tangles") and "Galileo," staged at Buhl Planetarium and Public. "Plus Six" series of special attractions includes Geraldine Fitzgerald in "Streetsongs." But momentum toward move Downtown slows as projected costs rise.

1981-82: "Juno and the Paycock" the hit of an uneven season; 12,449 subscribers, budget over $2 million.

Feb. 10, 1982: Disappointed in cutbacks in funds for new plays and the decision not to expand and move Downtown, Shaktman delivers ultimatum; his resignation accepted, effective June 30; associate artistic director Larry Arrick takes over. "Pittsburgh will have only the fondest memories of the man who came here when the community had sunk in theatrical terms to the status of a desert" (PG editorial, Feb. 12); "If Pittsburgh had a theater hall of fame, Ben Shaktman would be in it" (George Anderson, June 28).

Feb. 1982: Public gets liquor license. Dennis Babcock named new managing director; leaves in 23 months for Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater.

June 1982: "Tartuffe" does $24,000 box office in same week Bob Fosse's "Dancin' " and Lana Turner's "Murder Among Friends" combine for $400,000 at Stanley Theatre and Heinz Hall, proving Pittsburgh theater has come back from the wilderness.

1982-83: Arrick starts well, turning Public into a barn for comic, environmental "Tom Jones"; Barbara Damashek's "Quilters" one of most popular shows ever. Subscriptions at 13,570.

1982-84: More director than artistic director, Arrick directs eight of 12 shows in two seasons. Controversy gathers around his frequent casting of actress April Shawhan.

1983-84: Two sets stand out: the brilliant mountain by Ursula Belden and Robert Jared for "K2" and Robert Soulé's too-busy urban wasteland for Arrick's staging of "Waiting for Godot."

April 13, 1984: Arrick abruptly resigns -- or is he fired? Bill Gardner, administrative consultant, takes over as producing director (arranges creative teams but does not direct himself).

Sept. 1984: $500,000 facelift expands capacity to 457-plus seats (depending on configuration); space between rows grows from 29 inches to 35; new lobby/bar area. Budget at $2.4 million. Gardner works to raise actors' base pay from $450 weekly to $600.

1984-85: Gardner's first season features Sylvia Sidney in Marsha Norman's " 'night Mother," Robert Mobley in Noel Coward's "Private Lives." Subscriptions at 12,642, expenses at $2.3 million.

1986-87: Odd season ("Serenading Louie," "Orphans") highlighted by "She Loves Me" and reappearance of Tom Atkins in "Vikings."

April 1987: Public hosts first annual benefit for Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force, first such series by a U.S. regional theater; nearly $1 million raised to date.

1987: According to Shaktman, Robert De Niro intended to do David Mamet's version of Brecht's "Irresistible Rise of Arturo Ui," but "Mamet did a screenplay and De Niro did 'Cuba and His Teddy Bear' in New York, instead."

1987-88: With George Ferencz' staging of O'Neill's "The Hairy Ape," expressionism arrives late at the Public. Hit of the season is "Edith Stein" by CMU's Arthur Giron. Subscriptions grow to 15,208.

1988-89: National treasure Horton Foote comes to direct premiere of his "Habitation of Dragons," Helena Ruoti plays Hedda Gabler, and Public finally stages its first August Wilson, setting attendance records with "Fences," which is extended, as are "I'm Not Rappaport" and "The Immigrant."

1989: Public spends $8,000 advertising in the Sunday New York Times. Gardner defends expense by noting there are 40,000 Times bought within a 50-mile radius of Pittsburgh and such advertising raises profile of Public in national theater community.

July, 1989: Gardner reports average attendance for year at more than 100 percent, thanks to adding extra seats. Subscriptions to 15,419, highest to date.

1989-90: "Fences" at end of previous season followed by equally successful "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" at start of this. Subscriptions set all-time record (still), 16,185; expenses just under $4 million.

April 1990: Public announces project to share two productions with London's Anglo American Theatre Company: "Our Town" and "The Winter's Tale."

