Books, Film Will Trace 100-year History of Youngstown Playhouse

YOUNGSTOWN – The story of The Youngstown Playhouse parallels the story of Youngstown itself.

“This place speaks to what Youngstown is,” said John Cox, president of the theater’s board of directors. He was emphasizing the spirit of perseverance of the city and the theater.

“You don’t quit working,” Cox said. “You keep plugging away; you look for new opportunities; you make the left turn when you have to because life or a pandemic get thrown in your way. You keep rolling with the punches. We’re blessed that we’re here because a lot of theaters have been closing the past four years across the country. We’re proud to say we’re here and actually growing.”

Cox was speaking during a Monday morning press conference at which several projects to celebrate the Playhouse’s centennial celebration were unveiled.

The theater’s 100th anniversary season will begin in August and will be capped by a gala event in June 2025.

J.E. Ballantyne Jr., who has written a history of the theater.

The centennial will be celebrated throughout the season, sprinkled into events throughout the upcoming 12 months.

To commemorate the centennial, two new history books, a documentary film and a series of taped interviews have been created by J.E. Ballantyne Jr., the theater’s archivist.

The books are “A Place Where the Stars Still Shine – A Glittering Galaxy of 100 Youngstown Playhouse Years,” a behind the scenes history; and “A Youngstown Playhouse Scrapbook,” a collection of photos, newspaper clippings, letters and other memorabilia.

Both can be ordered beginning May 27 at The books will be released Aug. 12 and will be shipped to purchasers. Those who order early can take advantage of discounts and other promotions.

The documentary, “The Youngstown Playhouse: A Centennial of Live Theater,” is expected to be completed by late summer.

Screening dates and locations will be revealed at a later date.

The late Mike Rossi, cinematographer of a documentary film about the theater, directed by J.E. Ballantyne Jr.

The film is the work of Ballantyne and cinematographer Mike Rossi, who died suddenly earlier this year. Rick Blackson is the musical director.

Also produced by Ballantyne is “On the Marquee – Behind the Scenes with Playhouse Personnel,” a series of 39 interviews with former and current actors, crew and directors of the theater.

The short interviews will be shown throughout the season, before plays and at other events.

“We plan on making the entire season a celebration,” Cox said.

The list includes Playhouse stalwarts past and present, many of whom have gone on to other theaters, and some who are now deceased.

Upcoming Season

The centennial season will begin in August with “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” The Tony Award-winning musical is being directed by Broadway producer and musical director Michael Moritz, whose career started at the Playhouse. It will feature Broadway caliber production quality and will be performed Aug. 23-25 at Powers Auditorium. Brooke May has been cast in the role of King.

The season will also include “Something Rotten,” “Puffs” (youth theater), “The Thanksgiving Play,” “August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean,” “The Lightning Thief” (youth theater), “Oklahoma!” and “Almost Maine.”

The Playhouse will erect its new sign along Glenwood Avenue in the next week or two, Cox said. It will sport the theater’s new logo and a digital portion that will advertise upcoming events.

The season will culminate in a gala event June 20, 2025, featuring entertainers Mary Jo Maluso and Blackson. The theater is inviting its famous alumni to return for the event.

A Long Story

Ballantyne started on the book and film projects in 2016. His first task was cleaning out and organizing the theater’s archives, which had deteriorated into a disorganized collection of papers stuffed into large garbage bags.

“It was a dump,” Ballantyne said. “I entered the room, and the garbage bags were stacked up to the door. I started rooting through them, and it took me two years just to organize the play programs alone because they had been tossed in there in every direction.”

Ballantyne put in well over 1,000 hours of work going through the archives and writing.

He describes the books and film as “an indispensable” piece of history about the Playhouse and the city of Youngstown.

“A lot of people have no clue about the history of this place,” he said. “It’s more fascinating than you could imagine.”

The Playhouse traces its roots to 1924, when the Youngstown Little Theater started presenting plays in a former horse barn on Arlington Street, now University Place. The site of the drafty wooden structure is roughly where Youngstown State University’s Mosier Hall now stands.

Actors would rehearse in the unheated building with their coats on. “One actor wrote that on some nights, you needed something stronger than water to stay warm,” Ballantyne said.

The founders and leaders of the Youngstown Little Theater incorporated as the Youngstown Players in 1927. The theater moved to its present location off Glenwood Avenue in 1959.

Pictured at top: A scene from the 1946 Youngstown Playhouse production of “Tell It Not in Gath.” The drama was written by a Playhouse staffer and premiered at the theater. It earned recognition at the time in Theatre Crafts Magazine, a national publication.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.