Editor’s Note: Florence Playhouse, 208 Laurel St., has a long and varied history. From its inception as an Assemblies of God Church, to the transition to retail space and onward to its current iteration as a venue for plays and events, this iconic building has touched many lives in Florence and the surrounding areas.
Aug. 28, 2019 — Imagine being a boy growing up in the middle of New York City before the start of World War II, where Irish-Catholics resettled together in and around the Harlem neighborhood and mostly attended Ascension Catholic School. These hard-working immigrants were struggling to get ahead and everyone pitched in.
Among them was John Flaherty, who as a youngster contributed by working as a news boy. He would carry stacks of newspapers over his shoulder throughout his assigned territory of 42nd Street from Seventh to Eighth Avenues — the heart of New York City’s legendary Theatre District. It was here in the midst of this world of lights, glamour and entertainment that the young Flaherty was moved and inspired to one day be a part of it all. Because pursuing a career in this world was not supported by his family and the community in which he lived, he would have to wait and take some detours before he dared to make the move.
Earlier, on the West Coast, Henry Rose was born in Washington state in 1911. Two years later, his parents filed a homestead claim on Beaver Creek near Mapleton, where his father pursued employment as a saw filer and trapper.
Henry was one of 10 children and eventually began a ministry in 1935. In 1943 he became the parish pastor of what later became affiliated with the Assemblies of God Church.
In 1946, a motion was made by the church board to purchase the property at First and Laurel streets in Florence for $5,000 and build their own church.
Rose was actively employed in the logging industry at the time and not only put his personal savings into the construction of the church, but did the greater part of the construction work on the project himself.
Not many buildings in Florence incorporated basements built into the sand, but the new church did and used the space for its youth Bible study classes. The design called for the secretary’s office to be located on the south side of the building and for the pastor’s office and basement to be accessible on the north side adjacent to the parking area. An elevated stage for services was constructed between the two spaces.
Rose served as the first pastor in the new building from its beginning in 1948 until his untimely death in 1951 from a car accident. A succession of ministers followed with an ever-growing congregation. In March 1966, construction began on a new Assemblies of God Church at 10th and Maple streets, occupying an entire city block, and in November the church moved to its new location. The church there is now known as Cross Road Assembly of God.
Sisters Nancy Johnson and Sally Peterson were fellow church members who bought the building after the congregation moved. Having experienced success selling fabric to fundraise for the church, they opened NanSal’s Fabric Store. They did a bustling business selling everything from sewing machines to quilt kits.
When the sisters eventually decided to retire, the building was sold and leased out to Lane Community College for use as a dance studio, and later it was lined with cubicles and people selling aircraft parts internationally.
Meanwhile, Flaherty received a degree in economics from Cal State Los Angeles but felt drawn to the theater. Shortly thereafter, he enrolled in an acting program in Los Angeles. Upon completing the program, he traveled 1,000 miles north to the University of Oregon, where he completed a master’s degree in theater in 1971 and headed for New York.
Over the next three years, he learned about life in professional theater. However, the pull of life on the West Coast brought him back to the University of Oregon, where he earned a second master’s in counseling psychology. Upon completion of that program, he was hired by Lane County Juvenile Court and for the next 20 years he worked as a juvenile court counselor.
In 1995, Flaherty retired and decided to move to Florence.
Beginning in the late 1960s, the town had an economic transition from the timber, mining and fishing industries toward tourism and the eventual growth of retirement living. And what a pool of talent there was here!
Once again being drawn to the energy of the theater community, Flaherty resumed his acting with the Florence Repertory Theatre. Because the newer and more modern Florence Events Center was oftentimes beyond their fiscal abilities, the repertory group began looking around for an alternative. The former church on Laurel Street became available and was just the place.
When Flaherty found the space in 2004, he spent over a year-and-a-half remodeling to fulfill his dream of hosting workshops and affordable theater presentations. He enlarged the stage, added a proscenium, remodeled below and created restrooms in the front.
The basement now provides space for everything a small-town theater needs — a utility room for building sets, dressing rooms and props galore. The ceiling over the main auditorium is filled with costumes.
Opening night in the summer of 2005 demonstrated the talent and resiliency of the theater folks we have here in Florence. The leading lady of “I Do, I Do” sprained her ankle during dress rehearsal the previous evening, but the show did go on. Local talent rallied with musicians and songs making the opening gala a remarkable evening.
Theater can always be a surprise.
Over the years, there have been more than 40 productions at The Florence Playhouse. The building has an ambiance that lends itself to the magic created within its walls. It has been silent for a few years while John took some time off — but now it is back.
It’s About Time Productions, the local theater company founded by longtime Florence thespians Judy Adams and Victoria Seitzinger, has a new lease agreement with Flaherty. The two are opening their run with a production of “The Red Velvet Cake War,” a wacky comedy that is guaranteed to get you smiling and keep you laughing.
So grab your family and friends and come on down to Historic Old Town Florence and its famous Florence Playhouse for a fabulous time and step back into history with us.
Tickets are $20, available at the door, by calling 541-999-9392 or at the Florence Playhouse box office. Box office hours will be from 4 to 6 p.m., Thursday through Sunday.