Since 1946, the Black Hills Playhouse (605/255-4141, www.blackhillsplayhouse.com , evening performances at 7:30 p.m., Sun. matinee at 2 p.m., Tues.–Thurs. evenings $15–18, Fri.–Sat. evenings $18–23, Sun. matinee $16–21) has been entertaining visitors to Custer State Park . Located off the beaten track in the north end of the park, the theater can be reached from the State Game Lodge  by taking Route 16A west to the junction of Route 87. Take Route 87 north to National Forest Road 753 and follow the signs to the Playhouse.
The theater originated in 1946, when Dr. Warren Lee, director of the University of South Dakota theater program, brought a traveling troupe of actors to the Black Hills . The troupe lodged at the old Civilian Conservation Corps facility, built in the park in 1933, while it presented plays in other theaters in the hills. In 1947, the University of South Dakota became actively involved in the theater and performances began to be held in the park.
The first venue was a 50-seat theater that served as the dining hall when the CCC camp was active. By 1955, the current facility was built and in recent years, air conditioning and heating capabilities were added. Now with seating for over 300 patrons, the theater remains an intimate, warm performance venue with low balconies and beautiful wood beams throughout. There isn’t a bad seat in the house.
There’s something very special about the Black Hills Playhouse. Set at a dead end road in the middle of the forest, the remote location adds to the mystique of the experience. While theater is high culture, there’s nothing formal about an evening here. The air smells like pine instead of perfume. The snack bar serves brats and hot dogs before the performance. Shorts and jeans are as comfortable as dresses and diamonds.
The quality of the performances is generally high and set design is consistently delightful. The theater has tackled many a Broadway play and musical productions including Fiddler on the Roof, Chorus Line, and Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs. After the performance, drive slowly and carefully through the park. Be alert for shining eyes in the dark. Bison and elk will be wandering the roads.
As the time of writing, the future of the Playhouse is uncertain. The director of the organization is sure there will be a 65th-anniversary season in 2010 in the park, but there are rumblings from the governor’s office about moving the theater to a new location. The lease for the organization was terminated and lawsuits have been filed.
It would be a crime for this wonderful park asset to be eliminated or moved from its lovely and historic location. For now, check the park schedules and hope there is an opening season for the Playhouse in the park for many years to come.