The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey has never had a chief executive officer before; but, this week, the theater's board of directors announced that a sort of casting call for that role will be held over the next few months. Angelo Del Rossi, who has been with Paper Mill for 39 years, will remain as executive producer as the board searches but in a supporting role, concentrating on fundraising and development.
In a state with such notable theaters as the George Street, McCarter, and Crossroads, Paper Mill has the distinction of being the officially designated state theater. It grew to its current level of distinction, with a budget of $20 million for next season, from near-indigence as the Newark Art Theater, a component of the Newark Art Club. It got its current name when two theater lovers, Frank Carrington and Antoinette Scudder, found the troupe a home in a former paper mill in Millburn. Although further west than Newark, the new facility was still only a 40-minute train ride from New York's Penn Station, which enabled it to attract established actors and intrepid audience members from Manhattan.
Theatergoers who made the trip during the years 1938-40 saw a wide variety of offerings, including Eva LeGallienne in Noël Coward's Private Lives, Uta Hagen in Pursuit of Happiness, and José Ferrer in Flight into China, directed by Lee Strasberg. Under the direction of Carrington and Scudder, Paper Mill distinguished itself over the next decade by producing crowd-pleasing operettas. (Scudder had, in fact, written the lyrics to an operetta titled The Love Wagon in 1947.) It gradually switched to more contemporary fare, exemplified by its 1952 production of Kiss Me Kate with Ted Scott, who had starred in the Broadway production only a year earlier. Carrington directed or co-directed 90 percent of the musicals offered during those times, and non-musical productions were almost unknown.
After Scudder's death in 1958, Carrington continued to operate the theater but cut back on his directing. Del Rossi came to Paper Mill in 1963. Originally hired as a casting director, he was named associate producer the next year and worked closely with Carrington until the founder died in 1975. Del Rossi assumed the title of executive producer and, despite the upheaval caused by Carrington's lingering illness and death, managed to transfer a revival of Maureen Stapleton in The Glass Menagerie to Broadway. Although commonplace now, it was a rare accomplishment for regional theaters in those days.
On January 14, 1980, the facility burned to the ground. Del Rossi spearheaded the efforts to rebuild, ultimately raising more than $7 million and opening a new 1,300-seat facility on the site on October 30, 1982. Its first production in the new venue was the musical Robert and Elizabeth, directed by an up-and-coming actor-writer-director named Robert Johanson. He would be named artistic director of the theater in 1985 and, over the next 17 years, would direct and/or choreograph approximately 120 shows, including his own adaptations of such novels as Wuthering Heights, A Tale of Two Cities, Jane Eyre, and Great Expectations. He also performed in many shows at Paper Mill while functioning as artistic director, including the title roles in Jesus Christ Superstar and Peter Pan.
By March of this year, Del Rossi and Johanson seemed synonymous with Paper Mill, so the news that Johanson was leaving surprised patrons -- except those who studied the financials. Operating costs had been rising beyond what ticket sales could support, and although many people consider that natural at not-for-profit theaters like Paper Mill, the board was determined to stanch the flow before the deficit got any worse. The outstanding debt as the new season begins will be more than $3 million, much of which has been privately attributed to Johanson going over budget in the past. Fortunately, the theater's current production, Annie, is running at 98 percent capacity and is expected to turn a nice profit.
With Del Rossi's role being substantially rewritten so soon after Johanson's unexpected exit, many Paper Mill patrons are beginning to wonder what kind of backstage drama is unfolding and how many scenes are yet to be played out. Anyone interested in applying for the CEO position at Paper Mill should send an inquiry to Kenneth H. Thorne, Chair; Paper Mill: The State Theatre of New Jersey; Brookside Drive; Millburn, NJ 07041.