A Short History of Theater at the Plainfield Town Hall Opera House
The Plainfield Town Hall Opera House has been a venue for amateur and professional theater for over 100 years. The grand opening in 1912 was a comedy called “Uncle Josh” featuring a cast of local residents including Mrs. E.J. Bartlett, Mildred and Marjorie Cate and Amy Borland in starring roles, with music provided by Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Batchelder and Arthur Clark.
Three years after its opening as an opera house, in the summer of 1915, a group of professional actors from New York City began using the Plainfield Town Hall Opera House as their base. The acting company, known as the Nellie Gill Players after the leading actress, became the first acting troupe to tour throughout Vermont, putting on a series of summer shows that had were on-stage in Boston and New York at the time. Their performances in Plainfield and elsewhere were well-attended. Summer tourists who arrived by train (and, later, by car) and stayed at the Bancroft Inn, next door to the theater, were drawn here, in part, because of the summer theater.
In 1930, a few years after the Nellie Gill Players disbanded, the “Plainfield Little Theater” was formed (perhaps, “revived” would be more accurate since, as early as 1851, many years before it was transformed into an opera house, the Plainfield Universalist Church sponsored a group called “Plainfield Little Theater” which put on “music, glees, orations, and three-act plays”).
Under the leadership of Harold Townsend, a Plainfield carpenter, and Marjorie and Jerome Johnson. They were encouraged to do so by Nellie Gill, who retired to a home she purchased on Laird Pond Road outside Plainfield. Marjorie’s maiden name was Martin. (Her father was owner of Greatwood Farm, which was purchased by Goddard Seminary in 1934 shortly after his death). Several one-act plays performed by members of the Plainfield Little Theater won state competitions. By the mid-1930s, Gilbert and Sullivan productions had become a regular part of the repertoire, and Royce “Tim” Pitkin, the founder of Goddard, played a lead in several of those productions. (Harold Townsend was the one who converted the Greatwood haybarn into the Haybarn Theater).
For several years, Harold Townsend and Marjorie and Jerome Johnson toured the region doing puppet shows at schools other venues, using puppets that were hand-carved by Harold. (Those puppets have recently been donated to the Plainfield Historical Society by Laura Johnson, the wife of the late Martin Johnson). Jerome and Marjorie Johnson subsequently divorced and later, Marjorie and Harold married.
Under the direction of the Townsends and with the help of many community volunteers, the Plainfield Little Theatre produced several plays a year, sponsored concerts, lectures and other community events. Harold Townsend converted a barn attached to Nellie Gill’s home on Laird Pond Road into a theater rehearsal space. The Plainfield Little Theater was active until 1956.
Eighteen years later, in 1974, it experienced a revival as a result of the efforts of Bill and Alice Blachly, Caleb Pitkin and others. Betsy, Katie and Ted Merrill, Cliff Martin, Debi Burton, Ellen Pitkin, Tom and Ellen Blachly, Jack Bradt, Larry Gordon, Barney Carlson, Jane and Peter Youngbaer, Celine Moore, Jack Dowd, Avram Patt and many others took to the stage when the Plainfield Little Theater was revived. In the course of a typical season, over 100 people joined in Little Theatre productions. (See the Summer, 1979 Vermont Life article about the Plainfield Little Theater). Once again, audiences were treated to regular performances of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, as well as plays by Shaw, Chekhov, O’Neill, among others. Thornton Wilder’s Our Town was performed in 1978 and Shakespeare’s As You Like It in 1980. (Harold Townsend, who played the part of Professor Willard in Our Town in 1928 as a member of the Nellie Gill Players, reprised his role in the 1978 production).
The Plainfield Little Theater’s run at the Plainfield Town Hall Opera House ended when Bill Blachly began productions at the Unadilla Theater, a theater he built on his property in East Calais in 1983.