So Albany: Grace Kelly, the Actor Whose Face You Know, But Not his Name, Kirk Douglas and an Historic Building Becomes a Parking Lot

In January 1951 Grace Kelly came to Albany and stayed for month. She was cast in the romantic comedy, “Alexander” at The Playhouse during its Broadway try-out. The Playhouse was a repertory theater company in Albany on the corner of Chapel and Lodge. The manager and owner was Malcolm Atterbury (you may not know the name, but I KNOW you know the face).

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Malcolm Atterbury was born Philadelphia in 1907; son of W.W. Atterbury, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In his 20’s, he gave vaudeville a shot and managed a radio station. In the mid 1930’s he enrolled in drama school in NYC where he met a girl, Ellen Hardies, from Amsterdam, N. Y. They were married in 1937. Shortly after their marriage, they decided to establish a summer stock theatre in Lake Pleasant near Speculator. The Tamarack Playhouse opened in 1938. Over 4 years, the repertory theater established a solid reputation as an excellent training ground for aspiring actors, including Kirk Douglas and Karl Malden, and a summer place for working actors, like Sam Jafee (nominated for best supporting actor in “ The Asphalt Jungle”).

4With the advent of World War II, the Playhouse closed. Atterbury was declared 4-F and couldn’t serve. He and Ellen took the show on the road, entertaining the troops in military installations across the country (for which he received a commendation). Atterbury opened the Tamarack Playhouse for one more season in summer 1946, and then the Atterburys set their sights on Albany to which they had moved in 1944. Their dream was to establish an Actor’s Equity winter theater. In fall, 1946 the Atterburys purchased and renovated the old Capitol Theatre on Chapel and Lodge and named it The Playhouse.

The Playhouse was a great success when it opened in fall 1947. As the only winter Equity company in the country, it drew on a large pool of nationwide talent. One of the first resident actors was Cliff Robertson. Alas Atterbury and Robertson had “artistic” differences and Robertson was fired after 2 months, but offered a standing job anytime as a bartender at Farnhams Restaurant on the corner of Chapel and Maiden Lane (which became the gathering place for the cast and crew). In addition to a repertory stock company, The Playhouse served as a venue for road companies of Broadway shows and pre-Broadway tryouts of new productions. Malcom and Ellen acted frequently in the plays and even some musicals. He started teaching at the College of St. Rose in 1948 and lectured at other local colleges on a regular basis; Ellen worked with local college student and civic groups to stage productions. The Atterburys were evangelists of theater.

Grace Kelly

2Enter Grace Kelly. Kelly came to Albany to appear in the pre-Broadway tryout of “Alexander” at The Playhouse, produced by a close family friend. It was a chance for professional experience in a “modest, but highly respectable theater”. In later years, we of a certain age were told stories about the beautiful young (barely 21 year old) blond, whom no one knew, but everyone remembered sitting in the back booth of Farnham’s, drinking coffee and studying her script, her mink coat thrown casually over her shoulders to ward off the chill. During her stay in Albany, she was, by all accounts, just the way you would have expected– charming and reserved. But “Alexander “was not a success. Reviews of the first performances were mixed; the play had a complicated plot line and the dialogue needed polishing. By the second week of the run, it appears to have improved marginally after judicious editing. Grace caught the eye of a local reviewer opening night who referred to her as “competent” and a “tall, statuesque blond”. Alas, “Alexander” did not draw local audiences and NYC critics and producers failed to materialize. We know little about Grace in Albany; she was just another beautiful ingénue. But by October 1951, Grace had been cast in “High Noon” with Gary Cooper.

Back to The Playhouse -The Beginning of the End

The Atterburys became established members of the local community. The family first lived on the corner of Marion Ave. and Cortland St., in a house originally built for the President of the Huyck Mills. They sold that in 1949 and moved to Providence St. The children attended the Boy’s and Girl’s Academies. But as happens in Albany, the community’s interest waned and The Playhouse began to have financial troubles. Maybe Atterbury was a not so great businessman, maybe it was the new thing called television keeping people at home. By early 1952 Atterbury made it clear just how dire the situation was. A fund to support the theater, The Friends of the Playhouse, was established, with asistance from the Albany Times Union. Contributions were made; but not enough. By fall 1952 Atterbury announced the sale of The Playhouse theater. The building, constructed as a Presbyterian Church in 1813 and designed by Philip Hooker (Albany first and famed great architect), would be razed for a parking lot. The residence on Columbia St. was sold was well.

colonialMalcolm and Ellen Atterbury continued with their dream. The Playhouse moved to a much remodeled Colonial Theater on the corner of Central and Quail, and renamed the Colonial Playhouse. The Colonial was built as a movie house around 1914, but by the early 1950s had fallen on hard times. The 1952 ten week season began in January with a warm welcome from the Central Ave. merchants who were delighted to have the Colonial Playhouse in their midst. Things looked brighter. But by January 1953, financial issues continued to loom, but the show went on. One of the hits of the season starred an impossibly young Barbara Cook (still selling out a NYC theater in Spring 2016) in the Gershwin musical “Lady, Be Good!”

All good things come to an end. At the end of one of the last productions of the season, Malcolm Atterbury took the stage and announced the closing of the theater, after 7 years and 75 productions. Albany would not have a professional repertory theater company until 1981, when Capital Rep opened. (It claims to be Albany’s first professional resident theatre. Not so much.)

The Atterburys rebounded quickly. In May 1953 they were scouting for a home and making contacts in California. They moved from Albany by the end of summer 1953. By 1954 Atterbury had his first movie role in “Dragnet”. Although in his late 40s when he hit Hollywood, he made over 20 movies and acted in over 100 TV series until his death in 1992. Ellen continued acting from time to time; they were featured as a husband and wife on several episodes of “Wagon Train in the late 1950s. Ellen died in 1994.

Fun factoids:
•When Atterbury was on location with Cary Grant in the famous crop dusting scene in “North by Northwest”, a local man recognized Atterbury from a TV show the previous night, but had no idea who Grant was.
•Grant’s co-star, Eva Marie Saint, in “North by Northwest” is a 1942 graduate of Bethlehem Central High School.
•The Playhouse Actors Residence on Columbia St. was used by the Albany Senators baseball team in the summers.
•The Residence was designed by Marcus Reynolds who was the architect for the beautiful fire house on Delaware Ave and the D&H Building ( now SUNY HQ).
•Malcolm Atterbury was a Tulip Queen (and King, when there was one) judge several times.
•In an interview in the early 1960s with a local Albany newspaper columnist Kirk Douglas gave Atterbury credit for suggesting he change his name from Isadore Demsky.
•Per an interview with Kirk – he started out at the Tamarack Playhouse as a stagehand in 1938, but badgered Atterbury into letting him act in 1939. His first role was as a wrestler; type casting – Kirk wrestled at St. Lawrence when he was a student.
•Karl Malden and Kirk became lifelong friends at the Tamarack Playhouse. Michael Douglas co-starred with Karl Malden in the “Streets of San Francisco” in the early 1970s.
•One of Karl Malden’s first roles at the Tamarack Playhouse was in “Craig’s Wife”, a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Grace Kelly’s Uncle George. (Coincidence? We think not.)

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Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

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