Back to the Future
The Bedford Playhouse rebuilds on great memories of the past
Film curator and Bedford resident John Farr is leading the effort to re-imagine the Bedford Playhouse, currently under renovation.
Top photo by Sally Green
Bedford was a kid’s paradise 40 years ago. With perhaps less supervision than today, there was freedom to hang out on the Green, swim in the quarry, sneak a peek at Playboy in Trela’s store, or bowl in the fire hall. And on the weekends, there were eagerly anticipated matinees and live performances at the Bedford Playhouse.
Long-time residents have memorable stories to tell of the old Playhouse, which provided entertainment for kids and their parents from 1947 until it closed in early 2015. With its reopening planned for October 2016 as a member-supported, non-profit, art-house cinema and community hub, these memories may come full circle for a new generation.
Originally one large theater, with smoking permitted in the balcony (25 cents extra), the auditorium was divided in 1983. The new Playhouse hopes to restore the original grandeur, with a large screen and two smaller screening rooms. For those who remember trying to sneak in beer for midnight shows of Rocky Horror Picture Show (perhaps from the old 25-cent beer machine in the fire hall), there will now be an all-day café, serving wine, beer, and light meals.
In the ’50s and ’60s, there were live shows, including celebrity appearances by the New York Giants and Roy Rogers. Francie Train remembers dropping off her kids on Fridays, knowing they would be kept in line “by the chaperone, a fierce lady in a white uniform” who patrolled the aisles for feet on seats or, God forbid, necking.
This was Mary Mead, the beloved manager from the 1950s until 1982, who “could be as hard as flint or as soft as cotton candy,” in the words of one resident. Who could blame her, faced with unsupervised kids wielding pea-shooters, sneaking into X-rated movies (yes, you read that correctly) through the back door, and even once releasing a bag of moths in front of the projector?
The Playhouse was a family affair, staffed with Mead’s children, her brother “Joe Pro” Progreske, and her sister Helen Henker, whose husband owned the beloved Henker’s Farm on Banksville Road. Mead was even a matchmaker. Dana Franklin Sullivan lived upstairs and met her husband, Tim, who worked at the Playhouse when she volunteered to mop the theater during a projectionist strike. Mead told Tim he owed Dana a drink as a thank you. They were married years later, and after the ceremony, they headed back to the Playhouse to close up.
In the ’70s and ’80s there were two cinemas in town, with Cinema 22 located in Hunting Ridge Mall, where Citibank now stands. Far from being rivals, the manager Jytte Fenneberg and Mead were close friends and would help each other out if they ran low on popcorn. Mark Iannazzi worked at both theaters and remembers driving to pick up new releases at JFK and racing back with them before show time.
United Artists owned the Playhouse for years, and several of their promotional stunts are etched in the memories of residents. Rob Winokur was awestruck when “James Bond” appeared onstage to introduce a 007 movie, while David Rauscher recalls that for The Yellow Rolls Royce, the film distributor sent an antique Rolls, which Mead let him drive around town and leave parked in front of the theater. In the ’70s, the staff would don costumes for the Rocky Horror Picture Show and lead the action from the stage, including the throwing of confetti, rice, and toast, to Mead’s horror.
Joni DiMauro was one of many kids kicked out of the Playhouse by Mead. But it didn’t stop her from working there from the ’60s to the late ’70s. She and her husband Joe (now the owner of Mount Kisco Seafood), lived upstairs with Joe’s pet rescue squirrel, which at least twice escaped into the theater, where it terrified the audience and earned Mead’s wrath.
There may be no squirrels, moths, clandestine beer, or midnight shows at the new Playhouse, but its new management team hopes that in addition to showing great films, it will once again become a community gathering place, as it was for over 60 years.
BACK IN THE DAY
Bedford Playhouse in the 1960s sat beside the Wooden Shoe Soda Fountain, which was located where Bedford 234 restaurant is today.