1990-91: The unique Mary Alice appears in "A Sunbeam," new play by John Henry Redwood, better known as Troy in "Fences" and Seth in "Joe Turner." "Our Town" comes off but "Winter's Tale" doesn't and London project put on hold for lack of funding. Subscriptions begin gradual decline from 1989-90 peak.

Dec. 1990: Gardner reports several bids to move Public: "Station Square made us an offer but I think the city administration wants us Downtown as part of the Cultural Trust proposal." He envisions an 800-seat proscenium theater: "A larger space would open us up to a whole class of actor we can't get now."

1991: Gardner loses rights to Wilson's "Piano Lesson" to a national tour, "I know my production [would] be better than what they'll be able to offer."

1991-92: Mark Rylance brings his extraordinary Hamlet from England's Royal Shakespeare Company.

Jan. 1992: Gardner directs for the first time here, a compelling "Three Sisters."

Jan. 21, 1992: Public announces it will accept Pittsburgh Cultural Trust offer of a planned new theater Downtown.

April 24, 1992: Bill Gardner dies suddenly. Remainder of 1991-92 season and much of 1992-93 run by managing director Dan Fallon and 56-member board, chaired by Richard H. Daniel.

Dec. 11, 1992: National search settles on Canadian Edward Gilbert, 55, already advising on the new theater, as artistic director. Veteran artistic director of large Canadian companies, Gilbert says he knows Pittsburgh "mainly through its sports teams," particularly as a frustrated Minnesota Vikings fan. He plans to direct two shows each year: "As a director," he jokes, "I find running a theater is the easiest way to work for a sympathetic management."

Jan. 1993: Another powerful foreign import, "Mad Forest," directed by Mark Wing-Davey, a finalist in the artistic director search.

1994: Gilbert prefers thrust stage so Cultural Trust shelves its completed proscenium design and goes back to the drawing board.

Aug. 31, 1994: Stephen Klein appointed managing director to share leadership; previous managing directors had reported to the artistic/producing director.

March 13, 1995: Cultural Trust and Public unveil plans for new Downtown theater.

June 1995: Shaktman slips into Pittsburgh to revisit his greatest accomplishment, see what's new (Benedum, City Theatre, Warhol Museum) and tell the story of Public's founding, published in PG on its 20th birthday, Sept. 17.

1995-96: Gilbert's best season to date includes "Amazing Grace," "Sweeney Todd," "Three Tall Women," "Arcadia" (first appearance of Gilbert's wife, Deborah Kipp) and "Jitney." Subscriptions at 11,833.

Oct. 1995: Gilbert directs Marsha Mason in world premiere of Michael Cristofer's "Amazing Grace," which wins American Theatre Critics Association new play award. When Gilbert directs play with Mason off-Broadway in 1998, it does not measure up.

June 1996: August Wilson's "Jitney" reborn. First staged at small Allegheny Repertory Theater in 1982, it lay fallow while Wilson went on to stardom. When Gilbert asks, Wilson re-works it, beginning process leading to planned New York premiere in April 2000.

1996-97: Gilbert's rich "Cyrano" opens season. Russell Lees premieres "Nixon's Nixon."

April 1997: Gilbert directs Sebastian Barry's "The Steward of Christendom," starring Tom Atkins, the first production in America or England since the original in Dublin, London and New York starring Donal McCann.

April 23, 1997: William Shakespeare's 433rd birthday marked by formal groundbreaking for Cultural Trust's new Downtown theater to be named for Anthony J.F. O'Reilly. Gov. Ridge, Teresa Heinz and Carol Brown lead cheers.

Sept. 7, 1998: Public announces $8.5 million already raised toward goal of $12.8 million endowment to defray additional costs of operating Downtown.

1998-99: Season largely of repeats as energy goes into preparing for new theater. Subscriptions reach low of 9,890; expenses at $4.3 million.

Dec. 7, 1998: Gilbert tells board he will leave in August 2000, at the end of his seventh year.

1999-2000: Subscriptions on track to pass 11,000; budget crests $5 million.

Oct. 4, 1999: Ted Pappas introduced as artistic-director designate.

Dec. 11, 1999: O'Reilly Theater to open with world premiere of August Wilson's "King Hedley II."

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