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HEY, MR. PRODUCER: Playhouse founder Robert Ludlum speaks to the opening night audience, September 1962.
Posted: Monday January 9, 2012, 3:27 PM
By Glenn Garvie for (201) Magazine

The show’s producer stepped before the curtain, and the crowd went silent. The man cleared his throat and smiled at the audience. Five-hundred-plus faces stared back at him – smiling but sweaty faces –  each with a look of anticipation of what the next few hours would bring.

In a deep, resonant voice, and sounding a bit like Orson Welles introducing the Mercury Theater of the Air, the man thanked the audience for being there. They were to be a part of something new, the first of its kind, a revolutionary experiment in the world of live theater.

And, as with all experiments, some things that night were less than perfect.

“We’re 98-percent ready,” the man told the crowd. “But that’s even more than many expected when they saw us here Tuesday night.”

But, hey, that’s show biz. The chairs in the auditorium were last-minute substitutes. The real seats went missing two days earlier, somewhere around Indianapolis. The air-conditioning units were malfunctioning, which explained the heat. Yet, the enthusiastic crowd didn’t seem to mind.

There was a curtain, and a make-shift stage, and cast of performers waiting in the wings to begin the virgin voyage that June night in 1960. To great applause, the man exited his spot on the apron, and, in that moment, he launched the Playhouse on the Mall (or the North Jersey Playhouse, as it was known that night), the nation’s first professional theater owned by, and located in, a shopping mall.

The man in front of the curtain was Robert Ludlum.

Previously an actor, at that time a theatrical producer living in Leonia, and 10 years prior to becoming one of the world’s most popular novelists, Ludlum was the driving force behind the theater’s first (and only) decade of success.

Thanks to Ludlum, the Playhouse would present countless productions, which collectively featured a roster of celebrities so impressive it boggles the mind:

Maureen O’Sullivan, Gloria Swanson, Sylvia Sidney, Joan Fontaine, Shelley Winters, James Whitmore, Alan Alda, Roy Scheider, Jose Ferrer, Martin Sheen, Dana Andrews, Celeste Holm, Martha Raye, Barry Nelson, Joan Bennett, Hans Conried, Betty White and Allen Ludden, Ed McMahon, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Tippi Hedren, Gisele MacKenzie, Hal Linden, Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Page, Julie Newmar, Molly Picon, Jackie Mason, Herschel Bernardi, Dick Shawn, Bert Lahr, Bert Parks, Arlene Francis, Dyan Cannon, and Tony LoBianco, to name just a few.

And it all happened in Paramus, at the Bergen Mall.

To make it happen, the persuasive, smooth-talking Ludlum courted celebrities, appeased investors and guaranteed the impossible whenever necessary. So long as the show would go on.

“Paramus had its own P.T. Barnum,” says longtime resident Richard Compagnone, who, with his twin brother John, were hired at 19 as production assistants under Ludlum’s supervision. “He would promise the moon,” he adds, and often had to make good on it.

Ludlum had offered Joan Bennett a car ride back and forth to her apartment during the run of the show, Compagnone says. “But, there was no car.”

So Ludlum called on Richard and John, telling them to "get a car." The boys ran out to find an auto dealer who would believe their story and loan them "a big car" for two weeks. After some smooth talking – to a car salesman – they returned with a brand-new 1964 Chrysler Imperial.

More than a week later, Richard got a call from his big brother on the Paramus police force, asking if they had signed out a car, because it was on the hot list. If Joan Bennett only knew.

But potential felonies aside, it was Ludlum’s "Harold Hill" persona that got the Playhouse off the ground in the first place.

When the Bergen Mall opened in November 1957, Ludlum’s stage productions were treading the boards at the Grant Lee theater in Fort Lee. But the young producer was eager to find a more attractive venue; the new mall seemed ideal, and to make that happen, the perfect pitch was necessary.

So, Ludlum met with B. Earl Puckett, chairman of Allied Stores, parent company to Stern’s department store and owners of the new shopping center, to sell the idea of building a  legitimate theater into their mall plans.

