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A Dramatic Reprisal: Spotlight on Lincoln Street’s Little Theatre

It starts with a smash hit and roaring applause. Eleven members of the newly formed New Haven Theatre Guild join hands for a bow at Sprague Hall; audience members clap for their friends, family, and neighbors on stage. The curtains are drawn, but the crowd refuses to leave, instead erupting into a standing ovation for the community theater’s production of The Admirable Crichton.

On the following day, June 4, 1922, the New Haven Register declared: “Local Theatre Guild’s First Performance Gives Promise of Bright Future.” The front page included a picture of the cast, taken after their last performance of the weekend.

The black-and-white photo captures 11 cast members dressed in eclectic homemade costumes with faux jaguar pelts and assorted flowers; one boy sports larger-than-life fake sideburns glued to his cheeks. The Register’s report of the performance praised Ms. Archie Gile, who played the part of Lady Mary Lasenby, and Lewis P. Curtis, who played the Crichton, finally concluding that the “new amateur dramatic organization…will certainly produce more interesting plays.”

Little did the actors know that the New Haven Theatre Guild would soon live up to the report’s prediction: over the next century, the 11-member group would transform into a thousand-member guild. It would come to play a key role in the Little Theatre Movement, which has continued to define American community drama into the modern day. Over the next century, the Guild’s home at the Little Theatre on Lincoln Street would house hundreds of plays and face rises and falls, teetering on the brink of closure more than once. But the New Haven community’s consistent and fervent support helped the theater flourish at its sensational peaks and survive its tragic lows.

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“At last, we have a definite proposal in regard to a home for the little theater,” reads a 1924 letter from the Guild addressed to New Haven resident Ms. Clare Crawford. “As you may know,” it continued, “this is a critical period for the life of the guild. Its work may not continue without a permanent headquarters.”

In just its first two years, from 1922 to 1924, the Guild had rapidly expanded, accruing over 100 new members, and the group began pushing for a free-standing theater of its own to replace its previous temporary home in Sprague Hall. In his letters, Guild President William L. Phelps attributed this growth to the group’s new repertoire, which included British dramas such as Everyman and Gammer Gurton’s Needle, as well as community favorites like Alice in Wonderland and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The expansion of the Guild’s membership proved to be too much for Sprague, and the executive board of the newly renamed Little Theatre Guild soon set their eyes on collecting dues and pooling funds to construct a new, permanent home.

In 1924, they found their location: an oddly secluded cul-de-sac in a residential neighborhood on a side street off Hillhouse Avenue. There, the Guild built their theater and aptly named it the Little Theatre on Lincoln Street. It is now known simply as the Lincoln Theatre.

Today, the Little Theatre on Lincoln Street remains honest to its name. Surrounded by brick duplexes and small houses, the theater blends in with the surrounding environment almost too well. It has a simple peaked roof and a flat facade with a recessed semi-circle arch over its double doors. The only mark that  distinguishes it from the houses is a simple black-font banner that reads, “LITTLE LINCOLN THEATRE.”

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At its peak, the Guild was one of the most popular volunteer organizations in New Haven. It counted nearly 1,000 adults and over 130 children as members by 1930, according to the Register.

By 1934, the Guild produced its first official mission statement toward creating an “effective and lively community center for the arts.” A hand-drawn picture of the theater at the time accompanied the mailer and depicted the theater with a second story above its peaked roof, huge pine trees flanking its double doors, and flower beds out front. By the door, there once were huge display cases that would have held posters advertising performances. These cases were a far cry from the fliers for long-past performances in the singular steel-and-glass box by the door that I saw on my first visit. Somehow, sometime since this drawing was made, the Little Theatre had lost the life it had garnered from loyal patrons and thespians.

The theater’s archives offer a glimpse into some of the Lincoln Theatre’s most successful nights. After its first performances, for instance, the Guild hosted local beauty pageants and held a gypsy costume party in a local park. The theater eventually featured everything from starchy English plays to comedies like The Romantic Age by A. A. Miles and  He Who Gets Slapped by Leonid Andreyev, which came with an amazing collection of black-and-white pictures of boys dressed in whimsical clown costumes.

By 1934, the peak of its heyday, the Little Theatre on Lincoln had presented over 60 plays by many well-known authors, had established its own children’s theater, and was putting on five productions per season, with special classes for children in diction and speaking, puppetry, and eurythmics. Additionally, it had organized for two years a series of children’s orchestra concerts directed by professionals from the Yale School of Music, and it had started branching out to  foreign films from Europe at a price of one dollar per ticket.

It seemed that the Little Theatre on Lincoln was on track to become the Big Theatre on Lincoln. But soon enough, the community found it increasingly difficult to sustain the theater’s rapid growth. This was apparent to Mrs. Crawford, chairman of the Guild’s Reorganization Committee.

“The attempt to operate the Little Theatre without a guaranteed income, which was successful for the first ten years, has resulted for the last five years in massive deficits, which make it impossible to continue on the same basis,” Mrs. Crawford wrote.

In 1934, members of the executive committee, including Guild President William L. Phelps, Yale professor Jack Crawford, treasurer Harold Welch, and Mrs. Winthrop G. Bushnell, announced that the Little Theatre on Lincoln was going broke. The 1929 Great Depression was largely to blame: it forced most of the part-time Guild thespians to seek full-time jobs to put food on the table. Membership dropped, and so did members’ ability to pay dues. The Lincoln Theatre was losing about 4,000 dollars annually, which wasn’t an amount of money to take lightly in the 1930s—approximately 75,000 dollars by today’s standards. The theater tried enforcing dues on its dwindling membership, but the money just wasn’t there. No one had much of anything to contribute. In 1936, the Little Theatre, stripped of its former glory, was forced to close its doors.

