Playhouse History

The Des Moines Community Playhouse was founded in 1919 by members of the Iowa Press and Authors Club. Although the Little Theatre movement was causing similar enterprises to spring up across the country, The Playhouse is unique in that it has operated continuously, under various names and in various homes, since its founding. With more than 100 years of uninterrupted service, The Playhouse is among the six oldest continuously-operating community theatres in the U.S. It is also one of the largest community theatres in the U.S. The mission of The Playhouse is to create extraordinary, shared experience through live theatre. Some tidbits from The Playhouse history:

  • The first paid director of The Little Theatre (The Playhouse’s original name) was a woman: Josephine Hunter Ray. And the first full-time director was also a woman: Pearl Bennet Broxam in 1927.
  • The theatre’s first permanent building was a remodeled Congregational church on 35th Street near Grand Avenue. The Belle Kendall Playhouse (The Little Theatre’s new name) was made possible by a gift from former Iowa governor Nathan Kendall in memory of his wife.
  • During the depths of the Depression, The Kendall’s membership dropped from 1,200 to 300. Volunteers worked in a cold box office — the building was heated only during performances — and they had to wear coats and boots, and carry thermoses of coffee to keep warm.
  • The years during World War II brought challenges such as oil shortages, a major fire, and a scarcity of male actors and backstage volunteers. Nonetheless, season memberships rose to 3,000.
  • A new era for The Des Moines Community Playhouse (a name change) began in 1953 with a move to the Roosevelt ( movie ) Theatre on 42nd Street. Membership reached an all-time high of 6,000 in 1956 and two new staff positions were added; technical director and children’s theatre director.
  • The Playhouse achieved international recognition in the 1980s and 1990s with its cultural exchange production, Peace Child, and its host status for the first-ever International Community Theatre Festival.
  • The Playhouse remains one of the largest subscription performing arts organizations in Iowa with 3,500 members. More than 55,000 people attend an average of 12 productions each season, produced by a professional staff of 10 plus more than 1,400 volunteers. The Playhouse education department serves more than 30,000 people annually and consists of a year-round program of classes and camps.
  • The Playhouse continued to produce live theatre during the pandemic, spring 2020-summer 2021. In summer 2020, The Playhouse created live theatre drive-in, an outdoor experience with guests in their cars or on lawn chairs, listening to the actors through an FM radio feed. Theatre moved indoors in fall 2020 with limited seating and groups distanced from each other. In summer 2021, The Playhouse was back outdoors, this time under a tent.

Many of The Playhouse’s students and volunteers have successfully pursued careers in theatre, film, and television. While few may be household names, Playhouse alum include Academy and Emmy Award-winning actress Cloris Leachman (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Last Picture Show, Young Frankenstein), actress Phyllis Love (The Rose Tattoo, Bus Stop  ), actress and singer Claiborne Cary (Silk Stockings, New Girl in Town), director Eddie Rissien (Broadway and Hollywood), actor Michael Cornelison (feature films and television series including Dallas and Remington Steele), actor Chadley Kelderman (regional theatre and film), actor Gerry Neugent (regional theatre), actor Philip Lehl (Blood Brothers, The Kentucky Cycle), and playwright, author, and director Peter Hedges (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, About a Boy, Pieces of April).