Major Makeover at the Playhouse

After a 20-month shutdown, the venerable theater has a new look, thanks to a generous donation that helped ‘make lemonade out of pandemic lemons’

Photos by Matt Urban

The irony that the last pre-pandemic production scheduled at

The Playhouse on Rodney Square was The Play that Goes Wrong was not lost on anyone associated with that legendary venue.

On the day the farcical murder-mystery was to open — March 12, 2020 — Delaware Gov. John Carney announced a state of emergency, effective the next morning, due to the growing threat of COVID-19. The declaration recommended cancellation of all non-essential public gatherings of more than 100 people, per CDC guidelines.

“The decision came down at 4 p.m.,” says Mark Fields, executive director of The Grand Opera House, which operates The Playhouse as well as Copeland Hall and the Baby Grand in downtown Wilmington. “The play was scheduled to open that night.”

The curtain never went up on that production, and The Playhouse stage has remained dark ever since. “We, and I think most everybody, thought it would be weeks or months of being closed,” says Fields. “Nobody guessed it would be a year-and-a-half before we opened again.”

But now, thanks to a just-completed remodeling project financed by an unexpected and generous donation, the venerable Market Street eminence has taken on a new and brighter appearance. In Fields’ words, the nine-month project, which started in January, “took the lemons of the pandemic and made lemonade.”

Until last year, the 108-year-old theater had been the oldest continuously operating Broadway theater in America. The DuPont Company, which owned it until 2015, when The Grand took over operation, kept it going through two world wars and the Great Depression. But it had been showing its age for some time. The last major refurbishing was done decades ago, and the entire interior had become “dated and tired,” Fields admits. The seats, installed in the ‘90s, were especially troublesome, prompting some patrons to complain.

“After 30 years of being sat in, they had become less and less comfortable,” he says. “They were also more narrow than the current standard.”

Financing a remodeling project in the midst of COVID-19, however, would be a huge challenge.

The pandemic had delivered a body blow to the entire Delaware economy, especially to restaurants and bars, followed closely by the arts. It created some difficult financial decisions for management of The Grand and The Playhouse.

“We cancelled between 50 and 60 performances, and we had over $1 million in unfunded ticket liability,” Fields says.

Thanks to the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, the staff was retained until August of 2020, then 19 of the 34 full-timers were laid off. Fields and Managing Director of Programming Stephen Bailey took a 35 percent reduction in pay, and everyone else absorbed a 20 percent hit. (The salary cuts were restored in January and most of the furloughed staff is scheduled to be back this month.)

While the financial situation was anything but ideal for initiating a remodeling project, the timing seemed propitious. The Playhouse sat idle, all performances cancelled. What better time to freshen up the old girl?

Enter the Copelands

Among the patrons who found the seats uncomfortable were well-known Wilmington philanthropists Gerret and Tatiana Copeland. The Copelands, who own Bouchaine Vineyards in Napa Valley, Calif., are long-time supporters of the arts and the Delaware community in general. Most recently, their largesse took the form of a $15 million pledge to the Delaware Art Museum in 2018. Last year they received the Josiah Marvel Cup Award, the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce’s highest honor.

Mrs. Copeland says she and her husband, a member of the du Pont family, have been attending performances at The Playhouse “since, I think, the age of the dinosaurs – forever, decades.”

“On the du Pont family side,” she explains, “you inherited your tickets. The Playhouse is in my husband’s blood; he looks at its history as being connected with his family history. And we both are tremendous fans of Broadway shows, and not having the time necessarily to go to Broadway, it’s wonderful to have great Broadway shows at The Playhouse.”

But in recent years, she says, their Wilmington theater-going experience had been less than perfect.

“Every time we came to a show the whole point was to have a lovely dinner and see a wonderful show, but we were noticing how tired and faded The Playhouse was looking. In the back of our minds, we thought we really should be doing something about this, but it didn’t come into fruition until now.”

The Copelands learned of the discussions around replacing the seats and the carpeting in the orchestra level. But that’s all they were — discussions. Says Fields: “These were needs we knew we had, but we had no way of addressing them.”

Mrs. Copeland contacted him, and also spoke to Brian DiSabatino, chairman of the Board of the Grand Opera House.

“I said, ‘what will it cost to redo?’” says Mrs. Copeland. “They thought it was just a question of interest and they mentioned a number, knowing they were never going to be able to raise it. I said thank you and then I went to my husband, and we talked about it.”

