A Brief History of Totem Pole Playhouse

The historic Totem Pole Playhouse 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 theatres in the United States. Totem Pole’s legacy extends to the pinnacle of almost every facet of the entertainment industry.

Founding Artistic Director Karl Genus ran the playhouse with his wife Muriel Benson from 1951 until 1953. Mr. Genus went on to become a pioneer in the television industry and was one of the founding members of the Directors Guild of America. The DGA is the union which 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 this time that the playhouse came to 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.

In 1985, Schurr and Love took over as producing artistic director and associate artistic director, respectively. In addition to overseeing the summer seasons at the Playhouse, they staged 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 tenure Totem Pole 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.

In November of 2013, Rowan Joseph, became the first producing artistic director since 1953 to be recruited from outside the playhouse’s resident company.

In addition to running Totem Pole, Joseph continues to work as a professional actor, director, and producer. He directed and produced the critically-acclaimed feature film, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun starring Ben McKenzie, which was released nationally by Mark Cuban’s Truly Indie. As an actor he appeared most recently on the Emmy Award-winning HBO series, Veep. His film credits include The Campaign with Will Ferrell, The Princess Diaries 2 with Anne Hathaway, Raising Helen with Kate Hudson, Grudge Match starring Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone and several smaller indie films including the Tom Hines’ Chronic Town at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

Totem Pole Playhouse has many distinguished alumni working in the American Theatre. In fact, 3 of the 4 cast members in the recent Broadway production of the new play, A Doll’s House, Part 2, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Tony Award winners, Jayne Houdyshell and Julie White began their careers at Totem Pole Playhouse.