The Erie Playhouse is one of the oldest community theatres in the nation, founded in 1916 by Henry B. Vincent. Vincent, former musical director at Chautauqua, began by organizing interested friends in amateur theatrics. These informal performances were staged in the old Chamber of Commerce rooms in the Reed Hotel on North Park Row.
Opening night was January 18, 1916. A capacity crowd of 99 persons sat on funeral chairs to watch three short plays: I’m Going, Galatea of the Toy Shop and Sunset.
The Little Theatre, as it was called, operated successfully until May 1918, when World War I brought about the end of this community theatre after two seasons.
After the war, the same passionate few regrouped and remodeled the old Brass Works (current location of the YMCA) with help from local businessmen. Now named The Community Playhouse, they opened to the public on March 25, 1919. There was no admission charge – just a barrel in the lobby inscribed “the future tale of the Playhouse,” where patrons tossed in coins.
In 1927 the Playhouse was asked to leave the building to make room for the boy’s addition to the YMCA. From December 25, 1927 to February 14, 1928, nightly performances were held in the Columbia Theatre, on West 8th Street.
During this time Mr. Vincent campaigned throughout the city of Erie to build a permanent home for the Playhouse. On a snowy January evening a full house of 300 patrons attended the opening production, The Queen’s Husband, in the new theatre at 128 West 7th Street. In this new facility they began presenting full-length plays.
In 1940, Henry Vincent initiated the children’s theatre, which offered apprenticeships to interested students, some of whom went on to the professional ranks.
In 1941 director and visionary Henry B. Vincent died suddenly. The Playhouse continued, thereby respecting the wishes of its founder, that there would never be an "interruption in the progress of his favorite brain child – the Playhouse."
The Playhouse next suffered the effects of Word War II and was dark from December 1942 until April 1946 when it reopened with Blithe Spirit.
L. Newell Tarrant came to Erie in 1946 to have a long and successful run as director until 1962.
For financial reasons the Playhouse sold their permanent home to Gannon University, who used it as a theatre for many years. The theatre was razed in the 1990’s to make room for improvements at the school.
In 1962 Newell Tarrant accepted a position in Hawaii, and the Playhouse was once again without a leader and a home. Led by Marty Ditzel, the board of directors secured a home at the Penn Theatre in Wesleyville and hired Bill Cohen as director.
David Matthews was hired as Business Manager and assumed leadership of the Playhouse in 1972.
Fire regulations closed the Wesleyville site in January of 1975 and the Playhouse was without a home once again.
Not one to let a little thing like “no theatre” stop him, Matthews gathered his gypsies and they traveled from Fairview High School to Iroquois High School and to McDowell Intermediate School for the ensuing years.
On December 31, 1983 Annie opened the newest and current home of the Erie Playhouse at 13 West 10th St. Formerly the Strand Theatre, the Erie Playhouse is now home to over 20 plus productions of plays, musicals, special events and Youtheatre shows every year.
With a budget of over $1 million dollars, a staff of eleven full-time theatre professionals, a dedicated support group known as The Wing, and hundreds of volunteers, the Erie Playhouse can proudly boast "we are the busiest community theatre in Pennsylvania."
In 2006 David Matthews retired after 34 years as Managing Director, and Almitra Clerkin took over the helm as Executive Director at the Erie Playhouse.
Over the years, many theatrical luminaries and personalities have appeared on the Erie Playhouse stage: Ned Beatty, Anne B. Davis, Dom Deluise, Henderson Forsythe, Rocky Graziano, David Green, Cris Groenendaal, Frank Langella, Walter Mattheau, Rue McClanahan, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Sada Thompson, Jessica Walter, Ann Wedgeworth and Michael Patrick King, just to name several.