A Brief History of Totem Pole Playhouse
Totem Pole Playhouse, “America’s Summer Theater”, began its life in a small converted auto shop in 1950 and has gone on to become one of the best known and highly-regarded summer theaters in the United States. The New York Times called Totem Pole Playhouse “the Cadillac of summer theaters.”
Totem Pole’s legacy extends to the pinnacle of almost every facet of the entertainment industry.
Karl Genus founded the Playhouse with his wife Muriel Benson in 1950. Mr. Genus, a pioneer in the early days of “live” television, became one of the founding members of the Directors Guild of America. The DGA represents directors working in film, television, commercials, documentaries, news, sports and new media today. Mr. Genus served on the Board of Directors of the DGA for 27 years, many of those as Vice President, until his passing in 2003.
In 1953, William H. (Bill) Putch, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, was hired as the new Artistic Director. “Putch” as he was affectionately known ran the playhouse for 30 years until his sudden death in November of 1983 at the age of 60. He directed over 300 productions, many starring his wife Emmy Award-winning actress, Jean Stapleton from the classic TV series, All in the Family. It was during his tenure that the Playhouse achieved national prominence.
After Mr. Putch’s passing, his daughter, Pamela Putch, and then resident actors, Carl Schurr and Wil Love guided the Playhouse through the following summer season.
Ms. Putch left Totem Pole Playhouse after the 1984 season. She currently serves as the Senior Vice-President of Production for NBC Universal where she oversees all of the network’s prime time programming; as well as, their live televised Broadway musical productions.
Messers. Schurr and Love remained as producing artistic director and associate artistic director, respectively. In addition to overseeing the summer seasons at the Playhouse, they staged successful productions that would later move to Philadelphia’s historic Walnut Street Theatre. Together they produced, directed and acted in more than 100 productions until their departure in 2008. During their 25yr. tenure Totem Pole became the summer home to many talented actors including such Tony Award winners as Jane Howdyshell and Julie White. It was also during this era that the Playhouse transitioned to a non-for-profit corporation.
Ray Ficca, another resident company member served as the artistic director from 2008 through the 2013 season. Ficca, a professional actor since 1991 currently serves as the president of the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, a highly respected acting school in Washington, D.C. A Totem Pole audience favorite he continues to perform at the Playhouse when his busy schedule allows.
In November of 2013, Rowan Joseph, became the first producing artistic director since 1953 to be recruited from outside the Playhouse’s resident company. Joseph directed numerous productions for the Playhouse including Godspell, Shenandoah, Jesus Christ Superstar, Million Dollar Quartet, Shear Madness and Totem Pole’s nationally-award winning annual production of A Christmas Carol. Joseph resigned his position in July 2020.
During the most challenging period in theatre history, David Hemsley Caldwell accepted the reins as Artistic Director in January 2021 during a worldwide pandemic that paused the performing arts industry across the globe. After twenty three years, twenty five-plus shows and countless friendships with Totem Pole Playhouse, Caldwell is honored and humbled to call Totem Pole Playhouse his home.