‘A Large Sum’

As a result of that discussion and some further negotiations, the Copelands made a donation that would pay for most of the project, with The Grand covering the remainder.

As for the amount of the donation, Mrs. Copeland says, “Let’s just say it was a large sum — a large sum that was necessary to do [the remodeling] properly.”

Work started in January, when The Playhouse house crew was brought back to do the demo work. They pulled out the old seats and carpeting, and over the next eight months, new, comfortable seating was installed, walls were repainted, draperies and curtains replaced, the cloud mural on the ceiling freshened up, and lighting was enhanced.

In April, Linda Boyden, owner of Boyden Design in Wilmington, came on board to coordinate the project.  She had worked for the Copelands in the past and had designed the Ninth Muse Donor Space at The Grand.

“I was thrilled when the Copelands invited me to participate in The Playhouse renovations,” Boyden said in an email. “It has been a pleasure to work with them, and with the Grand and Playhouse management, to bring their vision for a renewed theater to life. Tired, dark interiors have been transformed into a sparkling, dramatic space appropriate for this historic theater. The fresh patterned carpet, detail trim painting, refined lighting, elegant cornices and draperies, and new seating are a few of the upgrades that will enhance the experience of theater goers for years to come.”

Says Fields: “Bringing in Linda allowed us to address some of the ‘temporary’ changes that were made over the years and were not necessarily in keeping with the original design. It allowed us to take a comprehensive approach, and everything was picked to go together since we’re doing it all at one time.”

Buccini/Pollin’s Role

He also credits The Buccini/Pollin Group, owners of the building, for their work on the spaces outside the theater, which will enhance patrons’ experience.

“Thanks to that work, the sense of occasion actually starts before people even get to the playhouse doors,” Fields says.

“One of the things they did, in cooperation with us, was to create a lobby lounge space with a permanent bar. It’s their space in a common area of the building, but it’s designed so we can use it on nights of the show.”

The Playhouse, he says, “is reminiscent of old Broadway theaters in both positive and negative ways. One of the negative ways was there is just not a lot of space, including backstage and ancillary space. So on nights of shows we had to wheel out portable bars into the lobby in the same space where the box office is. So you had people showing up to buy or pick up tickets, and you had people trying to buy drinks, and people trying to get into the theater.”

The new lounge/bar eliminates the need for a portable bar, and greatly reduces congestion around the box office and theater entrance.

Regarding the remodeling, Buccini/Pollin Group Co-President Chris Buccini released this statement: “The Grand’s renovation of the historic Playhouse on Rodney Square coincides with BPG’s ongoing renovation of the Dupont Building. It is another visual representation of our partnership with The Grand and both organizations’ commitment to Wilmington’s ongoing renaissance. The Playhouse’s re-opening times perfectly with the ground floor renovations of the Hotel Du Pont lobby, Le Cavalier at the Green Room, the office lobby for the Chemours headquarters and the M&T Bank Branch, as well as the opening of Currie Salon and Spa, the apartments at 101 dupont place, and DE.CO food hall. In all, we did nearly 50,000 square feet and $15 million of renovations during COVID alone to welcome back the community to the heart of downtown Wilmington.”

November Opening

Patrons will get a look at the renewed Playhouse on Nov. 18, when the darkened stage will once again come alive with the four-day run of Waitress, a hit Broadway musical comedy. Per a Sept. 1 announcement, those attending will be required to show proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID PCR test taken within 72 hours of the event. Masks also will be required except when consuming food or drink. The policy, which also applies to performances at The Grand, will be reviewed monthly.

Bob Weir, technical director for the Playhouse, says this is part of “the new norm” that the pandemic created. “I think everybody’s going to understand this is what’s needed in order to move forward,” he says, adding, “we don’t know how it will affect attendance until we open.”

Fields is hopeful. “I think the pandemic showed us how important the arts are, and not just the arts, but a lot of things we took for granted before, like going to dinner, having a conversation at a table, going to a concert.”

As for Tatiana Copeland, she feels the theater is ready once again to deliver what she calls “wow moments.”

“We are absolutely ecstatic [with the remodeling] and were so proud to be able to help restore The Playhouse to its former glory,” she says. “We tried to retain some of the art deco look that was still remaining from 1913 while bringing it up to the same energy and sophistication as the shows, and make the entire experience very enjoyable from the time you step into the theater. You’re going to come in, see a great show, and be surrounded by a totally rejuvenated and beautiful theater.”