Theaters will attract more consumers, Ludlum reasoned, suggesting that within each new mall that Allied built (they proposed building nine more), there should be a theater. "Bob [Ludlum] told them that the future of American retailers is the mall," says George Sibbald, who, from age 16, worked at the Playhouse from its earliest days. “He was a flamboyant bullsh**ter."

Allied bit at the offer. They allowed the North Jersey Playhouse company to set up shop in the mall’s West Exhibition Hall, with the intent to eventually fund construction of a theater in that same space.

The troupe’s summer season of 1960 in the temporary hall – folding chairs and all – was a financial success, primarily because Ludlum signed a respectable stable of both Broadway and Hollywood stars to appear for Bergen audiences. Plus, he was able to recruit high school kids who would work for pennies. Well, maybe not pennies.

"I made $15 a week," says Harriet Hyman Alonso, a Paramus High School student whose "apprenticeship" had her helping build and decorate designer Robert Conley’s sets.

The apprentices at the Playhouse, Ludlum told The Ridgewood Sunday News that August, have a unique opportunity to learn from the great stars and the Broadway professionals because of the close contact and the friendly atmosphere prevailing in the theater.

“They had what they called strike night,” Alonso remembers, "when you’d take down the show’s set, and you put up the set for the one coming in. You would be there until 1 or 2 in the morning. My mother would sometimes bring in food for everybody."

That first season included: the premiere production, The Golden Fleecing starring Hal March; Visit to a Small Planet with Arthur Treacher (who seemed to always mispronounce the town’s name as "Parra-muss"); Mr. Roberts with Alan King; Inherit the Wind with Walter Abel (and Ludlum himself, somewhat typecast, in the E.K. Hornbeck role, played by Gene Kelly in the film version); and My Sister Eileen with Pat Carroll, of Tenafly.

Actress Shelley Winters found herself in a conflict of scheduling that summer: she could either appear with Al Morgenstern in Two for the Seesaw in Paramus or shoot The Young Savages alongside Burt Lancaster in Hollywood. Amazingly, Winters chose to do both. Her autobiography chronicles those weeks:

"I arrived at the Twentieth Century-Fox Studios in Hollywood," Winters writes, "and, lo and behold, the courtroom set was on Stage 27, and next door on 26 was the set of Seesaw, built exactly to the theater specifications … In between shooting I would go to the next stage and rehearse Seesaw with some Hollywood actor and with Sydney Pollack directing. Sydney was then [John] Frankenheimer’s dialogue director. Al Morgenstern would be rehearsing in New Jersey with some New York actress and with Frank Corsaro directing. Sydney and Frank would consult each other on the phone every hour or so to see if they were giving the actors the same blocking and direction.

"… I had to fly to Newark and get a motorcycle escort from the airport to Paramus … and the first time I did Seesaw with Al Morgenstern was Paramus’ opening night. It was perhaps my best performance on any stage."

Around this time, outside in the mall’s promenade, adjacent to the Playhouse lobby, an odd-looking man named Jack Roy, an out-of-work stand-up comic from Englewood, sat waiting for a customer. As Playhouse patrons passed, he would call out, offering them great deals on aluminum siding. Roy soon abandoned that career, and not long after, changed his name and became legendary comedian Rodney Dangerfield. Ironically, he never returned to perform at the Playhouse.

After a winter hiatus, the Playhouse’s 1961 summer season commenced, and ended, without a new theater. Through Ludlum’s persistence, and a box office study that revealed 30,000 playgoers had attended the company’s performances,  Allied Stores agreed, in February 1962, to build an 11,000-square-foot, 635-seat theater which would replace the exhibition hall. Architect Drew Eberson, a movie theater designer with hundreds of buildings to his credit, was hired to design the interior. (The result was more of a movie theater layout than a Broadway-style stage theater.)

By April, construction was underway, and the official opening night of the Playhouse on the Mall was set for Sept. 18. Ticket sales were brisk and selling out.

