Cumberland County Playhouse
In 1963, Crossville, Tennessee was a town you passed through on the way to other places. Located in Cumberland County, the town and surrounding Appalachian region was economically depressed. Resort and recreational development was in its infancy. High unemployment and poverty was normal. Paul Crabtree was an actor, director, producer and composer. He attended Syracuse University, and made his Broadway debut when he succeeded the role of Will Parker in the original Broadway production of Oklahoma. He was then given a contract with the Theatre Guild, and went on to produce and direct Broadway shows with such legends as Helen Hayes, Charlton Heston, José Ferrer, Geraldine Paige, Loretta Young, E.G. Marshall and many others. Mary Crabtree, spent her youth in Pittsburgh and Crossville before moving to New York.
It was there, in 1941, that she met Paul in the National Company of George Abbott’s Kiss & Tell. They fell in a love and were married. Mary balanced her acting and modeling career with motherhood, while Paul directed for The Theater Guild. Later, after writing stints for television shows such as The Loretta Young Show, the family took a sabbatical in Crossville where Mary had family. This was a to give Paul some time to write his book, Stories from Doby Creek, and the more important matter at hand, what to do next career-wise that would be best for the family. While in Crossville, community leaders approached Paul about staging a show for the local school-aged children, and a dream was born. In December of that year, Paul Crabtree’s The Perils of Pinocchio was presented at the Crossville Junior High School with a cast, crew and orchestra of 200 youngsters. The performance electrified the community.
To a community with no museums, no college or university, no live performance organizations, just one movie theater and an ninety-minute drive to the nearest city, the idea was extremely compelling that Pinocchio might be the beginning of new educational horizons for their children. Civic and cultural leaders asked Crabtree how they could keep things like – happening in Crossville. “Well, you’d have to build a theater,” he replied. “The old junior high auditorium isn’t even safe. “Remarkably, in a town of 5,000, in a county of 25,000, that’s exactly what they did. The entire community got behind the idea of the Playhouse because people believed it could make a vital contribution to education and the local economy and help create some new jobs. The Cumberland County Playhouse is now the only major non-profit professional performing arts resource in rural Tennessee, and one of the 10 largest professional theaters in rural America. It serves more than 145,000 visitors annually with two indoor and two outdoor stages, young audience productions, a comprehensive dance program, a concert series and touring shows. In fact, the Cumberland County Playhouse is the only non-profit professional performing arts organization in Tennessee that wholly owns and operates its own major performance facility. The Playhouse is committed to the arts as an indigenous, homegrown part of rural America—not a commodity imported from urban centers.
The Playhouse regularly produces new works based upon Tennessee and Southeastern history and culture, plus state and regional premieres and revivals of works with Appalachian themes. The Playhouse also strives to stretch its audiences with programming which includes major elements of opera, dance, and challenging dramatic works. The Playhouse features nearly 500 performances and 1600 classes in theatre, music and dance annually. The Cumberland County Playhouse provides arts opportunities to a vast region under-served by other arts resources, including rural East and Middle Tennessee, North Georgia, Southern Kentucky, and Northern Alabama, as well as metropolitan Knoxville, Nashville and Chattanooga. In 1984, the Cumberland County Playhouse was the recipient of one of the Governor’s Awards in the Arts for the state of Tennessee. With an annual budget of over $1,800,000, the Playhouse is among Tennessee’s most sufficient arts institutions. Since its opening in 1965, 78 – 85% of all revenues have been from earned income, including funding of the construction of the original facility. The Playhouse operates on a balanced budget and has no accumulated deficit. Construction of a 27,000 square foot expansion to the original facility has recently been completed, making the Playhouse a four-theater complex featuring proscenium, black box and outdoor arena spaces. Combining a resident professional company and a staff of 16 with more than 100 visiting professionals and a large volunteer corps, the Playhouse draws professionals from across the country and volunteers from a dozen Tennessee counties. Over 50% of all revenues are expended for professional artist compensation. The Playhouse has been managed and directed by two generations of the Crabtree family since 1965.