In December of 1956 a small group of people interested in theater held their first meeting as The Heights Players. Their first production, The Hasty Heart, opened in February 1957 at the Unitarian Church; much interest was generated by this production and a second production, The Crucible, opened in 1957. It was apparent to all concerned that a theater group had been established in Brooklyn. During the following summer a Workshop Program began, introducing more performers and directors to the group. During this time, The Heights Players became a non-profit educational corporation under New York statutes.
In 1958 with the opening of Light Up the Sky, the Players began performing at the Bossert Hotel, which was home for the next four seasons. 1959 was a notable year, for in that fourth season musical theater was added to the Players’ repertoire with the original review, Ready or Not. During the summer months from 1958 through 1962, the Workshop Program was performed at the Unitarian Church.
In the fall of 1960 the Heights Players expanded their schedule to include Theater for Children productions performed at the Unitarian Church; the first production was Cinderella. During the first four seasons of these productions, the schedule consisted of Saturday morning performances to the underprivileged, with two and four o’clock shows for young, enthusiastic audiences. Subsequently, and continuing through 1968, all Theater for Children productions were performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
In the spring of 1962 the Heights Players moved to a permanent home at 26 Willow Place in the basement of the Alfred T. White Community Center, originally a Gothic Revival chapel built in 1876 by the Unitarian Church. Later, Mr. White built the two-story building attached to the back of the chapel (facing Columbia Place) as a mission house for the children of the Riverside Houses (also built by him) on the corner of Joralemon Street and Columbia Place. The building at 26 Willow Place has had an interesting history. After Mr. White died and the Center was no longer supported, the City of New York took it over as a social center; what was at one point a gym, is now our theater. During World War II, mainly prostitutes used the building. It was then sold to a foundry, which cast the bronze eagle that hangs over the door of the American Embassy in London.
In 1957 a group of Willowtown parents started a cooperative nursery school. Having outgrown the small room they were using, a search for a new space was begun; finally, the chapel and its attached building were found. In the fall of 1962, a group of citizens purchased the chapel and mission house and established the A.T. White Community Center. The three occupants of the building, the Brooklyn Community Nursery School, The Heights Players, Inc. and the Roosa School of Music, were all designated as permanent users. That year, with renovations almost complete, a gala opening was held during the Christmas season.
In the old foundry and gym space, The Heights Players set to work; plywood was placed on top of the dirt floor and covered with linoleum tiles. The set design for the opening production, As You Like It, was proscenium style with raised platforms for the stage; 75 folding chairs for the audience completed the layout. Because of the low ceiling, the group decided to return to an ‘in-the-round’ theater, with the audience on slightly-raised platforms. The Heights Players received the first major donation from the Topper Hatter Theater Co. in the form of seats, which had formerly been in the Roxy Theater in New York City. By the start of the 1963-64 season, The Heights Players members were in a space they considered their home, a place in which to build a future. The Heights Players prospered for the first three seasons in their new home.
But by the fall of 1966, many of the sustaining members had moved to the suburbs, taken professional jobs, or, with the growing number of community theaters, became active with other neighborhood groups. By the spring of 1968, there were only 25 active members to elect officers for the coming season. The new Board of Directors, consisting of one original member and four newcomers, sat down to plot the future of the group.
The first question was whether to continue the group or disband. With a grand total of $69.00 in the bank and a looming debt of $2,000.00, the future looked pretty bleak. But with a determination to make The Heights Players, Inc. a strong and lasting group, the help of the community was enlisted; we were given until June 1969 to prove ourselves. The initial project undertaken was to start a subscription series of Angels and Patrons for Adult Theater, and Cherubs for Theater for Children. The Heights Press ran an article on the plight of the Players, in addition to printing a full-page advertisement of productions and subscription information. By September there was enough money in the bank to meet outstanding bills and mount a production of a non-royalty Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. In March, at the final performance of The Boyfriend, two members who had each loaned the Players $400.00, were paid back in full. At last, all debts were paid and there was money in the bank. From 1969 on, The Heights Players, Inc. have never ended a season in debt and have always had enough capital to plan for the following season.
The Board of Directors chose plays, which reflected the pre-World War II summer stock companies & established plays with casts that featured familiar Heights Players faces with a sprinkling of new ones; the membership door was open to everyone. Fundraising was started and the Brooklyn Savings Bank became our first benefactor, producing two Theater for Children productions.
The by-laws were revised to reflect a growing non-profit theatrical organization, providing for an enlarged Board of Directors and Executive Committee, with new powers and detailed, preventative measures. This by-law revision, notwithstanding a few amendments, is still our guide today.
The aforementioned subscription list (established during the 1968-69 season), has grown yearly, and we now have over 200 subscribers. The original subscribers brought in new people, and they too became subscribers or regular members of our audience. Not only do our supporters represent the community of Brooklyn Heights, but also a cross-section of the tri-state area, giving the group a mailing list of well over 1,500.
An increased audience meant an increased bank account. The Board of Directors decided that rather than having cash in the bank, improvements in both production elements and facilities should be made; this included professional lighting and sound equipment with booths for same; new seating and specially designed dance floor.
In 1990 plans were made for an air conditioning system that would work within our very open theater space. In the spring of that year ceiling fans were installed above all audience sections and in the summer of 1991, the central air conditioning system was begun; after four years of fine-tuning the work was completed. In the summer of 1996 a new, high-tech lighting board was also installed.
The above improvements could not be accomplished without special events, such as workshops, cabarets, our annual Gala Fundraiser, benefit performances, grants from the City Council and our June Workshop Series, which showcases original works with new directors at the helm and has proven to be a great success over the years. Another special event is our offering of Children’s birthday parties, which will be available at our matinee performances of Miracle on 34th Street. For more information, please call (718) 237-2752.
The Brooklyn Arts and Cultural Association, Inc. provided us with grants for our Theater for Children and Experimental Theater. Grants have also been received from businesses in recognition of our outreach programs and from their matching grant programs. We received a City Council grant through Councilman Ken Fisher’s Office, in recognition of our programs for children.
In its over sixty seasons, as our hallway will attest, in its long existence The Heights Players has received formal citations and commendations from many cultural organizations, Borough Presidents, City Councilmen, State Senators and Assemblymen/women, Congressman/women, Senators, and Presidents for its continued contributions to the cultural and educational quality of this community.
Many of our former members, including Richard Mulligan, Alan Arkin and Ellen Green have gone on to make names for themselves as performers, directors and theatrical/motion picture administrators.
More recently, with the support of Assemblywoman Joan Millman, the New York Legislature approved a CCAP Grant which provided funds for the replacement of our stage. We thank all of our elected officials and other donors for recognizing our efforts.