Opening night was a local spectacular. Searchlights criss-crossed the sky as celebrated personalities, both local and national, arrived for the gala. Actresses Celeste Holm, Peggy Wood and Margaret Truman were all impressed by the new theater, as were actors Walter Abel, Hal March and former child star Dickie Moore, now acting as public relations director of Actors Equity. Elsewhere in the sparkling red and gold lobby were Peter Sammartino, president of Fairleigh Dickinson University; Archie F. Hay Jr., superintendent of Bergen County Schools; and Eberson, the architect, who was now credited with designing the first legitimate theater built on the east coast in more than 20 years.

A long round of applause greeted Ludlum as he stepped before the golden curtain for introductory remarks, a moment reminiscent of a similar presentation in the same room 27 months earlier. But how that room had changed. Gone were the steel-framed canvas chairs on risers, the temporary partitions, the unpredictable climate control, the frivolous green-and-white color scheme. This place was ready for the big time, and nothing short of Ludlum losing interest in the project, could ruin the possibilities of success.

The excitement of the concept carried through into the opening remarks from Allied Stores’ chairman Puckett. He praised his new theater and, especially, its ideal location. His firm, he said, predicted Bergen County “to be the coming city of the East.” In some respects, he wasn’t far off.

At 9:08 p.m., after nearly 30 minutes of expository commentary, the play finally became the thing.

The premier production would run through Oct. 7. It showcased longtime radio and TV actor Frank Lovejoy reviving his Broadway turn in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, with wife Joan Banks in a supporting role, and Shepperd Strudwick and his wife, Margret O’Neill, as well as the reliable Leon Janney, from Teaneck, filling out the cast.

Ludlum’s venture was proving a financial success, but he had troubles backstage.  

Lovejoy was a terror, fighting with stagehands and verbally abusing anyone who slipped up. He was especially vicious the night of Sept. 30, recalls Richard Compagnone, who worked props that night. When rotating between the two sets, he says, a desk had to be slid out of the way so the second set’s door would open, Compagnone remembers. That night, it didn’t happen, and for Lovejoy, the door wouldn’t open. Backstage, he turned red with rage and spit expletives at the person responsible.

Ludlum’s phone rang the next morning. Lovejoy was dead. He’d had a heart attack in his Manhattan apartment. Though it solved one problem, it created another. There were six more days to go in the run of the show.

On extremely short notice, actor Ralph Meeker came to the rescue for the remaining performances, and with obviously no time memorize Lovejoy’s lines, performed with script in hand.

For the remainder of the season, Ludlum followed up his boffo premiere with one outstanding production after another. Among them, Pat O’Brien appeared in Father of the Bride; Steven Douglass and Helen Merritt in the theater’s first musical presentation, Carousel; Linda Darnell, Franklin Cover and Teaneck’s Philip Bosco in Critic’s Choice, and Celeste Holm, Wesley Addy and James Farentino in Invitation to a March.

“The talent that was there was incredible,” Richard Compagnone insists. “Franklin Cover had just been at the White House playing Macbeth for Kennedy, and here we were, trying to make a prop beef stroganoff for him to have onstage.

“But, really, we didn’t know who these people were. I was 19 years old. I didn’t know who Gloria Swanson was. But today, I think, wow, she was with Kennedy’s father. I watch a lot of old movies today, and when I see these people it still surprises me.”

“My parents loved the theater so I was an autograph collector,” says Harriet Hyman Alonso. But when Margaret Truman came to perform in 1961, “I was told she’s not easy to get along with, but she was very nice and I got along with her very, very well. Then the announcement comes that her father was coming to the show. ‘Nobody is to ask for his autograph,’ they said. Margaret Truman turned to me, and said ‘I know you want my father’s autograph, so put your autograph book under my pillow on my cot in the dressing room, so when he comes in, I can have him sign it.’ And he did. ‘To Harriet, from Harry Truman,’ it says.”

