Discover a stunning theatre hidden among the ponderosa pine groves of Custer State Park! It’s an awe-inspiring journey to get there, and the location offers an unusual history – there are many reasons locals love to return to Black Hills Playhouse every summer. When you go, you know there’s something truly special about the Playhouse-in-the-hills. Read on to learn about the past, present, and future opportunities for adventure here.
Creating A Timeless Legacy For A Theatre In The Woods
Originally a dream of Dr. Warren M. (Doc) Lee – a theater professor at the University of South Dakota, the Black Hills Playhouse offered a variety of performances that gathered crowds from across the country. In 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built Camp Lodge in Custer State Park for CCC housing. When the lodge was no longer in use by the CCC program, it was transformed for the future of theater thanks to Doc Lee’s vision.
In the beginning, this site was used to build sets and rehearse for a traveling theatre troupe. This small group offered shows in six surrounding communities including Rapid City. Limited funds inspired creative set construction made from whatever materials were available on location. For example, stage lights were made from tomato cans with bulbs glowing inside. Unfortunately, touring turned out to be too expensive, so a canvas tent was erected on the grounds for an outdoor theatre experience often affected by weather. During rainstorms, leaks caused some patrons to pop open umbrellas, blocking the view and spoiling the illusion of the theatre for guests and performers alike.
Over the years, the facility and grounds have undergone many improvements. A new theatre was built in 1955, and was upgraded in 2008, 2011 and again in 2016. Outhouses were replaced by modern bathrooms (yay!) and dirt roads leading to the theatre have been paved (also yay!). Since 2010, more than $1.6 million has been spent on making improvements to the playhouse while still preserving the history and atmosphere that makes it so unique
Making a Scenic Drive Part of the Destination
Plan extra time for your 45-minute road trip from Rapid City to Custer State Park, so you can experience some of the country’s most beautiful scenic drives through the southern Black Hills region. Follow the twists and turns of Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway as the open road winds in front of Mount Rushmore and catch incredible views of four famous granite faces. Then carry on through the pigtail bridges of Iron Mountain Road and see the towering spires along Needles Highway. Roll down your windows and take it all in as you cruise (slowly) along this epic display of Black Hills beauty.
Before you hit the road, it’s a good idea to look at a map and print your directions. Cell phone service can be unreliable in the Black Hills, and you won’t want to miss a thing! Once you arrive to Custer State Park, all visitors including theatregoers are required to have an entrance license. You can purchase one ahead of time online or over the phone, or on-site at the Playhouse Snack Bar before your show.
It might be the setting, the plays, or the actors - probably a combination of all three, but there’s something enchanting about spending your day or a romantic evening at the Black Hills Playhouse.
Getting The Full Playhouse Experience
Black Hills Playhouse remains South Dakota’s first homegrown professional theatre company and a creative space to enjoy high-quality entertainment. Every summer, the playhouse rotates four to five different plays throughout the season, spanning all different genres including fantastic shows like Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Shrek the Musical and so many more. You can find more information and a description of the shows being performed on the playhouse website.
We recommend attending a variety of shows and exploring the grounds both day and night to get "the full Playhouse experience". See an afternoon matinee, pack a picnic, a blanket or folding chairs, and sit beside the babbling brook for lunch before your performance. Or spend an evening at the theatre, buy your popcorn at the Snack Bar and bring it in with you, and afterwards, watch the sunset over the hills and the stars sparkle as you drive home.
For more than 75 years, this theatre in the woods has transformed the lives of performers and visitors alike. The incredible performances here continue to draw crowds from across the country. And it gets better and better with every season! More than 17,000 guests are expected to enjoy performances this season and we hope you’ll be one of them.