One of the leading lights in New York theater of the early ’20s, as well as off-Broadway and in regional theater as an actor, director, producer and teacher for 50 years, was Hedgerow founder Jasper Deeter.
Hedgerow Theatre has, since its inception, defined a tradition of dedicated excellence. From the 1923 performance of Candida that marked the theatre’s opening and throughout his tenure with the company, Deeter’s drive to maintain the standards of professionalism and artistry which he developed in New York City and brought to rural Pennsylvania set the stage for greatness to come. His determination to overcome any obstacle in the quest to produce great theatre is summarized in his statement, “We’ll have a theatre if we have to play in the hedgerows.” The company found a home instead in a converted 1840s grist mill.
Dr. Ruth Deeter, an osteopath, came to live in Will Price’s Rose Valley Arts & Crafts
Community and joined the chorus. In 1922, her younger brother, Jasper, a New York actor/director who had been active with the Provincetown Playhouse, discovered “Artsman’s Hall” while visiting his sister and watching her sing the role of Katisha in a production of The Mikado. Disillusioned with the theatre in New York, Jasper founded a resident theatre in Rose Valley. His purpose was to build a place where theatre artists might work together to produce fine plays; “where their freedom to create would be restricted only by the limitations of their own skills and imagination.”
Deeter, born in 1893 in Mechanicsburg, PA, was an anomaly in the course of American success stories. The grandson of an auto parts magnate, he came from a family of achievers; one of his sisters was the National Director of the Girl Scouts of America. He seemed the least likely to succeed, as he was expelled from Dickinson College and went through several failed attempts at a career, including a stint as a newspaper cub reporter. In 1914, at age 21, Deeter had gone through several career paths, failing at each of them. After seeing actor James O’Neill in The Count of Monte Cristo, he turned to acting. He soon moved into leading roles and received rave reviews for his portrayal of Ned Malloy in the play Exorcism. Deeter became great friends with the author, James’ son Eugene.
Deeter not only portrayed Smithers in the original production of The Emperor Jones at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, but was responsible for convincing O’Neill to cast a black actor in the title role, rather than a white actor in blackface, which had been his original intention and the custom of the era. The result was a breakthrough work in American theater on a multitude of levels that transcended the theater. Deeter and O’Neill parted company, however, over the decision to move the play uptown, rather than keeping it at the playhouse in Greenwich Village, as Deeter urged, and using it as the basis for establishing a repertory company; he felt O’Neill and the producers were squandering the chance to build something that could last for many years longer than the simple Broadway run of a play.
It was at this point that Deeter headed to Philadelphia and Rose Valley. With $10 in his pocket, he decided to pursue the theatre on his terms. Having visited his sister in bucolic Rose Valley and liking the area, he decided this was where he’d start his company. Thus was formed Hedgerow Theatre Company, America’s first repertory theatre. Deeter’s company has been in operation since 1923 and is now the most long-lived regional theater company in the United States and the world.
Deeter made a brief return to New York and then headed back to Rose Valley with seven actors, some blue cheesecloth, 16 light bulbs, some wood paneling, $9.00, and the idea of an independent repertory theatre. Sydney Matchet, Grete Mylecraine, Herbert Walton, Elenore Abbott, Dorothy Kite, Takashe Otha, Judge L. Stauffer, William Price and Margaret Scott Oliver helped make Hedgerow a reality. That first “season,” Deeter presented three plays Guild Hall: Tickless Time by Susan Glaspell & George Cram, Fame & the Poet by Lord Dunsay and Glaspell’s Trifles.
The early core company consisted of Leni Stengel, (the wife of a famed Hungarian actor), Ann Harding (who went on to fame in films), Virginia Farmer, Allyn Joslyn and Alexander Kirkland, all of whom were major actors in New York. It is believed that Dorothy Kite thought up the name “Hedgerow” in her Rose Valley kitchen, although later legend will credit Ann Harding. Others say the theatre’s name comes from Deeter’s quote about “playing in the Hedgerows” if no place else was available. The theatre’s repertory of plays grew to more than 200 plays; season after season aspiring actors, technicians, designers, and playwrights from all over the country came out to the Hedgerow to work with, learn from, and study with Deeter, living in conditions akin to a summer camp and on a minimal living stipend.