But pure star power was only one ingredient in Ludlum’s recipe for success. He felt that alternating the revivals with original works and pre-Broadway tryouts gave his audiences a wide-variety of offerings. On Jan. 8, 1963, he helmed the U.S. premiere of Murray Schisgal’s double-bill, The Typist and The Tiger, starring Eli Wallach, which went on to Broadway for 200 performances.

With only few disappointing productions along the way, the Playhouse chugged its way through the rest of the decade, resurrecting bygone stars and introducing some incredible new talents like Leonia’s Alan Alda.

George Sibbald remembers Ludlum pushing to get Alda into a show. When asked “What’s this Alan Alda guy like?”, Ludlum answered, “He’s Orson Bean, with balls.”

Alda ultimately headlined there no fewer than six times. His big splash came with the 1964 production of The Owl and the Pussycat; after Paramus, the show moved to Broadway for a full year.

When there were some bumps in the road, Ludlum and company had ways of recovering quickly.

Richard Compagnone says, “Arlene Francis would come in whenever things were bad. For some reason, she always brought them in.”

“She had terrible skin, very big pores, so she always needed lots of makeup. And she always got this special gel on the lights. They called it Du Barry Pink. After all that, the curtain would come up, she would look fantastic, and the whole audience would gasp because she looked that good.”

Compagnone continues, “But she was very particular about things. One time we needed a coffee table for the set and we went out to Englewood and borrowed this $3,000 coffee table, and set it up. It had all little mirrors all over it. Well, Arlene Francis comes out and takes one look at it and says, ‘That’s got to go.’”

But when a show is a turkey in Paramus, the “land of the turkey,” Bergen audiences knew it.

In April 1965, comedian Jackie Mason was set to star in a pre-Broadway tryout of Bernard Kops new play, Enter Solly Gold. But the first two shows were cancelled. Ludlum told reporters it was so Mason could “honor long-standing personal appearance engagements,” though when it finally opened, Mason’s performance was uneven, and a quarter of the audience walked out.

The second night, Mason faltered again, and the audience became restless. During the third act, he began to drop lines and revert to impromptu monologues. At one point, Mason looked at the audience and said, “This is the Sullivan show all over again,” a reference to an on-air squabble he had months earlier with Ed Sullivan over a gesture he had made.

Minutes before the final curtain, he broke character, and apologized to the audience by saying, “This is a brilliant play and I don’t want to louse it up.” With that, he walked off.

Ludlum had never seen anything like it. “He panicked in the last two minutes,” he said.

Mason wasn’t the only ad-libber to appear at the Playhouse.

“Henny Youngman did a show there,” Compagnone remembers. “But he was driving the cast crazy by messing up the show to stop and tell jokes. It got so bad that they called an Actor’s Equity hearing one afternoon between shows to make him stop.”

Through all the high comedy, popular musicals, experimental one-act plays and old-standbys, the Playhouse’s most sure-fire, guaranteed hit came in October 1965 in the seductively-clad form of ex-striptease artist Ann Corio. As creator and director, Corio’s revue, This Was Burlesque, resuscitated the long-gone Minsky days of baggy-pants comics, tuxedoed tenors and fan dancers. Previously a hit on Broadway, Burlesque came to the Playhouse and never really left.

Musician Rod Ruth, of Allendale, played in the Playhouse orchestra, starting with its first musical, Carousel, in 1962. He later became the theater’s music contractor. “The pit was kind of strange. It was off to the side, not in front like you would normally have. The only separation between us and the rest of the audience was a tiny bit of curtain. I could see out toward the house and see how full the house it was. And with Corio, there were so many times, there wasn’t a seat to be had.”

Each year, Corio and her line-up of burly-cuties would arrive again, usually in January, and stay for the entire month. (In later years, actress Adrienne Barbeau was one of the chorus dancers.)

By the late 1960s, with the cost of producing plays and maintaining the theater on the rise, Ludlum slowly became disenchanted. Profits were dwindling. His stable of movie and stage veterans was starting to wane, and the TV actors were demanding higher rates than it was possible to pay.

