The History of BLT

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The Butler Little Theater: A Concise History

By Kevin Lukacs

The Butler Little Theater is one of the oldest continuously active theater groups in Pennsylvania and the United States. In 2015 the theater commemorated its 75th anniversary, celebrating well over 300 shows and thousands of performances; the Butler Theater has been no small part of the arts in Butler County, and it all started in a restaurant.

The Little Theater Group of Butler can be traced back to an initiative in the 1920’s by the Community Service of Butler. They offered quality entertainment in the form of plays and minstrel shows. In 1941, The Little Theater Group of Butler, more commonly known as the Butler Little Theater, or the BLT, incorporated as a non-profit company. Their first president was C.E. Spang.

Their goal was “to encourage and foster a high standard in drama and the arts among the citizens of the community,” and to give the people of Butler “good, wholesome amusement.” Their first full length play was presented in June of 1941. It was The Night of January 16th, a courtroom mystery drama by Ayn Rand. The unique play featured audience members who were chosen as jury members, and their judgment affected the conclusion of the play. The theater did their part, and in return, the community came out to support them. As one witness recalled, “people of every sect, color, and station and life were reached.” The BLT was off to a good start.

Check out the full chronology of BLT productions.

The war years brought a few stumbling blocks. Butler citizens, male and female, found themselves working for the American war effort, either on the front or at home in industry. The bombing of Pearl Harbor delayed the performance of George Washington Slept Here in 1942. A black out during a show in 1943 almost stopped a performance, but as theater people are aware, the show must go on – and on it went.

The BLT contributed to the war in its own special way. The play Mr. and Mrs. North was put on for the Army Air Corps Cadets being trained at Slippery Rock State Teacher’s College and Clarion State Teacher’s College free of charge. A benefit show was also given for the creation of a post-war park in Butler. Materials for sets and costumes were scarce due to rationing, yet the BLT was able to maintain a consistent show schedule. The theater even began the first of many workshop sessions on writers like Eugene O’Neill and Noel Coward. In 1942, the theater began a children’s theater program with the melodrama Radio Rescue.

Through the war years, the BLT dealt with another large issue. They had been primarily giving shows out of Lee’s Restaurant, owned by Howard Lee, one of the founding members. They had also given shows at The Sterling Club, Deshon General Hospital, the Junior and Senior High Schools, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, and even the County Courthouse. The cause of the Theater Groups peripatetic lifestyle was that they lacked their own building, a place to not only put on shows, but for the storage of costumes, sets, and records of their performances.

The barn-shaped building on Howard Street, now a landmark of Butler, was once a carriage house to an inn welcoming visitors from the Pittsburgh-Erie Pike. After that, it was the Campbell Garage. In October of 1945, the building officially became the home of the BLT on the opening night of Blithe Spirit. The Noel Coward play, directed by David Linn, broke-in the new theater with packed houses. The story of a pernicious ghost was a fitting opener for the building which many BLT frequenters whisper in hushed tones is haunted.

The 1950’s were a precursor to a vibrant time, both in America and at the BLT. Audience attendance ranged from packed houses to less than twenty people in the seats. Low attendance was a difficult obstacle; low numbers came arbitrarily, even at times when “Roy Rodgers wasn’t even playing at the movies.” Despite that, one show in 1956 scheduled two extra performances due to an overwhelming demand for tickets. The BLT began a tradition of not shying away from controversial subjects, like the play A Hatful of Rain about “dope pushers.” They also showed they could handle modern fun fair, like the stage version of The Seven Year Itch, which when first produced at the BLT had recently been released as a major motion picture starring Marilyn Monroe. They also hosted their first Dessert Bridge Party. Dessert and Bridge, two major players on the list of things people can’t say no to.

In the 1960’s things hit a comfortable stride. Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde opened the theater’s twentieth anniversary, and the BLT began hosting an annual Beaux Arts Ball, its first iteration being a costume ball held at the arts club. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened in 1961 as one of the most controversial plays in the theater’s history. One reader of The Butler Eagle proposed that by putting on a play with such obviously poor morals, the theater was “only working for Russia.” Despite the controversy, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof set a record attendance of over 800 attendees with visitors from four states despite the heavy snow. One review of the show remarked that the performance “cries out for further viewing.”

The 21st season marked the very first musical performed at the BLT, Bells Are Ringing. That February was also the first time the BLT produced Inherit the Wind, a dramatized version of the Scopes Trial. The cast required forty members, not counting the live monkey borrowed form a Slippery Rock “zoo.”  That’s right. “Zoo.” In quotation marks.

A reviewer for the Butler Eagle referred to the monkey as “mischievous.” I shudder to think what that even means. This wouldn’t be the last time a BLT cast included a live animal. The show Teahouse of the August Moon featured the goat Lady Astor. The Rose Tattoo featured another goat, Buffy Kerr. There have been live cats in Bell, Book and Candle and Everybody Loves Opal. More recently, the BLT production of The Bridge to Terabithia starred Penny, a dog from Renfrew, a rising star among the county’s actors.

