PLYMOUTH — Early one recent Friday, a dozen young actors gathered on an outdoor stage at Priscilla Beach Theatre, taking a last run through their lines before a 10:30 a.m. performance of “Little Women.” The lone onlooker was the theater’s longtime owner, Geronimo Sands, who offered some final pointers as the performers rehearsed.
“Put the emphasis on ‘hag’ in Hagar,” he advised, and the young actress playing the starring role of Josephine March repeated the line with Sands’ suggested flair.
The actors were obviously serious about perfecting their roles. Just as obvious was the fun they were having getting into character.
But there’s uncertainty at play here, too: Priscilla Beach Theatre, a haven for the performing arts that counts a number of Hollywood and Broadway stars among its alumni and guests over the past 76 years, may soon be forced to take its final bow. Sands faces foreclosure unless he can pay off a $400,000 loan on the sprawling house on Rocky Hill Road where drama classes and performances take place.
The bank has demanded the full amount, said Sands, because he has failed to keep up with monthly payments. He is expecting an auction to be set any day.
Sands and the theater’s longtime managing director, Andrew Nielson, have posted a plea for donations on the theater’s website. They are also attempting to generate interest through Facebook. Nielson called the efforts “flares from a sinking ship.”
“This theater has been an oasis in a cultural desert,” he said. “Geronimo has just hoped for a miracle that never seemed to come.” He said the closure would leave “many young people who won’t know what to do with themselves.”
Sands has even penned a plea to President Obama. “I’ll try anything,” he said. “This is a cultural mecca. For it to be lost for such a thing as money would be a terrible shame.”
Enthusiasm for the dramatic arts has motivated Sands since he was a 5-year-old living in Chicago and performing on live radio. Today, the 71-year-old can still be found guiding youngsters at his theater school; he also organizes workshops and performances for adults.
“Over the years, the theater has given children — and adults, too — the opportunity to learn the craft of acting and the opportunity to work on something together,” said Edith Cummings, a longtime member of the theater’s board of directors. “There have been children who do well in school and others with special needs, and the script is adjusted to suit them all. At the end of every show, there is such joy and confidence.”
When Sands bought the theater, in 1962, it was one of 14 venues run by A. Franklin Trask, a Boston-born businessman whose wife, Agnes, was an actress.
The Trasks had bought the large estate on Rocky Hill Road and opened a theater colony in 1937, converting the estate’s barn into a 200-seat theater. Drama workshop participants stayed in the estate’s cottages. The theater colony’s 16 buildings included two theaters, costume and property rooms, studios, a 22-room inn, two kitchens, a tea room, and its own store and post office. As many as 150 students could be accommodated at a time.
In the 1940s, future celebrities like Paul Newman and Pat Carroll were trained there. Gloria Swanson, already a movie star, was guest artist one summer.
Trask’s interest eventually turned to real estate. He sold the cottages, then sold the Priscilla Beach Theatre operation to Jim Lonigro, better known as Geronimo Sands, his stage name.
Sands, then in his early 20s, had just completed his training at the American Academy of the Arts in New York. “I thought buying a theater would provide me with a way to continue to act,” he said. “I was an actor who wanted to perform, not a businessman wanting to produce a theater.”
Nielson said players performed to sell-out crowds on summer nights in the 1960s, with the line from the box office stretching all the way down the long driveway to Rocky Hill Road. Sands trained a string of performers who would later become stars, including Rob Reiner, Katherine “Kitty’’ Winn, and Albert Brooks.
Today Newman and Reiner have stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, along with guest artists Swanson, Veronica Lake, Charlie Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton, and Freddie Bartholomew. Other honors earned by the theater’s alums include four Academy Awards, more than 100 Tony Awards, and countless Golden Globes and Emmys.
While Sands has continued to offer a venue for adult productions, the focus over the past 30 years has been on children’s theater. But student tuitions and modest play admission fees haven’t covered the bills, and building upkeep has suffered.
The barn, after 70 seasons of live theater, was declared off limits by town inspectors seven years ago. It is now posted with “no trespassing” signs, but a peek inside reveals the theater-style seats leading up to the stage, the balcony, and dangling stage lights that hint at its past glory. Workshops were moved to the main house, with performances held outside in good weather and in an indoor studio in bad.
About 10 years ago, Sands’ sister, Anne Joelle Lonigro, who had worked with him at the school since the 1980s, asked to use the house to secure a bank loan and Sands agreed. She died a year later, and Sands has struggled making payments since then. The financial drain made maintenance even more difficult.
Parent Rosemary Tufankjian said the inspiration Sands instills in his young charges makes the facility’s rundown condition unimportant.
“I can’t even begin to tell you what a special gift the theater is,” said Tufankjian, whose two children are enrolled in Priscilla Beach Theatre workshops. “There’s nothing like it. It’s heartbreaking to hear the theater is in this position. Everyone who has ever had a child there feels the same way.”
On the recent Friday, Sands helped the cast of “Little Women” run through their lines one last time before their performance, reminding the players to project their voices to suit the outdoor venue. Participants in the “Beauty and the Beast” session would be on the grounds later for their own rehearsals. Workshop sessions offer two weeks of training and rehearsals and two sets of Friday and Saturday performances.
The theater is a registered nonprofit organization, capable of taking donations, but the buildings and land are owned by Sands and the estate of his late sister. The barn and much of the grounds are long paid off, but the house, currently in Anne Joelle Lonigro’s name, is in foreclosure.
Cummings said the situation is troubling. “It’s beyond Geronimo’s control, and I don’t know whether the board is going to be able to come up with a solution,” she said. “No one knows what to do.”
Tufankjian has offered to help raise funds, but time is running out. Sands and Nielson hope a philanthropist will step in.
“Four hundred thousand dollars isn’t a lot of money to somebody who is really interested in education,” Sands said. “Theater is a great door to teaching anything and everything.”
If the board of directors can amass enough in donations to pay the bank loan, the nonprofit will simply take ownership of the property, a change Sands said he would welcome.