“It’s been a great ride but all things come to an end, don’t they?” says Deen Kogan, the theatrical impresario and artistic director of the nearly 57-year-old Society Hill Playhouse.
That ending is coming next month — Kogan has sold her Eighth Street theater to local developers/realtors the Toll Brothers and will leave the theater around April 1. But she’s not leaving without putting on a memorable farewell. “We’re not going quietly,” she says with a laugh, pointing to the Playhouse’s final production: the world premiere of Liberty City Radio Theatrefor two nights only, March 4-5.
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The nostalgic production reimagines old-timey radio dramas for the stage, crossing genres from noir to screwball comedy all set to live music. Get there early — each performance begins with a casual cocktail hour before the show. Writer/producer Bill Arrowood has worked as a location manager in Philadelphia’s film industry for 15 years and is an assistant director of the South Street Headhouse District.
“I met Deen when I was asked to come to the theater to clean up a dead squirrel outside shortly after I started working on South Street, and found her formidable and charming,” says Arrowood. “After spending only a little time with her and in the Playhouse, I discovered that both were worth celebrating and knew the best way to do that was with a show like this.”
There was never anything quiet about Kogan or her local, anti-elitist play palace. Since its first shows in 1960, the Playhouse has championed offbeat theater of all stripes. The debut show was an intellectual thriller — an adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s “Deadly Game” — followed by premiere productions of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera,” Peter Weiss’ “Marat/Sade” and other avant-garde masters (Jean Genet, Harold Pinter) before becoming a home to crafty mainstream fare such as “Nunsense” (which ran for a decade) and the equally durable “Lafferty’s Wake.”
Kogan developed an intimate space, the Red Room — “my brother, David Falk, built that stage” — that held cabaret song shows, readings of poetry and crime fiction, and the casual A Play, A Pie and a Pint series. “The wonderful thing is that we pioneered so many different sorts of theater in this area,” said Kogan of Society Hill Playhouse’s mix of the populist and the experimental.
With her late husband Jay Kogan, she purchased what became the Playhouse reportedly for $10,000, and acted as a one-woman artistic director and promoter since his 1993 passing.
Kogan resisted the entreaties of the Toll Brothers for several years, but relented in February 2015 and began the process of dismantling the Playhouse. She quietly offered its seats to other local houses and gathered her archives for donation to Temple University. Besides these final shows, patrons can also snag a piece of memorabilia at a March 13 yard sale, check out a noir crime reading on March 19, and pay their respects at a goodbye party for March 25.
As for Kogan’s future, she’s planning Philadelphia’s annual NoirCon convention of crime writers at the end of October and is considering opening a small theater space in the building that houses Port Richmond Books on Richmond Street. “Nothing is ended,” she says. “There are just new beginnings.”
Liberty City Radio Theatre
March 4-5, 7 p.m.
Society Hill Playhouse, 507 S. Eighth St.
$15-$20, call 215-923-0210