Arts & Entertainment

Curtain closes on pioneering playhouse

After 57 years in the theater community, the Society Hill Playhouse will close.

More than 60 years ago, Deen Kogan walked into an acting class at Temple and met her future husband.

“I called my mother that night, and I said, ‘I met the man I’m going to marry,’” Kogan said. “And he didn’t know it.”

The class not only sparked a decades-long marriage between Deen and Jay Kogan, but an even longer-lasting legacy.

The alumni went on to establish the Society Hill Playhouse, a staple of Philadelphia theater.

“We had a very lucky, lucky life. We were able to do a lot of what we wanted to do,” Deen Kogan said.

A modest brick building, the Society Hill Playhouse has been nestled on 8th Street between Lombard and South since 1959.

When the Kogans purchased the building, it lacked basic plumbing. Its interior was lined with cracked tile. A friend painted the men’s room the night before the playhouse opened to the public in 1960.

Today, a glittering Isaiah Zagar mosaic creeps like a cluster of ivy along the outside of the building. Kogan, who has continued to run the theater since her husband’s death in 1993, expressed regret over the mural’s fate.

“That’s one of the saddest things— I mean, we have no way of preserving that. Because the people who bought us are going to tear it down,” Kogan said.

In January, the Society Hill Playhouse announced it will close on April 1. The Toll Brothers, a luxury home developer, will construct about 20 apartments there, according to PlanPhilly. On March 13, the playhouse will hold a yard sale to sell its supply of equipment and seats.

Kogan said the Toll Brothers had approached her several years ago. Recently, she decided it was time to end the 57-year life of the two-theater playhouse. But Kogan’s work in theater is far from over—the director already has her eye on a possible cabaret space in a Port Richmond bookstore—but for her, the playhouse’s closure is a solemn one.

“I’m not happy about closing. But there’s a play called ‘The Shadow Box,’ Michael Cristofer wrote it, and there’s a line in it that says, ‘Nothing lasts forever,’” Kogan said. “And that’s happening.”

Today, Philadelphia is sprinkled with playhouses—the Avenue of the Arts houses a vibrant theater district. But when the Kogans were young directors, the off-Broadway, experimental theatrical vibe of the Society Hill Playhouse had not yet been provided for the city’s artistic atmosphere.

“There were no other theaters like ours at the time,” Kogan said.  “Now you have a great many small, quasi-professional, non-professional, whatever profession.”

Deen Kogan opened the Society Hill Playhouse to the public in 1960. | JOSHUA DICKER TTN

Deen Kogan opened the Society Hill Playhouse to the public in 1960. | JOSHUA DICKER TTN

Today, the playhouse stands as a resolute testimony to its many years of performance. Outside the Red Room, a crimson cabaret-style theater on the first floor, scores of neatly framed posters line the walls.

Productions range from the Swiss drama “Andorra” and the German tragedy “The Plebians Rehearse the Uprising,” to works as well-known as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Grease.”

Near the playhouse’s threshold, neon signs bear titles of successful productions. “Nunsense,” the longest-running musical comedy in Philadelphia history, glows in soft lavender script.

“I said to Jay, ‘Well, maybe we could get five weeks out of it,’” Kogan said of the production. “And we got 10 years.”

American premieres, operas and burlesque shows were not uncommon in the playhouse. The Kogans accepted almost any submitted script—no matter how avant-garde, surrealistic or obscure.

Shortly before the playhouse’s closure, Harrison Stengle’s production of Hamlet will take place in the Red Room. The play will involve animalistic symbolism—a concept appropriate for the playhouse’s “anything goes” attitude.

“[The playhouse] is available to young people who have imagination. He calls it a surrealistic Hamlet. Don’t ask! Come and see it if you want!” Kogan said.

“I’m honored that I could perform there, have my performance go up on the stage there, while it’s still open. It’s kind of humbling,” Stengle said.

Not every play has been a blockbuster. In one production an actor emoted so passionately that he toppled some of the scenery.

Kogan, however, said she doesn’t regret a single performance—each provided a learning experience.

“It’s really like flipping a coin. You’re not sure what’s going to happen, who’s going to come,” Kogan said.

The playhouse has extended far beyond its Victorian pressed tin walls. For a time, actors toured Philadelphia in a flatbed truck, and the street theater segments reached out directly to communities. Shortly before one performance in South Philadelphia, the actors received word of a deadly fire in the area.

“People died. I thought ‘Oh, my,’ and I had a call from the block captain saying, ‘Please come.’ And we did,” Kogan said.

As the playhouse prepares to bid the city farewell, its documentation will remain intact. Kogan, a member of the Paley Library Board of Visitors, has arranged for everything—from posters to playbills to pictures—to be moved safely into Temple’s Special Collections.

“I’m happy that the archives are going there, there’s a good sense of history,” Kogan said. “If you were really interested you could trace how this theater started—and what happened.”

Angela Gervasi can be reached at angela.gervasi@temple.edu.

Listen online to “Beyond the Lede” with WHIP—Temple’s student radio—and The Temple News’ reporters for more information on this story and more.

Angela Gervasi

can be reached at angela.gervasi@temple.edu
Or you can follow Angela on Twitter @AngGervasi
Follow The Temple News @TheTempleNews

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