One of Woodstock’s saddest stories got its penultimate chapter written this month with the conviction of Ralph Miller, an owner of summer stock theaters up and down the East Coast — including the Woodstock Playhouse when it was torched and burned to the ground on Memorial Day, 1988 — on money laundering and mail fraud charges directly connected to insurance claims for a fire at one Pennsylvania playhouse and a flood at another one.
Miller was convicted on May 29 and given 14 days to file appeal motions. A sentencing hearing has yet to be scheduled. He faces up to 30 years imprisonment depending on the final amount of insurance losses determined. The charges against him alleged that his false claims totaled, in one instance, $200,000.
Miller bought the Woodstock Playhouse in 1986 from Harris Gordon, who had picked it up from theater pioneer Edgar Rosenblum in 1972 and operated it for 14 years. Miller, the new owner, who also owned the Buck County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania at the time, shuttered the historic 50-year old barn-like structure after one season running traveling musicals, citing bad numbers.
The day after the Woodstock Playhouse burned, the Ulster County Arson Task Force determined that the fire had been deliberately set, and accelerants found on site. Then town supervisor Brian Hollander, now editor of Woodstock Times, said at the time that when he called Miller at the Falmouth Playhouse on Cape Cod, which he also owned, ‘’He was very shocked.”
On that holiday weekend, the building caught fire at about 4:40 a.m., fire chief Mike Densen, told The New York Times, and was “completely engulfed in flames in 20 minutes.” Just the stone foundation remained, reported the Times, “surrounding burned beams, folding chairs and a toppled floodlight.”
Andrea Barrist Stern, then a writer/editor of Woodstock Times, was quoted: ‘’It’s sort of fitting that it happened on Memorial Day. The town was walking around like it was at a funeral. People really loved this place. It was the entrance to Woodstock, and it represented the arts, which are dying as more and more developers come in and subdivide the land.”
The June 9, 1988 edition of Woodstock Times, in an article entitled Investigation Staged, says, “According to police officials, Miller had the building insured for $400,000 and the contents insured for an additional $100,000.” An earlier piece reported that he owed $280,000 to Gordon. It also pointed to another newspaper’s account of a previous fire at a Miller owned theater that destroyed a storage barn in 1984.
The other fires…
The Falmouth Playhouse, which Miller had bought earlier in 1988, burned in 1994 with local newspapers there reporting that the company which had insured it later sued the theater owner for nearly $1.6 million, saying he had caused the theater’s alarm system to be deactivated before the fire was set using an accelerant.
In 2006, the Bucks County Playhouse was seriously damaged by floods of the nearby Delaware River. In 2009, following another fire that destroyed the Miller-owned Poconos Playhouse, it was reported that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had “determined both fires were set by an arsonist using kerosene, but no arrests were ever made in either case.”
The following year, Miller lost control of the Bucks County Playhouse to a Philadelphia-area bank, and then in 2011 he was charged with wire fraud and money laundering by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia. Those charges alleged that the theater owner had submitted false claims for approximately $200,000 in lighting that he said was damaged in the New Hope flood, and also made false theft claims after the Pocono Playhouse fire.
In December 2002, Miller said kerosene was kept in the theaters for the heaters but added that, “To imply that somehow kerosene was brought into the building for subversive purposes is just not true…The bottom line is the insurance company paid half the claim. If I was a suspect, the insurance company would not have paid.”
A happy ending
As for that final scene of the Playhouse Tragedy…a temporary structure was eventually put up on the site, and the land was secured, after much fundraising by a Woodstock Arts Board. In November of 2010 the owners and directors of the New York Conservatory of the Arts, a longstanding local theater school and company, were able to buy the property and with $700,000 in grants and donations, reopen it as an enclosed theater by summer of 2011.
Which, along with the latest news, gives the lot a happy ending…of truly dramatic complex nature.
Spring Awakening, gala opens Playhouse season
As the town ponders the conviction on insurance fraud charges of the man who owned the Woodstock Playhouse when arson turned it to ashes, the (relatively) new Woodstock Playhouse, gorgeously reconstructed by Randi Conti and Doug Farrell of the New York Conservatory of the Arts celebrates its fifth season (and the 77th year since the original playhouse’s opening) with a Gala Opening Night that begins at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, June 18 with a dinner, a show and a post show reception.
The initial stage offering is Spring Awakening, which has won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, which will run from June 18 through June 28.
“A new season, a new you; Spring Awakening ignites the season with karmic clarity as a new cast of Playhouse theatre gods spread their wings for your delight…home grown & sculpted in the energy of Woodstock,” the Playhouse trills about its first show in a season to include Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Musical Comedy Mysteries of 1940, Oklahoma and Sweeney Todd. “Spring Awakening is rate R for partial nudity, strong language and adult situations; it is an adult night out in the lap of a life stirring score, story and performances.”
With book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, it’s a coming of age story that launched several ongoing cast members of Glee.
At the Playhouse, it will be played by the usual full summer repertory cast assembled by NYCA and Playhouse directors Farrell and Conti, who directs the show, with many returning cast members.
For opening night, a pre-show dinner will be held at neighboring Cucina’s The Barn catering hall; a champagne and chocolate meet-and-greet with the cast and crew will follow the show, which will then run Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, plus Sunday matinees and earlier evening performances, through June 28.
A set design for the new production, in painted glass, has been created by Jamie Barthels of Lotus Fine Art and Design on Rock City Road.
It all takes place at 103 Mill Hill Road, at the “gateway” to Woodstock, with the Gala Thursday, June 18, starting at 5:30 p.m. (and $125 per person) for a full evening with dinner, or 8: p.m. (and $75 per person) for performance and post-show reception.
Call 679-6900 or visit ulsterpub.staging.wpengineplayhouse.org for further information.