Santa Fe Playhouse was founded by writer and social activist Mary Austin (1868-1934). Austin was inspired by the national Little Theater movement, which established venues that operated outside of the mainstream, profit-driven theater world. Austin was drawn to Santa Fe in 1918 by its growing reputation as a center for artists, writers, and intellectuals.
Calling themselves the Santa Fe Players, a cast of locals presented the group’s first productions, on February 14 and May 13, 1919, in the St. Francis Auditorium at the newly constructed New Mexico Museum of Art. The museum’s architect, John Gaw Meem, acted in at least one of these plays. The Santa Fe Players incorporated in 1922 and performed in temporary venues around town, including tents at the rodeo grounds and makeshift shelters on the Plaza. Some early Fiesta Melodramas (still an annual tradition) were presented at an outdoor market that’s now a hotel parking lot on Old Santa Fe Trail. In 1964, the Santa Fe Players renovated an old livery stable in Barrio Analco into a theater space. Over the years, the venue has been called many things, including Santa Fe Little Theater and Santa Fe Community Theater, loosely following national theater trends. In 1997, it became the Santa Fe Playhouse.
One of the original signers of the 1964 mortgage, Robert Jerkins, bequeathed a generous gift to the theater in 2008. The Playhouse now owns the historic building at 142 E. De Vargas Street and has been able to make much-needed improvements as well as hire a professional staff to manage operations. The Playhouse has transformed and grown since 1922, taking a wartime pause in the 1940s, as well as a year in the 1960s where not much happened. As far as we know, we are the oldest, very-nearly-continuously operating theater west of the Mississippi. (The Pasadena Playhouse, in California, was founded in 1917 but went dark in the 1960s and ‘70s.)
The Santa Fe Playhouse has been awarded Best of Santa Fe in the category of Best Theater Group by the Santa Fe Reporter every year since 2019. The Santa Fe Playhouse is proud and humbled to begin its second century in a town that reveres its history.
Pictured Above: The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife, by Anatole France. February 14, 1919 at the St. Francis Auditorium, Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico. This is from the premiere performance by “The Santa Fe Players,” a local group cast and directed by Mary Austin, which later was renamed as the Santa Fe Playhouse.
Left to right: Anabel Haas, Robert W. Jerkins, Dorothy Best Donnelly, Joseph E. Paull, and Thomas A. Donnelly. These five people, plus Clay and Liz Buchanan and Bebs Lacey, had written the 1961 Melodrama, the first of the “home-grown” satires, with Sylvia Loomis contributing lyrics. It was the hassle of taking down the wet revival tent (it snowed after the last performance) and the cost of storing it until it could be returned to the tent company that convinced Santa Fe Community Theater President Dorothy Donnelly to find community theater a real home of its own—after years of finding rehearsal and performance space wherever it could.