The idea for an American Shakespeare theater was credited to the playwright and producer Lawrence Langner, who enlisted the help of Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, and the philanthropist Joseph Verner Reed.
The theater was barely completed in time for its first performances of “Julius Caesar” in 1955. Christopher Plummer, Raymond Massey and Jack Palance (who later became host of the television show “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” and an Academy Award winner for the 1991 movie “City Slickers”) took the stage for performances that The New York Times called “routine and uneven.”
Nevertheless, the theater became central to the production of Shakespearean plays in America.
By 1982, the theater had run out of money and benefactors, and the state took ownership. In 2005, the town reclaimed the deed and struggled to figure out what to do with it.
“You’ve got half the townspeople thinking it’s our legacy, it’s our heritage, it’s our privilege and responsibility to maintain this,” said Wendy Canfield, whose grandmother ran the theater’s costume museum and whose mother and two aunts had summer jobs there, told The Times in 2009. “And you’ve got a lot of other people who think of it as an arsonist’s dream, an albatross. It had its time, it had its place. All great things come to an end.”
A “ShakesBeer Festival” fund-raiser was organized as part of an effort to revive the theater. In 2017, Ms. Deponte’s group hired an architectural firm to mothball the site — which required cleaning out layers of mold and trash, and protecting it from squatters, including raccoons — so that a plan could be created for its future use. Supporters unsuccessfully sought state funding to install a fire suppression system.
No one was injured in the fire, which was reported around 1 a.m. Its cause was under investigation.
Howard Sherman, an arts administrator and advocate who worked at the theater in 1989, worried about its fate.
On Facebook, he wrote, “I fear that someone has now had their way and cleared the land for other use, but even if this was somehow accidental, it seems to assure that this site will never be used for theater again — unless by luck proper insurance will allow a new, modern theater to be built in its place.”