Legends of the Pittsburgh Playhouse
Two luminaries who have played leading roles on stage and behind the scenes at the Pittsburgh Playhouse will be honored at The Playhouse Rocks Starmakers, the University’s fundraising gala for the Conservatory of Performing Arts. Shirley Jones and Richard E. Rauh will receive the prestigious Starmakers awards at the event on April 2 at Stage AE. The Point talked with Jones and Rauh about their longstanding ties to the Pittsburgh Playhouse:
“The Pittsburgh Playhouse is the reason I am in show business,” says Shirley Jones, well-known star of stage and screen.
Jones credits the Playhouse with giving her the start on stage that she parlayed into her career on Broadway, in movies (including an Academy Award) and television.
Jones was introduced to the Pittsburgh Playhouse, the region’s premier performing arts facility, shortly after coming to “the big city” for private voice lessons. The young woman from Smithton, Pa., soon began spending her summers working behind the scenes and on stage.
“We did everything in that building. We took acting lessons, built sets and took dance classes,” she recalls. In 1952, Jones won the “Miss Pittsburgh” contest, which included a scholarship to Playhouse drama classes, so she spent the next year working in Oakland. With her singing ability and theatrical flair, she often was cast in Playhouse productions. In the 1952/53 season, she appeared in five plays: Dance for Joy, Three to One, and the children’s plays Robin Hood, Rumpelstiltskin and Land of the Dragon.
“I was the queen of children’s theater at the Playhouse! I just loved playing the characters, especially those from fairy tales.”
In 1953 she also appeared in Lady in the Dark, a Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera production at Pitt Stadium. That summer, she found fame in New York City when writer and composer Ken Welch suggested she attend an open audition for the legendary songwriting duo Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The story goes that the casting director called for Mr. Rodgers to personally listen to her. Jones was soon cast in South Pacific and offered a personal contract. Shortly after that she was called to test for the movie version of the musical Oklahoma!, winning the lead role of Laurey. A starring role in the film Carousel followed in 1956.
Jones showed her dramatic range in Elmer Gantry, for which she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She returned to musical theater with the 1962 film The Music Man. By the 1970s, Jones had appeared in multiple television roles, including four seasons as the famous musical mom in The Partridge Family.
Today, Jones continues to appear on television, in movies and on stage. In addition to resort appearances in Arizona and theater performances in California, this spring she will film the comedy Family Weekend with Kristin Chenoweth. And she returned to Pittsburgh in April 2011 for the University’s annual gala, The Playhouse Rocks Starmakers. Jones, who received an honorary degree from Point Park in 1991, says she appreciated the opportunity to return to her show business roots and celebrate the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
“The Playhouse gave me a place to work on my craft and learn from professionals. It was truly a wonderful place.”
Richard E. Rauh
“People still say, ‘Let’s see what’s going on at the Playhouse,’” says Richard E. Rauh about the performing arts center’s distinguished status for more than 75 years. “It’s really incredible.”
Rauh has a vantage point shared by no other.
He appeared on the Playhouse stage, directed the long-running Playhouse Film Series, saw that the Rockwell Theatre received a new sound system, taught countless students and provided seed funding for the University’s first New York City theater showcase, to name but a few of his personal connections.
His roots run deep. In a sense, he has been an important part of the Playhouse, and the Playhouse has been a part of him, throughout his life.
One of the high points came in 1999 when he dedicated the Rauh Theatre in honor of his parents, Richard S. Rauh, who helped to establish the Playhouse during the Great Depression, and Helen Wayne Rauh, who acted on its stages and supported its development for amateurs and professionals alike.
He continued his parents’ commitment by documenting the Playhouse’s history and fueling its growth. He recently donated to the University his family’s collection of Playhouse playbills. And he provided seed funding toward plans to build a new Pittsburgh Playhouse downtown.
“Richard personifies the Pittsburgh Playhouse,” says Ronald Allan-Lindblom, artistic director of Point Park’s Conservatory of Performing Arts. Rauh’s lifelong commitment to the arts can be seen throughout the region. Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s Richard E. Rauh Conservatory school is named for him. The Richard E. Rauh Theatre can be found in Shady Side Academy’s Hillman Center for Performing Arts. And he has honored his parents’ commitment to Pittsburgh cultural institutions with donations in their names, including the Helen Wayne Rauh Rehearsal Room at The Pittsburgh Symphony and the Helen Wayne Rauh Theater at Carnegie Mellon University’s Purnell Center for the Arts.
Rauh’s acting career includes Playhouse productions of Star Spangled Girl, You Can’t Take it With You, Brecht on Brecht, Driving Miss Daisy, Krapp’s Last Tape and Little Shop of Horrors.
“The Playhouse went all out for the 1986 production of Little Shop of Horrors,” recalls Rauh, who starred as Mr. Mushnik. “They [used] the original designs and built amazing man-eating plants...Ken Gargaro directed and Edie Cowan from the original Broadway show worked with Ken. We had 10-hour rehearsals a day.” Rauh did two things in that show that he hasn’t done since: sing with a rock band and dance in midair. “I still don’t know how I did it,” he says.
Krapp’s Last Tape, in 1998, was his biggest stage triumph. “The [one-man show] is a very intense piece of theater,” he says. “It tested me beyond anything I’ve ever done.”
Rauh has also acted in more than 30 Little Lake Theatre productions and appeared on the stages of City Theatre, Baldwin Community Theater and Heinz Hall. The latter was a special production of Of Thee I Sing, the musical with score by George and Ira Gershwin (whom Rauh’s parents knew).
Rauh also appeared in the 1999 movie Inspector Gadget and represented the Playhouse in the documentary Something About Oakland by Rick Sebak.
Everything returns to the Pittsburgh Playhouse with Richard E. Rauh. According to the University board member, actor, educator and philanthropist, the Playhouse will always have a “strong emotional connection with Pittsburghers.” He looks forward to its “exciting new beginning” Downtown.
“There will always be a Rauh Theatre,” he notes, “in the Pittsburgh Playhouse.”
Text by Colleen Derda
Photo of Richard E. Rauh by Tom Bell
The Point is a magazine for alumni and friends of Point Park.