Only in Cumberland County

by (listed at end)

The story of the Playhouse is like a good piece of fiction from The Saturday Evening Post circa 1963. Something penned by John O’Hara or James Gould Cozzens or Paul Crabtree.

When you think of this couple – this extremely gifted, show business couple – Paul and Mary Crabtree driving the breadth of America with a carload of kids who had been raised between Hollywood and New York, and he’s setting out for a farmhouse in Tennessee to write a novel…well, it’s like one of the scripts Paul wrote for television.

In fact, his last gig in Hollywood before coming to Tennessee was head writer for The New Loretta Young Show. The show was about a widowed, free-lance writer with a house-full of kids (seven of them) – the role of the writer, of course, was played by Paul’s good friend Loretta Young.

By the way, it’s amazing to me how unknown Loretta Young is among the population under 50. She truly was one of the most beautiful and successful Hollywood stars of her time. She made 103 movies between 1917 and 1953 – everything from The Sheik with Rudolph Valentino (at age 8) to The Farmer’s Daughter, for which she won an Oscar.

A deeply religious woman, she nevertheless conceived a child with Clark Gable while filming Call of the Wild in the forests and mountains of California and Washington state. This has nothing to do with anything. I just always found it ironic that a good Catholic girl answered Clark Gable’s call of the wild while filming a movie called Call of the Wild. But that’s me.

The first Loretta Young Show was wildly successful and was broadcast on NBC for eight years – from 1953 to 1961. There is no doubt that, after a brief vacation from show business, Miss Young was ready to launch into another successful show. She even created a new production company for that purpose. She was still beautiful at 50 and she looked a good 15 years younger.

When Paul Crabtree was hired as head writer, he must have thought his ship had finally come in. He had earned it.

In a distinguished, non-stop 20 years of producing/writing/directing/starring on Broadway, in movies, and on television, the 42 year-old Crabtree had worked with the very best – Helen Hayes, Geraldine Page, Burgess Meredith, Jose Ferrer, E.G. Marshall,…He had even launched the career of a young actress named Cloris Leachman. On Broadway, she played in A Story for a Sunday Evening, the play he wrote, directed, and starred in, as well as, Lo and Behold!, the very next play in which he had a role. She even acted in an episode of The New Loretta Young Show.

At the Playhouse, there is a 16 mm film of Paul Crabtree interviewing a who’s who of 1950s actors he directed at the 813-seat Royal Poinciana Playhouse in Palm Beach, a summer stock “celebrity theater” he managed in the 1950s and early 1960s. You can tell by the easy banter between Crabtree and the stars – performers such as Celeste Holm, Arthur Treacher, and Ava Gabor – that there was much respect and genuine affection for Paul Crabtree among seasoned pros. He was one of the tribe.

It’s fascinating to watch Paul Crabtree in these black and white frames. He smokes a cigarette and carries on an easy conversation in his ever-so-slightly Pulaski, Virginia accent. He sort of reminds you of Bing Crosby or Hoagy Carmichael. There is something cool and musical about his voice — sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines…

Here’s a guy who started “trouping” in a travelling minstrel show at 4 years old and continued through his senior year in high school. He followed that by staging 60 productions in four years at his alma mater, Syracuse University. He played 40 leads and directed 12 of the plays, five of which he wrote.

So, by the time he hit Broadway in 1943 with $13 in his pocket, he was ready to conquer the Great White Way. He was picked for the national road show of “Kiss and Tell” – where he met his wife Mary – and never looked back. Next came five years in Oklahoma!, The Iceman Cometh, a long-term contract with the Theater Guild, and other triumphs.

But, alas, after years of hard work in the business, The New Loretta Young Show was a bust. Unfortunately, it premiered on CBS against the very popular medical drama Ben Casey, in its second year. The show quietly shut down after 26 episodes.

So, when we think of all the visionary local townspeople who helped make the Playhouse possible — like Joe Ed Hodges, Margaret Keyes Harrison, Bette Evans, Carl Sutton, C.C. Simonton, J. W. Brown, and “Shadow” Davenport – don’t forget the dark and brooding Vince Edwards. Without Vince’s sulking portrayal of Dr. Casey, Paul Crabtree may never have left Hollywood.

A couple of years ago, I found a boxed set of DVDs of The New Loretta Young Show. Miss Young liked Paul Crabtree so much, she begged him to play a recurring role of a drifter in the series. I wish every actor at the Playhouse could see this performance. He was pretty dang good. I’m glad there exists a record of his talent and stage presence.

Most readers of this blog know the Playhouse story. The Crabtrees came to town, Paul was persuaded to teach creative writing at a local school, this led to the production of a play starring a bunch of local kids called The Perils of Pinocchio, which created a cultural explosion, which created the Playhouse.

Scores of local business people, school kids, farmers, and regular folks bought shares in what was originally a for-profit corporation.

One of those shareholders was a legendary Hollywood star, Loretta Young.

I take it back. You would never find a story like this in The Saturday Evening Post. You really can’t make this stuff up.

John White

© 2015 John White
Used by Permission