Phoenix Theatre, Which First Lifted Its Curtain In 1920s, Still Has A Wide Reach

Published: Tuesday, September 26, 2017 - 3:50pm
Updated: Wednesday, September 27, 2017 - 11:09am

(Photo courtesy of Phoenix Theatre)
(Photo courtesy of Reg Madison)
Michael Barnard

Did you know that the Phoenix Theatre was once a stable with horses and stagecoaches?

The actual Phoenix Theatre used to belong to the Heard Family once upon a time and it housed their horses. It’s of course now home to the longest continuously running arts organization in the state.

The Phoenix Theatre, which first lifted its curtain in the early 1920s, started off as a roving venue.

Formed by the Phoenix Players the troupe put on shows where ever they could — even in people’s backyards. They moved to their permanent home in 1923 near McDowell Road and Central Avenue in Phoenix, displacing the Heard family horses.

We talked to the theater’s Producing Artistic Director Michael Barnard, who says Phoenix Theatre was part of the growing arts district which really blossomed in the 1950s.

At the time, Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix Art Museum and the Phoenix Library were the nucleus of downtown.

“The three entities existed there and it was known as the Civic Plaza with the caveat that there would always be a theater on that premise," Barnard said.

The library later moved down the road, but Phoenix Theatre remained — in the reinvented stagecoach house — and has been there ever since.

As the sixth-oldest continuously operated theater in the country, Phoenix Theatre was one of the few theaters to keep its doors open during the World Wars. It worked with the United Service Organizations, putting on shows to entertain troops from the Williams and Luke bases — and they made due with what they had at the time.

“Sometimes the shows were all female-based and sometimes they worked depending on if certain men were available. To perform in those shows. It was even the hospital for a short while,” Barnard said.

Since then, Phoenix Theatre has been a launchpad for new plays including “The Women” by Clare Boothe Luce, and new this year, a play by Sally Jo Bannow. And Phoenix Theatre kickstarted the careers of several now world famous actors and filmmakers — including one of Hollywood’s biggest directors.

“This is where Steven Spielberg got his start. And he showed is very, very first film with his father here. The movie was called 'Fire Light,'” he said.

The theater has had a wide reach over the decades and is still the largest regional theater company in the Valley with over 400 performances each season.

Since Barnard arrived 19 years ago, Phoenix Theatre has had eight world premieres, all which got their start in Phoenix. Now as their centennial anniversary approaches Barnard says they plan on building a brand new theater as well as boosting the theater’s visibility not only locally but nationally.

Barnard will be talking about the theater’s history and future tonight in Goodyear. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to correct the number of performances Phoenix Theatre has each season.

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