Dilapidated and all but abandoned, the theater effectively disappeared from the public record until 1943, three years after the breakout of the Second World War. As the economy rebounded under the New Deal, the windows were stripped of boards, and the doors were reopened to the public. Ownership was transferred to the City of New Haven, and the theater was converted into a single-screen cinema under the Works Projects Act, according to the New Haven Herald.

It functioned as a repertory theater for wartime films that briefed the New Haven community on American victories and casualties abroad. Every couple of weeks, citizens of New Haven would pack into the theater and wait for the reel to spin a new account of the American effort to island-hop the Pacific or to fight the Nazis on the Western Front. Until 1945, the theater primarily operated in service of the war, until local actors finally reclaimed the space for occasional performances and films.

The theater had found its niche. For decades, it continued showing films, many made by small independent filmmakers in the U.S. or foreign film companies in postwar Europe. But, as the Little Theater’s life stretched into yet another decade, the 1980s, it faced another financial crisis. In 1982, the city had decided to stop supporting the financially-bankrupt theater and created a plan to demolish the building and sell the land to recover the building’s growing overhead deficit.

Headlines in local publications reflected a sense of impending loss. The Register reported, “Lincoln Flickers and then Shuts.” The Yale Daily News wrote, “Theater Faces Imminent Demolition.” Another article from the Register, in October 1982, read like a eulogy for the center: “Lincoln Theatre Flourished Nobly in its Prime.” Later, in the November 22, 1982 edition of The New Yorker, an article entitled “Lincoln,written by an unnamed Yale alumnus, detailed the Lincoln Theatre’s last performance prior to its scheduled demolition later that month. “The theater was as dingy as ever,” the article reads, “but what will we do without it?”

Management chose The Last Picture Show as the final film to be screened at the theater. It seemed an apt title to conclude the some “hundreds to a thousand” performances that one woman attributed to the theater in an interview for the East Rock Herald. On closing night in 1982, one man remembered the first time he visited the theater 30 years prior. “I feel as if I were attending my own funeral,” he told The New Yorker.

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That same weekend, community members, overwhelmed by emotion as they watched the final show, decided the theater’s time had not come yet. They formed a makeshift coalition to prevent, or at least delay, the theater’s seemingly imminent demolition.

Nearly 100 community members, patrons, and influential academics recognized the theater’s historic value and began sending letters to public officials, going to community meetings, protesting, and posting angry fliers. One of them read, “THE LINCOLN THEATRE OR LUXURY CONDOMINIUMS? THE CHOICE IS YOURS!”

Some hundred people signed petition after petition to nominate the building as a historic landmark.

The Lincoln Committee, as the newfound coalition was called, distributed a monthly paper titled “LINCOLN UPDATE” with vital information for the theater’s supporters. In one update from April 1983, the committee announced that the theater was on the brink of destruction. Bulldozers were already lining up at the end of Lincoln Street, staring down the street’s dead end at the little theater. But by the next update, the demolition had been delayed. Community members were organizing to research the building’s history and petitioning the National Register of Historic Places to ordain it a landmark worthy of protection.

On May 6, 1983, the coalition received a letter from a Mr. John Herzan, a certified “Historic Preservation Consultant.” The community had claimed its first major victory.

In his letter, Herzan, who worked for the United States Department of the Interior, detailed all the reasons the Little Theatre on Lincoln Street should be saved. Along with his letter, he submitted a three-inch thick report, including detailed sketches of the theater’s architecture, which was endorsed by architectural experts as being wholly unique to the theater and the theater’s architect, George H. Gray.

Quite valiantly, the report also stated that the Little Theatre “is, in effect, the last of its kind of a movement towards community theater that included theaters such as the Toy Theatre in Boston, the Little Theatre in New York, the Little Theatre in Chicago, and the remnants of the New York Theatre Guild.” The Lincoln Theater was a crucial part of a historic American movement, and Herzan recognized its significance. One playwright testified in the report that “the movement is credited with fostering the talent of such noted American playwrights as Eugene O’Neil, Elmer Rice, George S. Kaufman, Maxwell Anderson, and Robert E. Sherwood.”

Over the course of a century, the theater drew immeasurable artistic value not only from its performers but also from its set-builders and costume designers, its volunteers and fundraisers, and its friends and advocates who religiously attended its countless productions. With an army of New Haven community members backing it, no one could lay a finger on the Little Theatre on Lincoln. It was a historic monument, in all of its quaint glory. The Historical Committee, reveling in its victory, handed the theater over to the ACES-ECA Educational Center for the Arts, a private education venture that could more effectively manage the theater’s affairs.

Today, the theater lives off a 9.8 million dollar grant awarded by the Department of the Interior upon the theater’s addition to the National Register of Historic Places, a privilege bestowed upon other little American theaters in similar predicaments. The Little Theatre on Lincoln Street is still run and managed by ACES-ECA and is currently open for performances staged by community groups.

In March 1990, The New York Times celebrated the theater’s salvation: “The Lincoln Theatre, a 65-year-old former playhouse in New Haven, has dodged the wrecker’s ball…”

Nearly three decades later, I sat alone in the New Haven Museum. With photos laid out by year across a long table, articles and assorted columns matched with clippings of headlines, and drawings, maps, and sketches of the Little Theatre lined up on the side, I couldn’t fathom how the community would have been the same without this place.

“…in the best tradition of melodrama,” the Times went on, the Little Theatre on Lincoln “has been revived.”