Ludlum paid his stars an average of $2,000 to $2,500 a week. Popular TV stars were demanding up to three times that plus expenses.

Then, in June 1970, after a 10-year run at the Bergen Mall, Ludlum announced his resignation.

“I’m going to try something new,” he told Rod Ruth. “I’m going to try my hand at some writing.”

“He never looked back,” says George Sibbald. “His theater days were over.”

“I was quite bored with the theater,” Ludlum later told an interviewer. “Because in those days, theater was really real estate. Totally real estate. And if you put on something of any real quality, you could shoot moose in the lobby. And I was really getting a little discouraged about all that.”

Six weeks later, 28-year-old George Brown was assigned by mall officials to produce. Brown had been working under Ludlum’s wing for many years, and stuck close to the existing formula. But Ludlum’s was a tough act to follow. Brown’s initial choice of material produced miserable box office, and even spawned hate mail and canceled subscriptions.

The 1971 summer season under Brown fared better, but he apparently did not feel up to the task. He resigned via handwritten letter to the mall administrators on Jan. 28, 1972, effective immediately.

In the mall bookstore, copies of Robert Ludlum’s first novel, The Scarlatti Inheritance, were lining the shelves.

Brown’s former assistant, Mary Ellyn Devery, was next to be named producer. That was in June.

Devery attempted to stray from the norm by bringing in off-beat line-ups, like Bette Midler and improv groups, which may not have sat well with mall management.

She was released in November.

Her successor was Perry Bruskin, who took the reins on Nov. 9, 1972. Bruskin was a stage veteran with 35 years experience both in front of and behind the curtain. With the exception of the three-week Burlesque show keeping finances momentarily afloat, box office sales were thinning. Production costs were rising, royalty rates were skyrocketing. It was calculated that each production needed 90 percent attendance to break even.

One notable production of Bruskin’s 1975 season was A Little Night Music. Dorothy Collins lead the cast (which included a young Beth Fowler). One evening, the composer-lyricist and original producer, Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince, were in attendance. Because Collins was in the show, they were breaking one of their firm rules – seeing one of their shows over which they had no control.

After the performance, Sondheim and Prince walked down to the orchestra. Rod Ruth was packing up his clarinet.

“‘We didn’t realize it would sound so well with such a small orchestra,’” Ruth remembers Sondheim telling him. “I was honored. Really floored.”

Bruskin closed the theater for the summer – the first time in its history. He followed this routine for the next three years, but by the summer of 1976, Allied Stores was through with managing the venue. They leased the space to businessman Mike Iannucci, who, besides being a former linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was, not coincidentally, the husband of burlesque queen Corio.

Iannucci’s first production was, you guessed it, This Was Burlesque, followed by a spotty schedule of variety and pre-packaged touring shows. Some weeks, there was nothing booked and the house remained dark. Some shows pulled in only 100 patrons.

In early 1979, Allied was taking legal action against Iannucci, charging that he was behind on his rent and in breach of contract. Iannucci and Corio were through.

For almost two years, the Playhouse remained dark until the Center Stage Company stepped in with a revival of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth.

Headed by Charlz Herfurth of Bogota, Center Stage was an amalgam of Bergen out-of-work actors being paid by the government’s Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. Low attendance forced the company to fold after 22 months.

In February 1986, Allied announced that the space would be closed for good that June and be converted into retail space.

“The theater is obsolete,” said an Allied vice president.

After hearing the news, Ludlum, from his Florida home, told The Record, “I’m astonished the place is still in operation. I’m sorry to hear about any theater’s closing, but it’s so long ago now.”

Ludlum died March 12, 2001.

Today, all traces of the Playhouse are gone; the Bergen Mall has been revitalized into the Bergen Town Center, and, in place of the gleaming searchlights that once beckoned ticketholders to see a performance by Frank Lovejoy, there is the neon glow of a Nike shoe store.

Ludlum was right. The future of the American retailer was the mall.

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