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Little Lake Theatre History

In the spring of 1949, Edith Disney and her son, Will, discovered an old barn on the side of a lake in Washington County. An amiable farmer named Mr. McDowell agreed to lease the barn on his working farm to the Disneys for use as a space to present live stage plays. The original stage, surrounded by wooden folding chairs, was located in the center of the barn floor, forming the area’s first theater-in-the-round.

In June, 1949, a skeptical critic, F.S. Olmstead, wrote: “The Little Lake Theatre opened last week out at Donaldson’s Cross Roads, and provides an interesting experiment in theatre experience…For some reason they have chosen the idea of ‘central staging’…To be perfectly frank, its sole merit lies in novelty and on that basis alone it gets by. Its drawback is in the goldfish bowl appearance of the cast … It is something like attending a circus or tennis match—your head is constantly swinging from one side of the stage to the other as you try to follow the dialog…”

Two months later, in August 1949, in a follow-up article, Mr. Olmstead conceded: “The experiment of ‘arena staging’ has apparently proved most successful. Little Lake Theatre’s patronage has climbed every week since they opened, and just a week ago they had SRO on three nights, with over twenty standees Saturday!… There were many local doubters that [central staging] would be accepted in Pittsburgh, but the energetic and able director, Will Disney, stuck to his decision and has proved again that ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating.’ ”


In the year 2000, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette named Will Disney one of the region’s top ten most influential artists of the previous century, attesting to the importance and significance of Little Lake Theatre. But Will Disney’s legacy has not been in the form of a “place.” His gift has been in the form of a community. He created a community in which actors, directors, designers, volunteers and audience members support one another, learn from one another and very thoroughly enjoy one another.


By. Dave Disney

It was Summer of 1947 when Will Disney and his mother, Edith, headed South on Route 19 from Mt. Lebanon toward Washington PA. Their goal was to, hopefully, find an area conducive to starting a summer stock community theatre. As they passed Donaldson’s Crossroads and viewed Canonsburg Lake, they thought they found their ideal spot because in addition to the lake (which is responsible for the Little Lake name) the area also had a huge red barn across the lake. They stopped to talk to the farmer who was tending to his livestock and in what had to have been a most bewildering conversation, they explained their reason for stopping and wondered if the barn was available to be converted into a theatre. After several meetings, they learned the gentleman was open to the idea of renting out a small parcel of his property. Will started to work out the details.

In summer of 1949, their dreams were realized and Little Lake Theatre was established.  The upper part of the barn was now a theatre-in-the-round with folding chairs for the audience. The lower level of the barn housed the public rest rooms, actor’s rest rooms and dressing rooms, green room and snack bar. It also still had a somewhat bovine-like aroma. The structure had a tin roof which. In addition to retaining the heat within the barn, posed a major problem when storms occurred. The noise of the rain hitting the tin roof made it impossible to hear the actors and forced a delay in the performance until the storm clouds trailed off. To help rectify the heat, a six-foot portion of the wall overlooking the lake could now be rolled to the side to help with ventilation.

In addition to the barn, the silo was converted into a ticket booth.  This structure, while often referred to as “quaint”, still had to be oft-times shared with mice, birds, cats with an occasional skunk.

Also, a tractor shed was converted to a rehearsal area. The concrete floor of this shed still can be seen if one ventures out the current glass entry doors. One has to imagine a large cast of actors along with folding chairs representing tables and seats for the set, occupying this area. In the heat of summer, this enclosed structure was oppressive…but the show (or rehearsal) must go on.

After two years, a “new” stockade-enclosed theatre was constructed. A portion of the original stockade can be seen in the hall of the current theatre. It delineates the size of the theatre.  The rehearsal area was now moved to the upper floor of the barn, the snack bar moved from the barn to the shed, and the ticket booth and main entrance now occupied the area now housing the light booth.

There was a tarp which stretched from the roof to the top of the stockade which was rolled up to provide ventilation as there was no heating or air conditioning. When storms approached, apprentices and staff would rush to lower the tarp and attach it to the stockade. Also, at that time a drive-in theatre was situated where the current golf driving range now sits. While friendly neighbors, the play would often be interrupted by the honking of horns when the film broke.

The next expansion a few years later provided a building to house the relocated box office, snack bar,  public restrooms, and an actor’s green room and dressing rooms. This was a most welcomed addition by all as it eliminated the necessity of actors and patrons having to venture from theatre to barn to visit the snack bar or use the restrooms. This also saw the elimination of the valuable “umbrella-patrol” that enabled the actors to get between the two structures when raining.


In 1975, Little Lake became a dinner-theatre having completed construction of a final addition to house theatre offices, storage areas, bar and kitchen.

Throughout this history, the theatre’s most valuable commodity – its audiences – continue their gracious support enabling Little Lake Theatre to continue to serve the community. For this, we humbly say, THANK YOU!

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