A brief history of the Cumberland Theatre
–(with sincere apologies to anyone inadvertently omitted)
The Cumberland Theatre, celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2012, is a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization entirely owned and operated by its volunteer Board of Trustees. These members of the community (listed on the Cast page) dedicate invaluable time and resources to the funding and operating of the theatre. Other volunteers support the theatre by serving on various committees and by working as front of house staff.
In the beginning...
The Cumberland Summer Theatre was initiated as a project of Frostburg State University, becoming independent of the University in its fourth season. It was started when President Herb Reinhard wished to revive the dormant summer theater program at the University. A member of the University's theatre faculty, Professor David Press, convinced President Reinhard that the university could help spark regional economic reinvigoration if the theatre was located in or near downtown Cumberland, and if it was a professional theatre associated with the university. President Reinhardt appointed Dr. Press to organize it with the assistance of Dean Philip Allen. Enthusiastically backed by President Reinhard, the two became the nucleus of the university/ government/ community team that started the theatre. In the initial season, Press, the Artistic Director also served as producing director. In the second season, Allen was made Executive Director and assumed the producer's role with Press serving under him as the Artistic Director.
Dr. Philip Allen, with the assistance of President Reinhard and Dr. Press, established a Board of Trustees chaired by Shirley Giarritta. The Board consisted of representatives from the University, County and City administration members, local businesses, and interested area residents. Tremendous effort and tireless fund-raising resulted in the incorporation of the Cumberland Summer Theatre in 1987.
In 1988 & 1989, the fledgling organization staged summer seasons of rotating repertory theatre. In the initial season, Press, the Artistic Director also served as producer. In the second season, Allen was named Executive Director and assumed general management and producing functions with Press serving under him as Artistic Director. In the third season, Mr. Pat Julian was engaged, becoming the first year around, full time Producing Director and general manager for the theatre on the Downtown Mall.
In 1991, Dr. & Mrs. Nicholas Giarritta purchased, and with assistance from the State of Maryland, renovated an empty church building on Johnson Street, the current home of the Cumberland Theatre. With Dr. Giarritta as General Manager, the new Cumberland Theatre and Creative Arts Center opened featuring a sold out production of the musical Nunsense starring Denise Lor, directed by Don Whisted, the theatre’s Artistic Director.
Mr. Whisted has been the Artistic Director of the Cumberland Theatre since 1991 and has produced and/or directed over 100 productions.
In 2003, at the opening night performance of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Sweeney Todd", the auditorium was christened "The Nicholas and Shirley Giarritta Playhouse" to commemorate their many contributions to the theatre throughout its history.
The Board was delighted in 2003 when distinguished stage, Emmy Award winning, and Academy Award nominated actor William H. Macy honored the theatre by agreeing to serve on the Board of Trustees.
From FROSTBURG to CUMBERLAND :
REMINISCENCES of The CUMBERLAND THEATRE’S GRAVITY SHIFT
· In 1986-87, during his first year as president, Herb. Reinhard was urged by Dr. Nicholas and Shirley Giarritta to apply Frostburg State’s resources to help invigorate cultural activity in Cumberland. The Giarrittas’ prominence in professional, business, and social circles conveyed the necessary communal credibility for any such project.
· Dr. Reinhard was also aware of David Press’s interest in resuming what he and colleagues had achieved at the Blue Barn Theatre in Garrett County. Professor of Theatre at the university (and a longtime resident of Cumberland), Dr. Press had access to indispensable networks of professional and local contacts to build casts, companies, and crews for CST productions.
· It soon became clear that the preeminent need for cultural stimulation in Cumberland would be best served through a professional theater, starting as a summer operation, with eventual prospects for year-round activity, educational, and other purposes.
· Hence, those four people – Shirley and Nick Giarritta, David Press, and Herb. Reinhard -- are responsible for generating a regional theater partnership that has endured for twenty-five years.
· On July 6, 1987 (just as Frostburg State was officially transformed from college to university), Dr. Reinhard called an initial meeting of key “town-gown” leaders, including Nick and Shirley, to endorse the project. Having just arrived at Frostburg, I was assigned by Dr. Reinhard to organize the institution and to maintain the link with the Cumberland community.
· Once the Cumberland Summer Theatre was incorporated with a 501.C.3 tax exemption, the first Board of Trustees included Shirley Giarritta as chair, accompanied (inter alia) by Mayor George Wyckoff, County Selectman Tom Wilk, State Delegate Betty Workman, businessman Mort Peskin, and State development officer David Edgerley. FSU was represented on the Board by Dr. Reinhard, who was subsequently able to add two of his vice-presidents as non-voting members.
· From the outset, the University provided housing, transportation, critically important shop, wardrobe, and prop facilities, and some key personnel – David Press as artistic director; Professors Bob Smith as designer, Connie Groer as accountant, and Jim Hadra as a featured player; Library Director David Gillespie and Professor Betty Favre as public relations agents; faculty members Howard Parnes and Gerry Snelson in technical services, and others. I served as secretary to the Board.
· Cumberland also played its part significantly from the start. The Giarrittas hosted the first fund-raiser – a reading of Bernard Shaw’s Dark Lady of the Sonnets in which a character named William Shakespeare implores Queen Elizabeth I to endow a national theater (wink-wink). Prominent residents contributed funds, facilities, and materials to the fledgling enterprise.
· After reviewing a number of prospective facilities to house productions, CST chose the then empty Schwarzenbach department store on Baltimore Street, with cooperation from building owner First Federal Bank. Dave Press recruited local talent to complement the Actors Equity company members. Enjoying status both as an Equity player and a Cumberlander, Mark Baker took lead roles in four of the first six productions, in 1988 and 1989.
· And what productions they were! Guest-directed musicals Pajama Game and Promises, Promises, two memorable Neil Simon performances directed by Dave Press, two titillating farces, all squeezed meticulously into the constraints of Schwarzenbach-in-the-Round; a series of cabarets and appearances around town; original puppet productions by Gerry Snelson and his own company.
· Aware of the need for Cumberland to claim its progeny, the second and third years of CST provided time for weening from FSU. The McLarren & Williams company took over business management in Year Two; the city and county provided operating grants to the organization; links with the State Legislature and Governor’s Office and with the State Arts Council paid off in attention, and occasionally material support; most especially, Nick and Shirley played increasingly prominent roles -- in housing and entertaining company members, providing props and other necessities, boosting promotion and ticket sales, subsequently of course in acquiring the Johnson Street properties which they donated to the theater and to its visiting artists.
· After CST’s novelty began to wear off at the box office, the Board created a new leadership position that combined what Dave Press, McLarren & Williams, and I had undertaken. The third season (1990) was entrusted to “Broadway” Pat Julien who breathed a different life into the project, using his professional network to advantage – most particularly in introducing Don Whisted to Cumberland. The season was extended beyond “summer;” its repertoire expanded [thank you for doing Shakespeare!]; shows ran sequentially, rather than in repertoire. From 1991, in the new facilities on Johnson Street, Don Whisted has run the show, with Nick Giarritta as managing director, turning a valiant upstart into a cultural institution that is Western Maryland’s pride and joy.
· While Frostburg State has continued to provide talent and a variety of services to CT, the joint project has been entirely and successfully claimed by its host city. Over this unprecedented 25-year run, it is Don who joined Shirley and Nick Giarritta as the pre-eminent guarantors of the Cumberland Theatre.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CUMBERLAND’s THEATRE!