On May 24, 2023, Richard Gartee released his 27th book “The Hippodrome Theatre First 50 Years” telling the story of the downtown theater from its founding to its 50th anniversary. I got the chance to interview Gartee last Thursday on how and why he wrote the book, as well as the history and its influence on downtown Gainesville.
Q: Why did you write a book about the history of the Hippodrome theater?
A: There are three principal reasons. The first is that the Hippodrome is a phenomenon. It was a small band of theater people who started on a shoestring with absolutely no money at all, but they did such quality plays. At the time they started, the only theater there was in Gainesville was when you could see the Florida Players a couple times a year, and they just did amateur theater, that was it. When they formed the Hippodrome, they started doing plays that if you liked theater you could not see outside of New York City, nobody here had ever seen it. Even a play that we would think of as more mainstream like Neil Simon’s, The Odd Couple. They performed that and it was a big hit on Broadway. Nobody in Gainesville had ever seen it except people who went to New York to see theater.
They created something that was unique and did it all on almost no money. The quality that they put into the performances was so great they'd started attracting New York playwrights, New York actors, and New York directors, who wanted to come and do a play here. The quality just kept going up and up, and the theater kept getting better. At some point, probably by the early 1980s, they had reached a standing where they were, if not the best, undoubtedly one of the best professional regional theaters in America. It was a phenomenal story of how these young U.F. grads could start something that would become so artistically excellent over time.
The other thing was that it's the 50th anniversary and at the 50-year mark there are a lot of people in Gainesville who don’t necessarily know much about the Hippodrome so I wanted to preserve that information and make sure it was kept.
The third reason was that I thought it would benefit the Hippodrome to have something substantial about them out there in the community. To have something that says, “hey we're not just the local guys down the street doing a play on your Mom’s back porch”.
Q: What’s the most interesting thing about the history of the Hippodrome?
A: That they were able to attract powerful playwrights with powerful scripts that appreciated what they were doing so much that they wanted to do it in the Hippodrome. Tennessee Williams, who was undoubtedly the greatest American playwright, his works stands up today, people are still performing it. They convinced him to come to Gainesville and to let them premiere a play that had not yet been on Broadway. The Hippodrome got the world premiere of a Tennessee Williams play and got him to come here. That was their major win, but that happened repeatedly.
On the back cover, I chose 6 images, because what these images show to me are places where the Hippodrome really raised the bar. The first image is their first play, which isn’t raising the bar but just showing where they started their theater, but then they did Equus. At the time Equus was still on Broadway, and it was the most talked about play that there was. The Hippodrome got the rights to it and it was the most expensive play this little company had ever paid for. Their production on it was so fantastic that it really set the expectation. People who went to the Hippodrome thought everything they do should be that great.
A couple of years later they did a play called The Elephant Man. That was another play that raised the bar. It was incredibly famous and incredibly respected in the New York theater world. The Hippodrome got the right to do it and their performance here just blew everyone away.
Two years later they followed it up with Amadeus which is the story of Mozart. That was another huge win for them. They kept building, and raising the bar of what Gainesville expected to be really good theater.
Q: Who are the most prominent people in the story of the Hippodrome?
A: The founders, the six people who founded the theater are Gregory Hausch, Mary Hausch, Bruce Cornwell, Marilyn Wall, Kerry McKinney, and a fellow named Orin Wechsberg. Those were the six founders, they were certainly important. Orin left the first year. He said ‘this is not the kind of theater I wanna do, I’ll do something else’. So he went off and did his own thing but another man came to the theater and joined them right after that, Marshall New. Marshall New was one of the most important people in the theater, he’s often referred to as one of the founders. Marilyn Wall said Marshall would just call anybody. He called Tennessee Williams on the phone and said “hey I wanna do this with your plays”, he’d just call anybody, it didn’t matter how famous they were. He wrote to the author of the book Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, he wrote him a letter and said “I wanna do an original adaptation of your novel”. Nabokov said sure. He would do this over and over again, Marshall was that important. He would give them plays that they didn’t think he would get.
Beyond him, I would say Lauren Caldwell. Lauren Caldwell was an actor and a director. She came to the Hippodrome in 1990. She became the second person that wasn’t a founder to become an artistic director. The first artistic directors were the founders. The first artistic director who wasn’t a founder was Marshall. Then Lauren Caldwell became the artistic director after he left. She really was a stamp on the Hippodrome, she had a vision of what theater should be. She would do plays that were so remarkable the audience would be blown away, and sometimes she would do plays that were so far out there the audience would be scratching their heads. Overall she did fantastic work.
The third person to become an artistic director is the one that's currently there now, Stephanie Lynge. She had come to the Hippodrome as a college student and did an internship there before becoming assistant director, and then artistic director after Lauren left.
Marshall, Lauren, Stephanie, and the six founders would be the largest in terms of imprints on the theater.
Q: Who did you interview for the book?
A: I interviewed four of the founders, the directors that I mentioned, Stephanie, Lauren, and Marshall, and about 30 actors who would’ve been key actors, they’ve been in plays for many years there.
Q: Do you feel you’ve accomplished your goal of creating a domain for the history of the Hippodrome?
A: This book is exactly what I wanted it to be, I’m very proud of it because it’s so complete. It's got pretty much everything that happened with the theater. It’s got every play they’ve performed on the main stage, 420 of them. It’s got 20 more plays they did for children’s theater. It’s got 428 photos, a photo for almost every play. Each play, it’s got the story of that play because I realize even people who’ve been to that play don’t necessarily remember the play. I wrote into the book what the plays were about, the actors and actresses who were in it, and some funny, amusing things that they remembered from that play.
Q: How did the Hippodrome improve downtown Gainesville?
A: By bringing in people, in two ways. The Hippodrome looks fabulous now, but it was once an old, gray, abandoned building that was being used by the Department of Education for some offices. So it’s just this building set in the middle of downtown where there really wasn’t much happening at the time. They built the Gainesville Mall and all the department stores downtown like J.C. Penny had packed up and left, so there were all these empty stores standing downtown. All the small stores had been surviving because they were next to a big department store. Then they left so downtown Gainesville just has all these empty buildings and this big, kind of old courthouse just sitting there unused. The Hippodrome moved there and they did a lot. They got put on the national register and did a lot of work to turn it from an old federal court building into a theater.
Throughout the Month of July, Gartee will be hosting four free events, with each focusing on a different aspect of the book. Gartee will be present to sell and sign the book, along with having discussions and answering questions for attendees. If you would like to learn more about the events or learn more about the book you can find a link to the Hippodrome First 50 Years website here.