Deen Kogan: the first lady of Philadelphia theater
There are many wannabe First Ladies of the Philadelphia Theater World, but only one really deserves the title. She’s no steely-eyed grand dame with an uppity cadre of followers who imagine themselves as theater elitists. This humble, hard working, unpretentious First Lady of Philadelphia Theater is also a nice person and plenty easy to talk to.
Her name is Deen Kogan. No doubt you’ve seen her about town, her diminutive frame passing almost unnoticed among taller women with dramatic wrap-around scarves who seem to move from one group to the next with the ease of lead characters in movies. Deen Kogan, who together with her (now deceased) husband, Jay Kogan, started Society Hill Playhouse some 50 years ago, is one of those people I imagine it’s easy to take for granted. But way before there was a swank Suzanne Roberts Theater, or a glitzy wiggly neon Wilma, there was Deen and Jay down at 507 South 8th Street, putting on hundreds of premier productions like Jean Genet’s The Blacks, Marat/Sade, The Changing Room, Mother Courage and The Threepenny Opera.
Deen and Jay Kogan were "Philadelphia Theater" long before everybody and their grandmother jumped into the act. They bought what later became the Society Hill Playhouse in 1959, when the South Street area was anything but a Philly Style magazine photo op.
"The building was built in the early 1900s. It was originally a beneficial Hall, where weddings, parties and Bar Mitzvah’s took place. It was used for many other things over the years. During the WPA era it was used as a theater, and somewhere along the line it became a mattress factory," Ms. Kogan told me by telephone. Through the years the building went through more changes than a woman beset by Menopause (one of Society Hill Playhouse’s most successful productions) or an American nun trying to decide which religious habit fashion trend to follow (Nunsense was another famous SHP hit, running some many years).
"When Jay and I got the building all the copper had been stripped out. It had been a Bingo Church with a Catholic priest and a gorgeous altar upstairs that took six men to carry out. We searched for two years for this building but it would take another year to make it suitable for audiences," Ms. Kogan added.
The Kogan’s had friends help them spruce up the place—one project was painting the men’s room. After that they received a $5,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, which enabled them to begin a street theater project. This was no Prima Donna enterprise ("Introducing the dramaturge, ladies and gents!"), but involved a huge flatbed truck with a company that went into every Philadelphia neighborhood with original shows, "designed," as Ms. Kogan told me, "for both children and adults," an almost impossible thing to do under the best of circumstances. "People used to say, if you rode with me on that truck you’d come to know the city by the police stations and the bakeries," Ms. Kogan added with a laugh. Although these were the tumultuous 1960s during the time of the Martin Luther riots, the Kogan’s flat bed theater truck was a model of racial integration.
"You always remember the good and the bad," Ms. Kogan reflected, remembering the last truck production that took place at 5th Street near Synder. What began as a show that caused a woman to dance in the street evolved into a spectacle where suddenly it seemed as if the dancer wasn’t wearing any underwear. With the audience’s attention diverted, an actor on the truck shouted through a megaphone, "Are you going to look at her or are you going to look at us?" With the audience back on track (or so we assume) - thanks to two women who gave the South Philly Salome a candy bar - things got back to normal. "That quieted things," Ms. Kogan told me. "It was kind of sad, but we resumed the show and that was that."
Philadelphia was not a theater town when SHP opened its doors, although there were the pre-Broadway theaters like the Forrest and the Walnut. After WWI came the burgeoning of Community Theater; the close of WWII saw the birth of regional theater.
"After WWII women could direct and produce plays," Ms. Kogan said, "but when I was a girl you had one female director of note in the country. After the war many people came back but didn’t want to go to New York to get involved in theater."
The derelict Society Hill area in those days was perceived as unsafe. Even today Ms. Kogan says that the theater sometimes gets calls from people in Merion or Cherry Hill, asking if the theater is in a safe neighborhood. "We’d usually ask them, ‘Where do you live?’, and then when they’d tell us, we’d say, ‘Well, it’s just as safe as where you live,’" Ms. Kogan said.
Those early days still evoke special memories. She recalls the time when the theater was named the Playhouse Village, when rehearsals would be accompanied by barbecues on Bradford Alley, a small street with derelict houses, just behind the theater. Ms. Kogan’s stories are enough to fill a short volume. "One of my actors was a bartender at Dirty Frank’s, and sometimes I’d call there and say, ‘Send him over, it’s almost curtain time!’"
Ms. Kogan will tell you stories about long-deceased Evening Bulletin and Philadelphia Inquirer theater critics. The Inquirer’s Henry Murdock was "a love of a man. Guys and Dolls was his style," Ms. Kogan said. "He’d come and shake his finger at me and say, ‘I’ve done my homework!’" The Bulletin’s Ernest Shier, once a household name, gave a terrible review to one of SHP’s plays, Crime on Goat Island which Ms. Kogan admits was "not a good production. We went out to dinner a week later and I said to Ernie, ‘Why the devil did you write that dreadful review?’ and he told me, ‘Because it should have been so much better!’" Mr. Shier, who died 5 years ago in New York, had been active with the Eugene O’Neil project in Connecticut.
Most of the people who go to SHP today are from outlying regions like Delaware, the suburbs, and New Jersey. Only two shows attracted a mostly Center City audience, School House Rock Live, and Menopause.
It’s unlikely that Society Hill Playhouse would be what it is today without the help of her husband, Jay. Ms. Kogan met Jay on her first day in Philadelphia, after a transfer from Northwestern University to Temple. Jay was in the same acting class. Ms. Kogan says that she took one look at him and knew he’d be her future husband. "I called my mother after class and told her that I’d just met my future husband," she said, adding that Mom visited two weeks later to sneak a peek at the man, though Jay remained clueless as to the nature of the visit.
The couple went to grad school together, then to Europe for a year and even lived in New York for a short time. "Jay was a WWII prisoner of war, and he was very ill. He stood 6 feet tall but came out of prison camp weighing 90 pounds. He transferred to Temple when he was better," she said.
Deen and Jay Kogan have been honored with a Special Barrymore Recognition Award by the Theater Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. The occasion is the 50th anniversary of Society Hill Playhouse. The award was announced at the annual Membership Meeting and Press Conference announcing the nominations for the 2009 Barrymore Awards. Audiences at the official awards ceremony in October, 2009 had the privilege of seeing Ms. Kogan walk on stage and take her bows.
"We are pleased to recognize Deen Kogan and her husband Jay Kogan for their pioneering vision of a theatre community for Philadelphia and their ongoing commitment to that vision. As an arts institution functioning as much more than a presenter of plays, Society Hill Playhouse has encouraged interaction from Philadelphians, not only as spectators but in every aspect of making theatre, reinforcing Society Hill Playhouse’s expanding role in the community," said Taylor Williams, Chair of the Barrymore Oversight Committee.
SHP’s official anniversary party was held in October, 2009. "We decided not to have a formal evening," the ever unpretentious Ms. Kogan said. "Anyone can drop in, have a drink and help us cut the anniversary cake."
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