Totem Pole keeps many coming back

July 03, 2010|By KATE COLEMAN

Ten years, a month and a couple of days ago, I wrote a story marking Totem Pole Playhouse's 50th anniversary. This year, the summer stock theater in Caledonia State Park in Fayetteville, Pa., is celebrating its 60th season.

That's a long time. I know. I've lived 60 summers myself.

My friend Marie Beck and I attended a Wednesday matinee performance of Neil Simon's "45 Seconds From Broadway," the season's second offering. I wasn't familiar with the play, but it was a perfect choice for Totem Pole and for me.

John Putch came from California to direct it. The filmmaker, actor, writer and director of several television shows - including episodes of "Scrubs," "Ugly Betty" and "Cougar Town" - had never directed at the playhouse where he got his start. Putch also plans to return in October to shoot "Route 30 Too," the second film in his South-Central Pennsylvania trilogy.

It was a homecoming.


His father, William A. "Bill" Putch, opened his first Totem Pole season in 1954, replacing Karl Genus, who'd been hired to run the operation in 1950. Bill Putch and actress Jean Stapleton married in 1957, and, in the next six years, children Pamela and John joined the family troupe.

An arson fire destroyed the original structure in November 1959, but Bill Putch was determined, the community rallied and the curtain rose on the new playhouse eight months later. Even after playing Edith Bunker on "All in the Family" brought her stardom, Stapleton returned to the mountain theater to perform in two shows every season.

Bill Putch died suddenly in November 1983, ending nearly 30 years at Totem Pole's helm.

Carl Schurr, who had come to the playhouse as an actor in 1975, then became producing artistic director and stayed in that seat for 25 years. Ray Ficca took up the reins in 2009.

The shows and Totem Pole Playhouse continue to go on.

So how did directing a play on the stage where he made his debut at age 5 in "Show Boat" feel for John Putch?

"It was great," he said in a recent phone conversation. "It was so comfortable being there. Since I grew up in that place, and I was in that rehearsal hall for years and years, the workflow of the process was just second nature."

"45 Seconds From Broadway" is Simon's affectionate tribute to the iconic Caf Edison, the coffee shop in the converted ballroom of the Hotel Edison, a gathering place for the New York theater community in the heart of the city's theater district. Fondly known as the "Polish Tea Room" - a play on the upscale Russian Tea Room -the caf was run for nearly 30 years by Harry and Frances Edelstein, childhood friends in Poland who were the only members of their families to survive the Holocaust.

I had breakfast in the Polish Tea Room a few years ago - at the time unaware of its venerable place in the New York theater world.

Resident scenic designer James Fouchard, who's in his 29th season at Totem Pole, absolutely nailed the caf.

The onstage coffee shop is comfortable and welcoming - an atmosphere not unlike that of Totem Pole Playhouse.

Actor Wil Love is in the "enchanted forest" for his 40th consecutive season. Ed Gotwalt - aka Mister Ed of the Elephant Museum in nearby Orrtanna, Pa. - nearly stole the show with barely a line. Gotwalt has been a "part of the Totem Pole Playhouse family" off- and onstage for more than three decades.

Paul Mills Holmes, production stage manager, is in his 35th season at the theater.

"We love it. That's why we come back," he said.

John Putch will come back. He'll be at the playhouse for the July 6 screening of his film "Route 30."

He called it another round-trip in his life: "I get to show the movie in the theater that meant so much to me and was a huge part of the film."

For information about Totem Pole Playhouse, go to or call 888-805-7056.

Kate Coleman covers The Maryland Symphony Orchestra and writes a monthly column for The Herald-Mail.

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