As Centerstage, the State Theater of Maryland begins a year-long celebration of its 50th anniversary, its founders and the heirs to its legacy have been reflecting on the institution’s history, even as they look ahead to its second half-century.
Now a thriving regional theater on par with the finest of its kind, Centerstage began in 1963, when a small group of young actors led by Ed Golden, former director of the JCC’s drama department, decided to take their show “on the road.”
In recognition of the two institutions and the history they share, on Jan. 28, the Gordon Center for Performing Arts will host Centerstage for a special presentation of “The Decade Plays,” a series of five scenes, each representing one of the most beloved plays from the company’s five decades of productions. The evening will include performances from Tennessee Williams’ “Glass Menagerie,” Lanford Wilson’s “Hot L Baltimore,” Eric Overmyer’s “On the Verge,” August Wilson’s “Jitney” and Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel.”
The JCC Years
In the late 1950s, Ed Golden, a native of Massachusetts, found himself in Baltimore after he was drafted into the Army and sent to Fort Holabird for training. Prior to his military service, Golden had earned a bachelor’s degree at Harvard University and a master’s in directing at Boston University.
Fortunately for Golden and the Army, his acting skills came in handy for intelligence work.
“They had an interesting way of training at Fort Holabird,” Golden recalled. “They hired actors to dramatize spy stories, and after I completed my training I became one of the actors who trained other servicemen. I met lots of actors that way. They wanted us to wear civilian clothes, so I went out in Baltimore and made contacts in the theater community.”
In the spring of 1958, Golden met Phyllis Ehrlich, then a teacher of dramatics at the JCC on Monument Street.
“She told me about the active drama program they had there. When a director they had hired from Israel had trouble with his visa, she asked me if I’d like to fill in for the end of the season,” Golden recalled.
Golden’s first production at the JCC was an ambitious rendition of “Crime and Punishment.” The play attracted the interest of Baltimore Sun critic Hal Gardner, who gave it very favorable reviews. From that point on, JCC productions began to draw audiences beyond their membership and even from outside the Jewish community.
Following his required two years of military service, Golden was hired as the full-time director of the JCC’s drama department.
“I wasn’t Jewish, but I don’t think anybody knew. My first show after I took over was ‘Tevye’s Daughters’ and after that, everyone said, … Come on, you’re really Jewish,’” he said with a laugh.
The JCC moved to its Park Heights campus in 1960. Although its space wasn’t ideal for theatrical productions, said Golden, “we continued to perform, and Hal Gardner continued to review us. At some point, though, there were budgetary problems, and the JCC decided to drop its theater programming altogether. … I had always been impressed with the Arena Theater in D.C., and I wondered if we could start something like it in Baltimore,” Golden said.
Local television personality Rhea Feikin, one of Centerstage’s founders, was enthusiastic about the prospects for a new theater company.
“I knew Ed, and acted with him at Theater Hopkins. He also directed there. Anyone who worked with him knew he was a cut above. I don’t remember how it happened, but somehow, a group of us got together and said, …Wouldn’t it be great if we had a professional theater company in Baltimore?’” she said.
The Preston Street Years
Despite the fervor of Golden, Feikin and the other young actors, his idea was met with great resistance from the community at large.
“People said things like, … ‘Baltimore’s not a theater town, it’s a road-show town,’ and … ‘no one will come downtown,’” Golden recalled. “It took time, but I started fundraising, and I had come to know a lot of people. Eventually, I had raised $12,000.”
Golden said the donations came both from people of means who gave large sums and people who couldn’t afford more than $100 or $200 but wanted to support the endeavor. “There are a lot of people who really got this going and probably won’t get the credit they deserve.”
“It was rough in the beginning,” said Golden. “Getting equity actors to leave New York at that time was nearly impossible.”
But Golden persevered. He succeeded in luring an actor friend from Harvard named Colgate Salsbury. Thirty-some years later, he and Feikin were married. Actress Vivienne Shub also launched her professional career under Golden’s direction at Centerstage. Local actors like Leon Siegal, Nancy Lee Dix, Richard Dix, Ralph Piersanti and Ruth and Bob Walsh, were early company members and donors.
Golden found Centerstage’s first home on Preston Street in Baltimore City. The building, now the headquarters for Baltimore Theatre Project, had already been through several incarnations before Centerstage moved in. Previously, it had been a dance hall, as well as a recreation center for a Greek Orthodox Church. Golden hired the whimsically named Jolly Construction Company to reinvent the space as an arena-style theater. The theater opened in January 1963. “La Ronde,” by Arthur Schnitzler, was its first production.
“We each contributed a really little bit of money; the theater ran on a shoestring,” recalled Feikin, who app-eared in “La Ronde.” “Sometimes, there wasn’t enough money to pay the equity actors, and some generous … angels’ paid their salaries. It was sort of like those films with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney where they say, … ‘Hey, everybody, let’s put on a show!’
“It was so exciting! After opening nights, we would all go to this restaurant called Tyson Place and wait for the reviews to come out. And the reviewers were helpful and enthusiastic, and maybe more generous than we deserved. Everyone wanted us to succeed.”
Feikin’s post-theater career has inc-luded hosting WBAL-TV’s “Miss Rhea and Sunshine.” MPT’s “Artworks” and “MPT On Location.”
“When I think about what I’m proudest of in my life,” she said, “one of those things is being a founder of Centerstage.”
Golden served as artistic director for Centerstage for three years. Afterward, he started Theater Hopkins. After five seasons at Hopkins, Golden got married and moved back to Western Massachusetts. He earned a Ph.D. from Tufts, taught theater performance and directed countless productions over his 25 years as a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Nowadays, Golden is professor emeritus; he remains busy, continuing to teach seminars at UMass and directing plays at the New Century Theater in Northampton, Mass. He will even appear in a movie called “The God Problem” that he said is still in production.
“The thing is,” stressed Golden, “the Jewish community was behind Centerstage. The Baltimore …bluebloods’ couldn’t have cared less. A lot of what we were able to do was through my connections from the JCC,” said Golden.
Golden is not the only one who credits the Jewish community with making Centerstage possible. Current artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, who is English, recalled that prior to coming to the U.S., someone told him, “You’ve got to understand, the major givers come from the Jewish community. It’s the Jewish community that’s looking after the arts now.”
Kwei-Armah, who worked with the JCC’s managing director of arts and culture, Randi Benesch, in her previous position at Centerstage, said that they began talking about collaborations between Centerstage and the JCC as soon as she accepted her new post. “She said, … When can we boogie together?” Kwei-Armah reminisced. “This was one of the first dance numbers that came up.”
“Because Centerstage was born out of the JCC drama department, this is a perfect partnership,” said Benesch. “It’s beautiful because it brings Centerstage’s great programming to our theater. Now, people who may not have made the trip in recent years can come see performances right in their own backyards.” Benesch said it is also a way to introduce JCC arts and culture audiences to Centerstage and Centerstage audiences to the JCC. We will be sharing audiences in that regard, and we’re so honored to partner with them, since they offer such quality programming.”
As for the future of Centerstage, Kwei-Armah says he plans to spend the next decade “re-cementing our reputation, not only in Baltimore, but on the national landscape.” Kwei-Armah says he plans to continue Centerstage’s long history with the Jewish community. “When I came to Baltimore, one of the first things I wanted to do was to engage with the Jewish community. You gave us this gift; I want to keep you involved.”
“The Decade of Plays” will be performed on Mon., Jan. 28 at 7 p.m. at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills. A dessert reception will follow the performance. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit jcc.org/gcreg. For more information, call 410-559-3510 or email [email protected] center.com.