Bright Lights

Founded in the Great Depression, the Germantown Theatre Guild provided hope during troubling times

Sojourner was one of the many plays the Germantown Theatre Guild produced in its over 60 years in existence. Shown performing in the Guild’s 1986 production are (left to right): Janie Taylor, Ed Gavin, William Flynn, Elizabeth Flax, Ron Stepney, and Pamela Courtleigh. Photos courtesy of Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown.

During dark days, it’s helpful to look back at past generations and how they relied on community assets to deal with adversity. In Germantown, one such effort created a new institution.

In 1933, Violet Minehart opened the Germantown Theatre Guild at 4821 Germantown Avenue at the height of the Great Depression, as a cheap alternative to the movies. Her family had owned the property for many years, and an unused barn behind the house seemed to be a perfect venue in which Minehart could open her theatre. She converted the old barn to seat 175 people and her daughter, Katherine — often referred to as “Kitty”– took over the Theatre shortly thereafter. The venue quickly became a neighborhood institution, with many locals from Germantown and Mount Airy filling roles as performers, puppeteers, prop masters, business managers, and maintenance personnel.

During the Guild’s 60+ years in existence, it put on many theatre classics including Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but also debuted new works based on community input and interest.

For example, the production of Sojourner, which depicted the life of 19th-century African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth. Classes from schools throughout the five-county area attended these productions, including local schools such as Lingelbach, Pickett Middle School, and the Pastorius School.

Though successful, the Guild did suffer through hard times. Part of the Guild’s success was its coffee break, held during intermission. During World War II, with coffee and sugar rationing in place, the Guild was no longer able to hold its coffee break. This feature was a popular part of an evening at the Guild, and when combined with a shortage of staff and volunteers during the War, plays became increasingly difficult to produce.

A review of Guild administrative records held at the Germantown Historical Society revealed that as early as 1952, discussions had occurred expressing doubt that the venue could remain open. However, the Guild was able to persevere for more than 40 years, in part through an increased reliance on grant funding from sources such as the Germantown Savings Bank, Bell of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Council, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts before finally closing in the mid-1990s.

About the Time Machine
This regular series goes back in time with Tuomi Forrest, Executive Director of Historic Germantown, as he picks some of his favorite images from the Germantown Historical Society’s extensive collection. Alex Bartlett, Librarian and Archivist of the Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown, writes the columns, bringing photos from the distant past to life. For additional information or to learn more about the history of our area, please contact Alex at (215) 844-1683, or at library@germantownhistory.org.

 

About Alex Bartlett 10 Articles
Librarian and archivist Alex Bartlett combines his hobbies with his career. Working for the Germantown historical society, Bartlett manages the libraries’ collection and archives, while also helping to provide visitors with requested research documents. Alex is a self-described “history nerd,” with interests in archeology and old bottles and glassware. He said that growing up in Germantown is what initially stimulated his enthusiasm toward historical documents and objects, and his job manages to integrate all of his interests into one field.

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