Then, after the crash of 1929, the Great Depression descended upon the country; most of Philadelphia’s were forced to close their doors. Yet Hedgerow soldiered on, with company members growing their own food and even raising sheep. Artistically, the theatre continues to grow as well: twelve plays were added to the repertory that year. However, some members leave as the struggle becomes too great—others take their places and the work goes on. The theater’s teaching programs usually tied them over in the lean times and helped keep ticket prices down, but when the going got tough, as it often did during the 1930s, Deeter’s friend, O’Neill, would provide them with one or another of his plays to pull in large audiences and get the bills paid.
Over the years, the Hedgerow became the theatrical equivalent of the “little engine that could,” pulling in aspiring theater professionals including such future luminaries as Everett Sloane, Richard Basehart, Ann Harding, and Henry Jones. The company enjoyed a reputation rivaling the best off-Broadway acting companies, despite its being several hours’ driving “off” of Broadway, Hedgerow was respected by theater producers and playwrights throughout the country and around the world. Theatre students from far and wide gravitated to the small theatre with its “honest” mission.
A 1937 TIME Magazine notes in an article entitled “Straw Hat Season” in their July 5 edition that “Well above average [summer theatre] is Deeter’s Hedgerow Theatre at Moylan, Pa., ten miles out of Philadelphia. Deeter is a disorderly looking individualist who prefers that his actors remain as anonymous as possible. An oldtime Provincetown Player, he was the original Smithers in The Emperor Jones. Fourteen years ago he took over an old stone mill near Moylan. His troupe gets no reward besides its board and lodging; their names do not appear in the program. Under these circumstances, Ann Harding is almost the only Hedgerow alumna who has attracted much attention. However, Producer Deeter’s year-long repertory (30 plays) is appreciated by Philadelphia playgoers and this summer he will give his fourth and greatest Shaw Festival. From July 19 to Aug. 14, Hedgerow will present eleven Shavian works from Arms & the Man to Too True to Be Good. It is billed as the first time any theatre has ever presented 40 years of a living playwright’s work.”
For the first time in America Shaw’s Man & Superman is performed in its entirety—from 7:30 to 12:30 with coffee and sandwiches at 11:00. Hedgerow, for a number of years, held America’s only Shaw Festival, producing 19 of his plays. It was also during this time period that the 200th performance of O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones was staged. Actor Richard Basehart joined Hedgerow in the 1930s as well; he would be a company member through 1942, playing over 25 different roles in repertory.
In 1942, Hedgerow Theatre became a partnership—14 members equally owned the theatre and its physical properties: a 156-seat theatre, a large farmhouse with several acres, two station wagons, a truck and several thousand dollars worth of theatrical equipment. In that same year, the Board of Governors established as the executive body of the Partnership; in addition, a non-resident company with its own political organization and representation was created and there was more democratic function throughout.
On the artistic front, the Hedgerow Theatre School of Expression was founded in Philadelphia by Deeter and director/actress/teacher Rose Schulman in the mid-40s as World War II was starting. The famous philosopher Scott Nearing, a protégé of Deeter, taught at the school. During the War, Hedgerow managed to tour extensively and entertain audiences in need of an escape from long working hours and bad news.
By 1956 however, the Hedgerow company had hit another financial crisis and was forced to temporarily close its doors. It was around that time that producer Jack H. Harris was putting together the production of his first feature film, originally to be called “The Molten Meteor,” in tandem with director Irvin S. Yeaworth and a small film studio that also happened to be in Pennsylvania. That film, released in 1958, became known as “The Blob”, and a number of Hedgerow company members made appearances. Among them was Deeter. Two-thirds of the way through The Blob (1958), when the teenagers (led by Steve McQueen) decide to wake the town up to the danger they face, they set off sirens, and the action cuts to one old man who doesn’t know whether to wear his volunteer fireman’s helmet or his civil defense helmet. The film has since gained cult status.
Harris ended up hiring many of the Hedgerow actors, including John Benson and George Karas, to play lead and supporting roles in the movie. It worked out so well that, a year later—with the Hedgerow company up and running again—Harris and Yeaworth used the Hedgerow players and Deeter himself again, this time in the larger role of Mr. Welles, the laboratory owner, in 4D Man. Those two screen vignettes aside, Deeter never aspired to movie work. During the 1960s, he was regarded as an elder statesman of the theater and a respected teacher, though he was so unpretentious and so iconoclastic in his approach to living, he would have been amused at that description of himself.
Deeter’s legacy still lives on more than 90 years after starting his theatre company as a healthy, growing and productive Hedgerow Theatre.