The Montauk Playhouse was originally built as a Tennis Auditorium between 1928 and 1929 as a centerpiece for Carl Fisher’s planned destination resort. The exterior is treated in the Tudor-revival style, characteristic of much of Carl Fisher’s Montauk architecture.
The building is immense – built to accommodate 2 standard-size tennis courts with seating for over 6,000. The seating was designed to allow spectators to view play on both courts simultaneously with ample locker rooms and lounge facilities.
At the time of completion the building was said to be the largest of its kind in the world. The building is directly across from the Montauk train station and just below the Montauk Manor. When visitors stepped off the train, their first vision of Montauk was (and still is) this striking structure. The southwest corner of the building is most articulated, with an overlay of half-timber, exemplifying the structure’s significance in the community.
The building is of light steel frame construction and sheathed in prefabricated plywood frame panels developed by Fisher’s staff architects, which could be plastered on the interior and stuccoed on the exterior. The roofs were glass-enclosed and provided ample natural light for the courts below.
Carl Fisher had high hopes for Montauk and for the Tennis Auditorium. It was expected to be one of the principal attractions of Fisher’s planned recreation resort (other recreation areas for the Montauk resort included the Polo Club, Yacht Club and Surf Club). The estimated cost of constructing the facility was $125,000, a large sum for the late 1920s. It’s principal use would, of course, be tennis, but the facility was designed to stage numerous activities, including boxing matches and large-scale conferences.
August 29, 1929 – The Auditorium opened to the public with great fanfare with a boxing exhibition between Rene De Vos, heavyweight fighter from Belgium, and Babe McCorgary. Jim Corbett, former heavyweight champion, was brought in to talk about his careers as a boxer and actor, and Mayor Walker of New York was expected as master of ceremonies. It was even expected that Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney would make the facility their training headquarters.Over 1,500 tickets were sold for the opening night festivities, netting approximately $3,500 for a building fund for Montauk’s soon-to-be erected Catholic Church.
The stock market crash of 1929 took a toll on Carl Fisher’s holdings. His Miami-beach project was failing and the Montauk project suffered in turn. The Montauk Manor, Yacht Club, and Surf Club continued to serve guests through the 1930s, and the Tennis Auditorium continued to operate, serving primarily as the indoor tennis courts for the Montauk Manor.
Early in the decade, the Montauk Manor had a Tennis Pro, who taught and scheduled matches at the Tennis Auditorium during inclement weather.
June 1939 – In a radio interview a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Interior Travel Bureau, speaking about Montauk as a travel destination, noted that the Auditorium was unroofed by the Hurricane of 1938, but that it was being repaired for the 1939 season. It is assumed that the Auditorium continued to be used for tennis play up until World War II.
1942 – World War II – The Montauk Beach Property Owners’ Association (MBPOA) took title to the structure. During World War II, the United States Navy took over most of Carl Fisher’s buildings in Montauk for operational and recreational purposes. The Tennis Auditorium was leased to the Navy by the MBPOA and retrofitted with heat. One of the tennis courts was transformed into an assembly hall and theater for the troops. The second court was used primarily as storage for the Montauk Manor Hotel. At the end of the war, the troops left Montauk and the building sat idle for a number of years. Ownership of the building eventually reverted back to the original deed holder because the MBPOA could not maintain the building due to the cost of upkeep and taxes.
1950s – Phin Dickenson used the rear court of the building as an indoor arena for training quarter horses for show competitions. Several truckloads of sand were brought in to prepare the space for the horses.
1958 and 1959 – Edward Pospisil and Son, Inc. repaired the roof, covering up the skylights, and made interior repairs, preparing the building for the opening of a seasonal theater.
The summer of 1959 saw the opening of a summer stock theater. Herb Sheldon, a TV personality, arrived in Montauk in the spring of 1959 with a group of young actors. Patrons were treated to live theatre performances 6 days a week while sitting in director’s chairs. “The Boy Friend” and “The Drunkard” were two of the performances that summer.
Refreshments were even provided during intermission. To reflect its new purpose, the name of the facility was changed from the Montauk Tennis Auditorium to the Montauk Manor Playhouse. Unfortunately, audiences dwindled to the point where performances were onlydrawing 50 to 60 people a night, and the summer stock theater closed at the end of the season.
1960s – Prudential Theaters opened the facility as a summer movie house. The movie continued to operate seasonally for over a decade. Pappy Windsor was its first manager, followed by Joan Lycke, current MPCCF Board Member, and Maine Barletta. Craig Tuthill and John Lycke were both projectionists. Many Montauk residents still have fond memories of going to movies at the Playhouse. Some joke about sitting in the old summer stock director’s chairs or beach chairs that they brought themselves, watching for loose ceiling tiles.
1970s – The building was eventually abandoned. Sometime in the 1980s, Joseph Oppenheimer of the Montauk Playhouse Associates, the owners of the building at the time, resurfaced one of the courts for his personal use.
1987 – Years of neglect were hard on the building, but this did not keep it from being recognized as an important site. Because of its immense size and its architecture characteristic of Carl Fisher’s Montauk buildings, the Playhouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
1999 – The Montauk Playhouse Associates had a number of plans for the building over the years, but none came to fruition. In 1999, they – namely, Joseph Oppenheimer, Richard Bernhard and Michael J. Buffa – graciously donated the Playhouse and its 4.4 acres of surrounding property to the Town of East Hampton. The East Hampton Town Board at that time – Supervisor Catherine Lester, and Councilpersons Peter Hammerle, Pat Mansir, Job Potter and Len Bernard – accepted the donation at an informal ceremony at the Playhouse site.
2002 – The building was listed on the Preservation League of New York State’s “Seven to Save,” an annual published list of the 7 most endangered properties in New York State.
October 7, 2003 – The East Hampton Town Board, namely Jay Schneiderman, Peter Hammerle, Pat Mansir, Job Potter and Diana Weir, voted unanimously to bond for $6 million to restore the structure and complete Phase I of the community center project. Work on the first phase of saving the structure and turning it into a community center began in January 2004.
February 2004 – The first round of on-site cleanup and asbestos abatement was completed. Work on the exterior of the structure began in earnest in September 2004, with site clearing and roof demolition completed in early November. Walls began to go up soon after.
February 2005 – The brick chimney installed during World War II was razed for both structural and aesthetic reasons. Many locals were on hand to see the structure come down.
April 14, 2005 – The East Hampton Town Board approved an $850,000 bond to cover an increase in materials costs for the project. At the same time, the Town Board awarded the bid for the interior work at the site.
April 2006 – First phase construction was completed and facilities opened to the public. On May 7, 2006, the Montauk Playhouse Community Center Foundation hosted a Grand Opening Ribbon Cutting Ceremony, which was attended by 100s of community members and visitors.
If you have any history, anecdotes, or photos that you would like to see added to this page, please contact us.