The city was filled with excitement and hyperbole. “The eyes of the theatrical world will be upon Fort Lauderdale tonight,” one newspaper columnist wrote, “as the magnificent new, million-dollar Parker Playhouse opens its doors for the first time.”
That February evening in 1967 was a big deal for local theater lovers. Dr. Louis Parker, the major contributor (after whom the theater was named), was shocked that people who lived in Broward County all their lives had never seen a stage play.
“They have missed something – something different from the movies and television,” he said. “Something that for years people in cities have taken for granted.”
Dr. Parker’s wealth came from his career as an inventor and industrialist. Born in Budapest, he earned his first patent at the age of 12 for a reusable circuit breaker; in 1948, he invented a device to synchronize sound and picture in TVs. Two decades later, the device was in every television set in the world. He died in 1993.
As for the playhouse, the world really was watching in 1981. That was the year that Elizabeth Taylor was coaxed into trying her hand at stage acting. Impresario Zev Buffman’s lavish production of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes – starring Taylor and Maureen Stapleton – debuted at the Parker before going on to become a Broadway hit. Of that time Taylor said, “I was overwhelmed by waves of love which nourished me long after the curtain fell.”
Over the decades other theatrical venues emerged in Fort Lauderdale, including, in 1991, our full-blown performing arts center. But Parker Playhouse remains a special place to see live theater – as well as other entertainment.
“Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse manages to be elegant, grand and intimate, all at the same time,” says Christine Dolen, the longtime Miami Herald theater critic. “The audience seating area is wide and curved toward the stage, with no center aisle, yet the distance from the last row to the proscenium isn’t too great. So the theater can seat more than 1,150 people, yet still make everyone in the audience feel close to the action onstage.”
Among the box-office hits in the theater’s celebrated history: All My Sons with Jack Klugman, The Mousetrap with David McCallum, That Championship Season with Jason Robards and Othello with Christopher Plummer and James Earl Jones.
While those golden days of theater are gone, the Playhouse isn’t. Now under the management of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, it is currently undergoing a major renovation that aims to add some upgraded comforts while maintaining the great building’s character. While the theater doesn’t have the backstage space or technical sophistication for major musicals, it is still well-suited for drama and comedy, not to mention touring music and dance acts. In more recent years actors and musical acts as diverse as Kathleen Turner, Valerie Harper, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Lyle Lovett and John Prine have graced its stage.
More than 50 years ago, Dr. Parker made a prediction: “Today we plant a tree that will bear fruit – pleasure for us, our children and the tens of thousands who will be drawn here in the years to come.”
When you’re again able to go to the theater – or when you’re just buzzing by the familiar billboard on Federal Highway – think of the man who planted that “tree.”
He was the inventor who synchronized audio and video in your TV. And went on to devise a meter for moonwalking astronauts to monitor their oxygen supplies.
All put together, that’s some show.