Robert Sean Leonard, Tony Award winner and star of Fox television’s hit drama “House.” Broadway actress Beth Fowler, of “Sweeney Todd” and “The Boy from Oz,” who also originated the role of Mrs. Potts in “Beauty and the Beast.” Robert Jess Roth, director of “Beauty and the Beast.” Allison Smith, star of Broadway’s “Annie” and television’s “Kate & Allie.” Robert McClure of "Chaplin the Musical" and “Avenue Q.” International bestselling suspense author Mary Higgins Clark.
Those are some of the now famous faces that earlier in their careers graced the stage and wings of the Bergen County Players (BCP) in its 82-year-history. Other faces include neighborhood doctors, lawyers, writers, telephone company workers, graphic artists, police officers, contractors and others you may run into at the bank, supermarket, school, coffee house, or mall.
From its roots as a small community theater, the Bergen County Players has grown into a little theater with a big reputation for quality productions. As the Players marks its 82nd anniversary this 2014-15 season, the troupe celebrates its rich history, which includes musicals, comedy, drama and suspense.
The year was 1932, and President Herbert Hoover was having problems. The country was deep in the throes of the Great Depression, with breadlines a common sight. Those involved in the theater, however, knew they had a purpose too – to keep people entertained. And so it was that several groups of people who had been putting on amateur productions in different parts of Bergen County met in a back room at the Hackensack YMCA. They signed a charter and brought into being a community theater organization they called The Bergen County Players Inc. Helen Burke Travolta, mother of movie and television star John Travolta, was there that night, and this photograph of her (4th from the left) seated with the other original members still hangs in the lounge of the Little Firehouse Theatre, the Players’ current home. It was there long before anyone heard of her now-famous son.
The theater group drifted from high school auditorium stages to various barns and then settled into The Barn Theater, Howland Avenue, River Edge. It featured a pot-bellied stove and a family of skunks in residence under the foundation. One cold winter night in 1944, the structure burned to the ground. Nobody knows how the fire started, but the blaze left the Players homeless. In the best theatrical tradition, the next show opened on schedule at Bergen Junior College, which later became the Teaneck campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University.
In 1949, the town of Oradell built a new, modern building for its firefighters, leaving the old building on Kinderkamack Road vacant. It didn’t take long for the Bergen County Players to see the potential in the quaint historic firehouse (pictured right, during renovations in 1949). After negotiations with the town, they took over the space, built a stage on the back, put seats where the old fire trucks used to be and called their new space The Little Firehouse Theatre. The theater built an extension in 1969 for extra rehearsal space and storage; increased its seating capacity to 210; upgraded to an electronic light board in 1980; installed central air conditioning in 1982; computerized the box office in the 1990s and, recently added handicapped accessibility, among other improvements.
Over the years, the theater has worked to build on its artistic programs. In 1987, a series called “Conversations With An Artist” was initiated to provide members and the public with an opportunity to converse with professional artists. Past speakers have included actor Jonathan Silverman (“Broadway Bound,” “Weekend at Bernie’s”), Tony Award-winning actor Philip Bosco (“Lend Me A Tenor,” “Moon Over Buffalo”) and Tony Award-winning playwright Rupert Holmes (“The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” “Curtains.”) In 2001, Holmes even collaborated with the Bergen County Players to premier his new play at the Little Firehouse Theatre, a comic mystery called “Thumbs.”
Every year, the Bergen County Players features seven main-stage and at least two second-stage shows. The children’s show, a December tradition, continues to delight audiences of all ages.
Today, the Bergen County Players, a non-profit organization, counts more than 300 volunteer members as part of its family. A family in more ways than one, many married couples met here and multiple generations of families continue to share the theater experience. With typically three shows in rehearsal at one time, plus workshops and set construction, the theater makes use of this pool of talented people on and off the stage. It hopes to continue to grow and looks forward to providing audiences with quality entertainment for years to come.
Since that very first meeting in a back room 80-plus years ago, the Bergen County Players has welcomed hundreds of thousands of patrons through its doors to experience the joy of live theater, some for the very first time. Many return year after year, and bring new people with them. And hundreds of actors, directors, technical people and others have found an outlet, a home away from home, and a training ground for their interest in the magic of theater. Thanks to its many supporters, the Bergen County Players has become one of the premier little theater groups in the country.