And the stage goes round…

rotate 1By John Dwyer and Herb Millman

There is a star in residence currently at the Bucks County Playhouse. Yes, there is Hunter Foster, artistic director, who is a noted Broadway actor and brilliant director. But the current Playhouse star we are talking about is the stage turntable, whose resume is impressive and parentage notable.

Playhouse producer Alex Fraser said that the turntable came from the Norman Bel Geddes 1937 production of Siege. One of the foremost designers of the 1930s and 1940s, Geddes makes us the provenance of the turntable extremely significant. That it survived for so many years, and in particular the flood of 1955, is no doubt due to the quality work of Geddes.

In examining the life of Geddes, it becomes immediately apparent that he was a modernist.  So modern in fact, that he adopted his wife’s name — born Norman Geddes, upon marrying Helen Bell Schneider in 1916, he incorporated their names and became Norman Bel Geddes. He is also the father of noted stage and screen actress Barbara Bel Geddes.

At the age of 23, he was a scene designer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Geddes was a producer, director, costume designer, as well. In 1927, he expanded his scope and opened an industrial design studio, where he produced many wonderful commercial products. When designing for the home, he incorporated the simple elegance of airplanes and steamships of the day into sleek chrome cocktail shakers, aerodynamic lamps and elegant serving trays with cobalt blue inserts. They were well crafted and made to stand the test of time. It is no wonder that the stage turntable, having not been used for decades, is nonetheless functional, and wonderfully so.

Theater preservationist and facilities manager for the Bucks Count Playhouse Peter Maloney and technical director Tom Watson did a magnificent job in restoring and updating the turntable to 2015 standards. It is now controlled digitally though a computer and, as evidenced in its latest show National Pastime, is an incredible asset. The ease it affords in transitioning from one set to another is the definition of simple elegance.

Rotating stage seen from below

Rotating stage seen from below

But how did it get to the Bucks County Playhouse? There are a few unanswered questions, but we do know it was made by Geddes for his production of Siege at the Longacre Theater.

Sheldon Leonard in his 1994 autobiography And the Show Goes On: Broadway and Hollywood Adventures wrote, “In November of 1937, I got a red hot offer to play the lead in Siege, written by Irwin Shaw, author of Bury the Dead. It was to be produced by Norman Bel Geddes, producer of Street Scene, and directed by Chester Erskine, director of The Last Mile, Subway Express, and so many others,” said Leonard. “Those were very distinguished auspices.

“I was to play the romantic lead, with a big boost in salary, and the deal allowed me to stay with Wonderful Time until just before Siege opened, added Leonard.

“It was a spectacular production,” he said. “Bel Geddes, at the time the leading designer for the stage, had gone all out.  He had created a massive set to represent the Alcazar in Toledo during the Spanish Rebellion. It was a huge creation, towering over the stage like Mount Everest,” said Leonard.

“It could turn three hundred and sixty degrees. It could light up interior sets behind a scrim. It could shudder under the impact of cannon fire. It could do everything but recite the dialogue,” he continued. “It was enormously impressive. Trouble was, it diminished the actors who crept in it and around it – they were ants on an anthill. The critics destroyed us. We had opened on Dec. 8. Siege closed after six performances,” recalled Leonard.

The Geddes turntable made for that show somehow found its way Bucks County Playhouse, but how? Records don’t reveal a connection between Geddes and the Playhouse at the time, but New Hope already enjoyed the reputation of being an avant-garde, rural retreat for New York artists. Geddes may well have given the Playhouse the turntable in order to help a new, exciting theater dedicated to playwrights and actors honing their craft.

The area was also becoming well-known due to modern architect Antonin Raymond’s “New Hope Experiment,” a design philosophy and apprenticeship program centered around a 150-acre Solebury farm and studio. It embraced a Japanese aesthetic and a melding of nature and the modern, employing George Nakashima, among others. This design movement and the reputation of New Hope as a hotbed of innovation, art, and bold ideas were becoming more and more renowned. Contributing to this exciting, rising artistic community would undoubtedly have been an attractive proposition for Geddes, who had already offered his version of “a house for tomorrow.”

In an article in The Ladies Home Journal in April, 1931 he described a house with a circular two-car garage equipped with a turntable that would rotate cars to face forward for easy departure. Geddes later created a design for a rotary airport in New York Harbor, with a landing strip that could be adjusted for incoming planes according to prevailing winds.

The turntable at Bucks County Playhouse has four tracks with 84 cast aluminum wheels. It was covered under the stage floor and went unused for decades, except for a few brief appearances during the 1970s. It is 25 feet in diameter, and takes up the majority of the stage. Fraser said he believed it to be the oldest turntable east of the Mississippi (the turntable at the MUNY Theater in St. Louis was installed in 1930).

The device recently created a wonderful cinematic flow to National Pastime, with its zany script that demanded quick scene changes. Playhouse officials say it will be used again in the upcoming revival of Sondheim’s Company. The restoration and revival of this magnificent stage turntable is certainly a significant achievement for the Bucks County Playhouse and a historic cultural asset for New Hope.

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