After Her Husband's Death Jean Stapleton and Her Kids Try to Keep His Theater Alive

updated 07/02/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/02/1984 01:00AM

For 25 years Jean Stapleton has started her summers the same way: onstage at the Totem Pole Playhouse in the woods of Caledonia State Park in Fayetteville, Pa. Stapleton's husband, Bill Putch, established the 453-seat theater in 1954. And it was in a log cabin-style house that Jean and Bill—wed in 1957—lived with their children, Pam, 24, and John, 22, both professional actors. (The children, who have co-starred with their mother in TV movies, got their start on the Totem Pole stage.) For the Putch clan, the theater was more than all in the family, it was a way of life.

A month ago Stapleton began her last appearance at the Totem Pole. Before the opening-night curtain rose on the season's first production, You Can't Take It With You, Stapleton walked down the aisle and faced the audience alone. "This theater has been run for 30 years by Bill Putch, who passed away last November," she announced. "We're dedicating this 31st season as a year of renewal to him. I hope every evening you come to the Totem Pole Playhouse you will take away more love and life than the measure you brought in the door."

The moment was a wrenching one for Stapleton, 61. As Edith Bunker on the classic CBS sitcom All in the Family, she had played difficult, breakthrough scenes for TV dealing with breast cancer, menopause and rape. But this was for real. Even backstage Jean finds it painful to talk of the heart attack that killed Bill at 60. They were in Syracuse, N.Y. with a touring production of George Kelly's 1924 comedy, The Show-Off. Bill directed and Jean starred. "His death was very sudden," Jean says. "He went out on the morning of our third preview performance to do an errand and he had chest pains. He got in a cab and went to a hospital three blocks away to get help. He was gone in half an hour."

That night, in the true spirit of showbiz, Stapleton went on. She toured with the show in Florida, and continued with it until it ended in Millburn, N.J. last March. "That's what he would have wanted," she says. "I realized it was a refuge to have that play, rather than to sit and wallow. And it was his show."

So was the Totem Pole, a fact not lost on Jean and the children. Though they lived in Los Angeles for Jean's TV tapings, the Putches always hurried back to Pennsylvania. For Bill, a veteran showman, the theater was home. Through the years the Totem Pole has presented more than 225 plays, from Uncle Tom's Cabin to Oklahoma! Its alumni include John Ritter, Sandy Dennis, Bruce Dern and, of course, Staple-ton, an actress of minor fame until All in the Family hit it big in 1971. As Stapleton's celebrity grew, so did the Totem Pole audiences. Since then the woods have been invaded by autograph hounds.

With Bill's death the future of the Totem Pole and a nearby restaurant were at stake. Pam and John, both single, held a conference with their mother and decided to keep the complex going, at least this season. Pam, who lives and works in New York, plunged into administration of the playhouse. "Just the thought of it being closed was so awful," she says.

"My father was the most fair and caring guy when it came to this place," says John. "Everybody was family. He was concerned with the staff, the actors, everyone down to the parking-lot boys." Jean remembers that Bill "could do everything in the theater, even sew costumes. I married a summer theater."

Come Labor Day, it looks as if a rich, colorful era could end for the family. Pam is eager to resume acting, and John, who lives in L.A., wants to pursue film directing. Jean definitely plans to step out of the picture: "I feel it's good for the audience to understand it's a new deal there now. And part of that new deal is my absence."

She refuses to discuss her personal grief. "I am not able to talk about it," Jean says, her eyes filling with tears. "What I think is wonderful is that for now the theater and restaurant are open. I am going about my life one day at a time."

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