Flat Rock Playhouse: One of The ‘Founding Fathers Of Theater’ in Western NC
The Flat Rock Playhouse is one of the founding fathers of theatre in western North Carolina. The Flat Rock Playhouse’s roots go all the way back to about 1940. A ragtag group of struggling actors that called themselves the Vagabond Players was formed in New York in the late 1930’s. They were led by London native and Broadway actor Robroy Farquhar.
This troupe of actors worked their way down the east coast and ended up in Henderson County around 1940. They were attracted by the growing tourism industry in western North Carolina and established themselves as the first summer theatre in North Carolina. The Vagabond Players took over an old grist mill at Highland Lake and established the Old Mill Playhouse. That became the actor’s base in 1940 and 1941.
World War II put the Vagabond Players on hiatus until 1947 when they got back together and moved their base of operations to the Lake Summit Playhouse from 1947 until 1951.
In 1952 they set up shop in their current location when they purchased eight acres of land in Flat Rock and started the Flat Rock Playhouse. A board of directors had been formed and the Flat Rock Playhouse was founded as an educational and cultural nonprofit organization. At first, a circus big top tent was used until a more permanent structure could be built.
By 1961 the Flat Rock Playhouse had gotten the attention of the state government in North Carolina and by an act passed by the North Carolina General Assembly was named the State Theatre of North Carolina. By the late 1960’s the Flat Rock Playhouse was the second most visited tourist site in North Carolina. The Flat Rock Playhouse’s patronage continues to grow and almost 100,000 people a year now visit.
Many famous performers got their starts in acting by serving apprenticeships at the Flat Rock Playhouse and some of the more famous alumni are Lee Marvin, Joanne Woodward, and television icon and North Carolina native son Andy Griffith. Apprenticeships are a tradition that the Flat Rock playhouse still continues today as well as offering classes and workshops for students from kindergarten through adults.
Several websites were used when I was researching this article. Flatrockplayhouse.org, thenandnowinhendersonville.blogspot.com, and being a native of this area, I had never heard the Lee Marvin, Joanna Woodward, or Andy Griffith references. While I could find no mention of the Flat Rock Playhouse in these performer’s bios, their time at the Playhouse must have been in the early 1950’s. Marvin and Griffith had established footholds as performers by 1953 and Woodward graduated from high school in nearby Greenville, SC in 1947 and Louisiana State University in the early 1950’s so she had a connection to the area.
All three of these performers are mentioned as being alumni in an interview with Flat Rock Playhouse Director Robroy Farquhar published in the Lexington, NC Dispatch on March 15, 1982.
– Dan Gibbs