In 1963, the theater made a gamble. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy had unveiled plans for Moraine State Park. The park would hold one of the state’s largest artificial lakes, Lake Arthur. To capitalize on the expected tourism from the new park, the BLT purchased a barn north of 422 West on Route 528 right up from the fairground, named the Moraine Harlequin Theater. The theater would be used for summer shows, BLT performances as well as shows from other theater groups in the area. The first show performed at the new barn theater was Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn. The first annual Harlequin Awards for the 1966-67 season gave best show to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Casts sizes were among some of the biggest in the theater’s history, such as the fifty two member cast of Funny Girl in 1968.

As pictures began to slowly colorize in the BLT photo albums, the theater had to make a sacrifice. The Harlequin theater had faced dwindling crowds, sometimes as low as twelve people.By the time it shut down, twenty-three plays had been produced at the Harlequin theater on 422. On the upside, the 30th season in 1971 marked major renovations for the building on Howard Street. The theater received a new roof, green room, office, décor, and a sound and light board overlooking the stage. In June of 1972, the theater put on a hit musical with You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown. The production featured young talent, and also an experimental double cast. One group did the performances from June 12-17, the other from June 19-24. The only character not double-cast was Snoopy, played to rave reviews by Bob Snodgrass.

Around this time, the BLT also got some celebrity recognition. Noted mime Dan Kamin gave a workshop in the theater in 1977. Inspired by a line from a Noel Coward play, Maggie Cahill sent a wedding present to the Prince and Princess of Wales, and received a thank you letter from Buckingham Palace. Most importantly, as the Reagan years dawned, the Butler Little Theater made its most critical renovation to date. In the summer of 1979, the theater replaced its old chairs with the iconic green ones that currently reside under audience members to this day. These chairs are referenced in the unofficial BLT theme song “There’s Room For You.”

Despite being forty years old, the BLT was still experimenting. The New Dimensions program was still going, giving voice to edgy avant garde theater or works from local playwrights. So the eighties passed. New people came and went, as Doris Rose commented “there are no social classes [in the theater]. The older ones are on the same level as the younger and make the older feel young.” In 1990, the BLT produced Crimes of the Heart, a play as much about Southern culture as the bond between sisters. The theatre reached the age of fifty with the determined resolution, “we have to grow.” The theater competed and compared itself with trendy shows like Dynasty and hosted the Pittsburgh Symphony after their South American tour. A member tried, unsuccessfully, to have a Neil Simon theater built in Butler. Margo Pitts, a member of the BLT, remarked in the 90’s, “what is theater, but life. The more you explore theater, the more you explore life.” In keeping with this mind set, in 1996 the Butler Little Theater produced MacBeth, the first Shakespeare production in their history. They also participated in the Shakespeare-in-the-Schools program, designed to introduce students to the works of the Bard. To this date, only two other Shakespeare works have been produced at the Little Theater: Taming of the Shrew in 2001, and Romeo and Juliet in 2005.

Today the BLT tries to maintain an attitude that balances progress and tradition. Their 75th season was a celebration of five hallmark shows in their history:  Blithe Spirit, Inherit the Wind, Come Blow Your Horn, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, and Crimes of the Heart. Their summer Children’s Production remains an essential part of their lineup, producing classics like The Jungle Book orJames and the Giant Peach. The Butler Little Theater Improv Night became an instant hit among young adults in the area, and in May of 2015 the BLT hosted a Stand-up Comedy Night featuring New York comedians Robert Punchur and Neko White, as well as Butler native and Pittsburgh performer Dillon Weston. In 2014 the BLT produced the original play “The Stone House,” in partnership and inside the Old Stone House on Route 8, connecting an old historic tie between the carriage house museum, and the carriage house roots of the BLT building. Plans to purchase an extra building for the purpose of social gatherings and addition performances were recently realized, but the theater is still struggling to make the dream come to fruition.


Growth is a critical aspect of what the BLT is, what theater is. Finding community support in the digital era is a difficult task, but help from a younger generation and guidance from the core members of the BLT are what will allow the theater to continue to grow and experiment. The Butler Little Theater is a great place to go for a laugh, to be entertained, or to be given cause to think and reflect. Their seasons have often been cited in The Butler Eagle as the best way to ease winter blues in the area. It is also a staple of the community. The building itself is a landmark, and its 75 year history dates longer than most businesses on Main Street. See a show, help paint backdrops, come and audition. The Butler Little Theater is always looking for new faces, and always looking forward.

At the Butler Little Theater, there’s room for you!

About the Author

Kevin Lukacs started working with the Little Theater while attending Slippery Rock University. His first role was as Dr. Watson in Hound of the Baskervilles, where he shared the stage with a wonderful cast and worked with one of the state’s best directors and one of the world’s kindest producers. In 2014 the Little Theater produced “The Stone House,” an original one act by Kevin Lukacs at the Old Stone House. The following year they also produced his play, “Shootout at Slippery Rock Creek,” to sold out crowds. In June of 2016 he debuted a short documentary celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Butler Little Theater in collaboration with director Dustin Furman. Currently, Kevin works as an historian in Washington, D.C. where he has a reputation for occasionally ranting about how important Western Pennsylvania is to American history.