Keeping the lights on in a community theater is no easy feat. It takes talented actors, directors and designers willing to work for nothing or next to nothing; a cadre of dependable donors; a venue in which to stage performances; and, of course, theater-loving audiences to buy tickets and fill seats.
It’s something Vagabond Players has been doing for the past 103 years. In fact, the theater has the undisputed distinction of being the longest-running community theater in the United States.
Vagabond was founded in 1916 by Jewish theater aficionados Adele Gutman Nathan, an actress from Baltimore, and Carol Sax, a Charm City transplant and head of the Maryland Institute College of Art design department. Nathan and Sax were inspired by the “Little Theater Movement,” an early 20th-century campaign that encouraged the production of experimental, non-commercial theater.
“At that time, most theaters across the country were very mainstream,” says Cross Keys resident Steve Goldklang, a director, producer and board member whose association with Vagabond goes back three decades. “There were very few serious plays being produced. Vagabond was founded by people in Baltimore who wanted to see serious theater.”
Vagabond’s first home was at the St. James Hotel, which once stood on West Centre Street. Its opening night included a one-act satirical play called “The Artist” by Baltimore scribe Henry Louis Mencken.
In its second season, Vagabond became the first theater to pay playwright Eugene O’Neill for a script. His play “Bound East for Cardiff” was poorly received by Baltimore theater critics.
Other brushes with fame included Vagabond’s staging of “Scandalabra,” a five-hour play written by Zelda Fitzgerald and presented during the theater’s 1932-1933 season. As the story goes, after a disastrous opening night, Zelda’s famous husband, F. Scott, worked through the night, cutting the script by half. Alas, even editing by “The Great Gatsby” author couldn’t save the play, which was decimated by the critics.
Almost half a century later, Vagabond audiences caught a glimpse of a student named Kathleen Turner in the theater’s 1976 production of “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.” In 1981, Turner became a household name when starring in the film “Body Heat.”
Although Vagabond was conceived as a vehicle for experimental theater, Goldklang says, “Over the years, it evolved. It’s tougher and tougher to get people to come out, especially to Baltimore [City], and there’s a limited audience for avant-garde theater.”
Nowadays, he says, “We cater to a more middle-of-the-road audience. There’s always one musical and one classic with name recognition. We usually do one or two contemporary plays, but they’re typically plays that are well-known from their productions in New York or London. At least once a season, we do something that will appeal to the serious theatergoer.”
Over the years, the aptly named Vagabond Players set up shop in many locations around the city before finding its current home at 806 S. Broadway in Fells Point. That location, says Goldklang, has proved fortuitous.
“We’re in a great location surrounded by bars and restaurants, tourist and historic areas, and we’re visible from the street,” says Goldklang. “It’s a pleasant environment, and over the past year, we’ve received endowments that have made it possible for us to makeover our auditorium and restrooms. We’re hoping next summer to complete a redo of our façade.”
Perhaps the best reason for Vagamond’s sucess is Baltimore’s talent pool. “There are wonderful actors in the Baltimore area,” says Goldklang. “They could be Equity actors but they want to eat! People come to Vagabond and they know they’re going to see a quality production at a ridiculously low price. It makes for a great and affordable evening”.
For more information, visit vagabondplayers.org