A Brief History of LOOM

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1998, Revised 2002)

All the photos below are thumbnails -- click on them to see larger versions.

William Mount-Burke)When it all began, there were twenty three people in the cast, and twelve in the audience.

It was the autumn of 1968, and William Mount-Burke (pictured in the thumbnail at left), former director of The Miami Light Opera and The Stamford Symphony, wanted to establish an Off-Broadway company to perform the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. With no other space available, he staged a free showcase performance of The Pirates of Penzance in his Manhattan apartment. The dozen people in attendance were actually a packed house!

The enthusiastic response of those present led to the formation of The Light Opera of Manhattan, affectionately known as LOOM. After a series of free performances in St. Michael's Church on East 99th Street, Mount-Burke's team was offered the gymnasium of The Jan Hus House on East 74th Street for a "short engagement." That engagement lasted for six years, during which the company incorporated as a non-profit organization and established itself as a fixture in New York's theatrical landscape. In those early years, the repertory was almost entirely the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Casting & Production

The casting at LOOM was a fascinating mix. A core group of seven Equity leads performed with about twenty-three young actors working towards their Equity membership. LOOM was the only full-time theatre company in Manhattan with such an arrangement. The pay was minimal, but the company was able to nurture young actors, something all too rare in American professional theatre. Performers could work their way from chorus to featured roles in a season or so. The key requirements for the LOOM company were punctuality and continuing with outside voice studies. A number of future Broadway pros, includingJekyll & Hyde's Robert Cucciolli, got their start through LOOM's Equity program.

H.M.S. PinaforeAt right is a scene from LOOM's H.M.S. Pinafore, with the delightful Raymond Allen as Sir Joseph Porter, the "Ruler of the Queen's Nav-ee."

Raymond Allen was the comic cornerstone for most of the company's performances over the years. With many years of experience in the Gilbert and Sullivan repertory, he approached each production with a strong sense of theatrical tradition and a gift for physical buffoonery.

LOOM created all its own sets and costumes from scratch, guaranteeing a professional standard at minimal cost. Resident director Jerry Gotham did wonders with limited space and resources, always showing the operettas and performers to their best advantage. There were only two people in the pit: pianist Brian Mallory (who knew every score by heart) and William Mount-Burke playing organ and timpani while conducting the cast. This gave LOOM's performances an intimate sound and kept the focus on the singing. At a time when most professional companies were using sound systems, LOOM allowed audiences to enjoy the refreshing sound of the unamplified human voice.

In 1974, the company moved across 74th Street to the more spacious Eastside Playhouse. For their tenth season in 1978-79, LOOM became the first company ever to stage all the works of Gilbert and Sullivan consecutively in one season. The two final G&S operas, Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke, received their long overdue New York premieres. Long dismissed by scholars, both shows proved to be surprisingly entertaining, did strong business, and returned for extended runs the following year. It was during that magical season (veterans called it "The Festival Year") that I first saw and fell in love with LOOM. Student tickets were available for a paltry $4.00! Who in their right mind could resist delightful live performances for less than the price of a movie? Seeing all thirteen of the G&S operettas in one season was a rare lesson in musical theatre history – and incomparable fun.

LOOM's Non-G&S Hits

The Merry WidowThe company asked Alice Hammerstein Mathias (Oscar Hammerstein II's daughter) to create a new translation of Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow. With Broadway veteran Jeanne Bouvais (pictured at left) in the lead, The Merry Widow was a tremendous success that brought more people than ever to LOOM. More than one critic agreed that this intimate production was the best Merry Widow that New York had seen in years. Lavishly costumed and performed with style, it remained an audience favorite for the next decade.

Throughout the 70s and early 80s, LOOM added more American and continental operettas to its roster. The Vagabond King, The Desert Song, The New Moon, The Red Mill, The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein and others became part of the repertory. The most successful were Sigmund Romberg's The Student Prince and Victor Herbert's almost forgotten Mlle Modiste. Both became showcases for Georgia MacEver, a coloratura soprano who was leading lady for many LOOM productions.

LOOM's biggest hit was also its least likely one. Alice Hammerstein Mathias created a new book and lyrics for Victor Herbert's Babes In Toyland, giving the classic show its first professional New York production in decades. The new plot centered on two unhappy children who run away to Toyland but are eventually reconciled with their parents. The ensemble turned into mechanical militia for the "March of the Wooden Soldiers" (photo below), and children from the audience were brought up to help "wind-up" the toy dancers.

The March of the Wooden Soldiers"The March of the Wooden Soldiers" from LOOM's Babes in Toyland.

Babes was the sure-fire holiday smash that every small theatre company prays for. Parents were thrilled to have something other than Radio City's annual behemoth to take their children to at Christmas time, and older audience members were delighted to hear Victor Herbert's evergreen melodies. LOOM's Babes in Toyland was revived annually, playing to sold out houses from Thanksgiving through New Years.

Difficult Times

LOOM began a fundraising drive to purchase the Eastside Playhouse. The company seemed unstoppable until diabetes suddenly blinded William Mount-Burke. He continued to conduct performances from memory and plan LOOM’s future. But further complications of the disease set in, taking Mount-Burke’s life in 1984.

Jean Dalrymple, the veteran producer of City Center's musical revivals in the 1950s, took over as president and made a valiant attempt to carry on. But the company faced a series of unexpected disasters and expenses, including the loss of its  home. The Eastside Playhouse was being torn down to make way for a small apartment building. During LOOM’s final Christmas there, audiences crammed into the partially demolished theatre to cheer the company on, and the profits from that run of Babes in Toyland gave them the funds to go on.

LOOM moved to The Norman Thomas High School Auditorium and then The Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village. However, no theatre could match the low rent and generous space of the Eastside Playhouse. Strong ticket sales were not enough to meet increasing expenses, and LOOM ceased performing in October of 1986.

The LOOM Revival

But Jean Dalrymple did not give up. With Jerry Gotham and Raymond Allen as joint artistic directors and Todd Ellison as the new musical director, LOOM soon resumed a 52 week per year production schedule at the 91st Street Playhouse. In search of a new hit, they revised George M. Cohan's Little Johnny Jones. Renamed Give My Regards To Broadway, it had more tap dancing than any show Off-Broadway and helped re-establish the company's following.

Babes in ToylandLOOM's Babes in Toyland.

The "new LOOM" years were an exciting time. One would arrive at the 91st Street Playhouse for a performance of The Mikado and find the chorus kids out on the sidewalk rehearsing tap routines for an upcoming run of Give My Regards.  Presenting some of its best casts and most varied repertory ever, LOOM was once again a theatre lover's dream come true.

It was a dream that was not destined to last. Despite solid attendance, old tax headaches proved fatal. LOOM closed for good in August of 1989, after a run of Pirates of Penzance – the same show that the company had started with back in 1968. In 1990, Raymond Allen and Georgia McEver starred in a brief run of The Merry Widow at Westchester's Emelin Theatre. There was still talk of the company finding a new home, but it was not to be. LOOM came to an end and New York quietly lost its only fulltime musical repertory theatre company.

In the years that followed, LOOM's last general manager produced several projects under the company's name, but LOOM was little more than a legal fiction. The passing of Raymond Allen and Jerry Gotham ended any hopes that the company might be revived. The only place LOOM lives on is in the memories of the many thousands who enjoyed its productions. Twenty one years? That's a lot of "innocent merriment" for a company that started with only twelve people in the audience.

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