Bright Lights; Little City:
50 Years of The Cumberland County Playhouse
The Public Television Documentary

The Scene: It was a time of turmoil, and set against the backdrop of the 1965 campus protests and Viet Nam, King’s March to Selma, Malcolm X’s assassination and Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers strike, it was difficult in the minds of many Americans to get, as the Rolling Stones put it that year, “Satisfaction.”

But 1965 also delivered mankind’s first space walk, the Voting Rights Act, the blockbuster Sound of Music, James Bond’s Goldfinger and in one very rural Tennessee tractor town, the launch of a lasting legacy in American Community Theater.

In that time, Crossville was a mid-century, rural farming community, as famous for the inclement weather atop the Cumberland Plateau as it was infamous as the home of Nazi prisoner of war camps of World War II. This corner of Appalachia was economically depressed; rampant unemployment and sustaining poverty were the norm. The town remained a rural waypoint to other, seemingly more promising places.

The Story: Crossville was, quite literally at a crossroads; the asphalts on newly lain I-40 bisecting Crossville was virtually still cooling when Mr. Paul Crabtree wheeled in from Los Angeles with children and wife, actress/model Mary Ducey Crabtree.

The talented Mr. Crabtree sparked his Broadway career debuting in the Will Parker role of the original production of the Hugely popular Oklahoma! Success led to producer/director roles for Broadway shows starring legends Helen Hayes, Charlton Heston, Jose Ferrer, Geraldine Paige, E. G. Marshall and more.

But as the Crabtree clan rolled in to Crossville, Paul was an out of work scriptwriter, recently released from Hollywood’s Lorretta Young Show, a highly successful, Emmy award-winning television series.

For her part, Mary Crabtree was very much at home in this farming community, having spent her youth between Crossville and Pittsburgh before migrating to New York. It was there, on Broadway in 1941, she’d meet Paul in the National Company production of George Abbott’s Kiss & Tell.

Arriving Crossville – a 90-mile drive to the nearest city of any size – the couple’s goal was a quiet sabbatical to recalibrate careers and allow Paul the opportunity to continue work on a book. But soon enough Crossville community leaders arrived with the idea of a community theatrical show to be produced, of course, by these bi-coastal Hollywood/Broadway celebrities – the focus being, naturally, a local orchestra, crew and cast of 200 school-aged children.

In this town with no museums, no college or university, no live performance organizations, and a solitary cinema, the couple found the idea endearing and attractive. The ‘stars’ quite literally aligned… A dream was born.

In December of that year, Paul Crabtree’s The Perils of Pinocchio premiered in the local junior high auditorium, galvanizing the community. The professionalism of this production of amateurs amazed all; the idea of the theater as an open window to expanded horizons beyond a remote community was quite compelling. How, they asked, could this sort of enriching community effort be kept alive? “Build a theater!” Crabtree replied.

So, Crossville, this town of 5,000….? They did just that. And for 50 years the community has joyfully supported this family-run Cumberland County Playhouse, now one of the 10 largest professional theaters in rural America. Annually the CCP teaches/entertains 145,000+ visitors per year via young-oriented productions, dance programs, live concerts, touring shows and original productions.