Summer theater has been a feature of New England resort towns since a Maine entrepreneur started staging plays in a former skating rink in 1899.
In 1916, the Provincetown Players produced Eugene O’Neill’s plays on a wharf. During the 1920s, summer theaters started up in Peterboro, N.H., Cape Cod and the Berkshires. They featured young talent, usually fresh out of college, and provided good, cheap entertainment for vacationing city dwellers. They were called ‘summer stock’ because they reused costumes and sets, and were performed by a resident company.
The ‘Straw Hat Circuit,’ as it became known, became a proving ground for Broadway plays. Stars like Bette Davis, Henry Fonda and Marlon Brando got their start in summer theater.
Here are six of the oldest summer theaters in New England, one in each state. If you have a favorite old summer theater, please mention it in the comments section.
The Ivoryton Playhouse building started out in 1911 as a recreation hall for the workers of the Comstock-Cheney factory, which made ivory coverings for piano keys. There was another ivory manufacturer in Ivoryton, a village of Essex, Conn. It’s called ‘the town built by elephants.’
The building was vacant when an actor and director named Milton Stiefel came to Essex for a rest after touring nationally. He saw the potential of the unused building as a summer theater. He put his actor friends together in a troupe called The New York Players and staged the Broadway play Broken Dishes on June 30, 1930. By the end of the season the Ivoryton Playhouse was the first self-supporting summer theater in the country.
The theater quickly developed a national reputation and helped launch the careers of Cliff Robertson and Katharine Hepburn. It went dark during World War II due to gas rationing, but resumed afterward. The summer theater attracted such stars as Marlon Brando, Art Carney, Talullah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Ezio Pinza, Betty Grable, Groucho Marx and June Lockhart.
Milton Stiefel retired in 1973, but stayed involved in the summer theater until he died in 1983. His successor couldn’t quite make a go of the theater and decided to sell it. Rumors spread that the building would be razed for a discount drugstore, and so supporters formed the non-profit Ivoryton Playhouse Foundation and bought the building. The theater floundered until 1987, when The River Rep company began to stage artistically successful productions.
This summer, the Ivoryton Playhouse will present Million Dollar Quartet, West Side Story, Saturday Night Fever: The Musical, and the world premiere of I Hate Musicals: The Musical.
103 Main Street, Ivoryton, Conn.
The Lakewood Theatre started out as a religious sanctuary for spiritualists on the shores of Lake Wesserunsett, six miles north of Skowhegan in Madison, Maine. It became a skating rink and a vaudeville theater.
By 1899, it was part of a swampy amusement park at the end of a trolley line when Herbert Swett began running it as a summer theater. He developed it into a venue for Broadway tryouts, which earned the theater the nickname “Broadway in Maine.”
During its heyday, such stars as Vincent Price, Ethel Barrymore and George M. Cohan played in Lakewood. The summer theater premiered one of the longest running play on Broadway, Life with Father, in 1939.
The theater declined after World War II. The Swett family sold it in 1970 and owners came and went for the next 15 years. Television and pop stars played the summer theater. John Travolta appeared in Bus Stop while taking a break from the Welcome Back, Kotter television series. He scrawled his signature on a backstage wall. So did Myrna Loy and Mama Cass Elliot.
In 1985, the The Cornville Players arrived with an agreement to perform three plays for six weeks. They were successful, and formed the nonprofit CUE (Curtains Up Enterprises). Since then, CUE has renovated the summer theater and stages comedies, dramas, musicals and children’s shows.
This season, the Lakewood Theater presents Arsenic and Old Lace, Some Sweet Day, Shout! The Mod Musical, Those Crazy Ladies in the House on the Corner, Avenue Q, The Savannah Sipping Society, Bullets Over Broadway, Baskerville and A Comedy of Tenors.
76 Theater Rd., Madison, Maine
The Cape Playhouse, like the Lakeville Theater and Barnstormers, claims to be the oldest summer theater in the country.
We won’t debate the merits of their arguments, but we do question the original cover story about the Cape Playhouse, which also has a cinema on its grounds. The theater’s marketing claim was that a visionary ex-botany teacher named Raymond Moore moved an old church to a pasture on Cape Cod and transformed it into a world-famous theater complex. The Playhouse debuted Bette Davis, Henry Fonda and Humphrey Bogart, while the Cinema featured a spectacular ceiling mural by Rockwell Kent.
Actually lumber heiress and Cape summer resident Edna Bradley Tweedy backed Raymond Moore in his summer theater venture. She secretly married him a year before she died in 1953. She was at least 65, he was still in his late 30s. Tweedy had inherited the Bradley lumber fortune and left Moore a generous bequest. That became public when Moore quarreled over the will with her three daughters, the main beneficiaries of the estate.
Whatever. The Cape Playhouse was a smash hit when it opened in 1927. Three years later John Barrymore praised Moore for bringing Broadway to “dirt road and oil-lamp country.” The Cape Playhouse and Cape Cinema, he wrote, are “a dream come true, that has attracted the attention of the theatrical and playgoing world.’
This season, the Cape Playhouse presents Art, The Foreigner, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Red, Gypsy and Murder for Two.
820 Maine St. (6A), Dennis, Mass.
The Barnstormers, like the Cape Playhouse, claims to be the oldest ongoing professional summer theater. It was founded in 1931 by Francis Cleveland, the son of President Grover Cleveland. He ran the Tamworth, N.H., theater until he died in 1995.
Francis, his wife Alice and their friend Ed Goodnow founded the summer theater company in 1931. Their company of resident actors – mostly recent college graduates — performed different plays each night in Maine and New Hampshire. Sometimes they arrived at a barn in the afternoon, set up scenery and lights and performed in the evening — hence the name ‘Barnstormers.’
They finished each week with a Saturday evening performance in Tamworth at a former boxing venue where former First Lady Frances Cleveland, dressed in an evening gown, often greeted the audience.
In 1935, the Barnstormers bought Kimball’s Store on Maine Street in Tamworth and turned it into a summer theater. Since then the acting company rehearses one play by day and performs one by night. Barnstormers is one of three Equity theaters in New Hampshire.
This season, Barnstormers presents Spamalot, The Ghost Train, My Three Angels, Toward Zero and Driving Miss Daisy.
104 Main Street, Tamworth, N.H.
Beginning in summer of 1937, a drama teacher at the Boston Conservatory of Music traveled to Weston, Vt., to produce 10 plays. For the next 34 summers, Harlan Grant produced ambitious summer theater programs. From that day to this, the Weston Playhouse never missed a summer theater season.
Among the actors launching the first professional season was none other than Lloyd Bridges.
Over the years the theater, housed in a remodeled church, encountered some difficulties. On a summer night in 1962 fire gutted the theater. But in the spirit of ‘the show must go on,’ the company performed the next night in a tent on a makeshift stage in front of an audience seated in folding chairs. An enthusiastic crowd assembled that night for the performance of Write Me a Murder.
The 300-seat theater was rebuilt for the following season. Floods damaged the rebuilt theater twice in the 1970s, but the Weston Playhouse has never ceased to thrive. It opens its season in 2017 on June 22 with the theater’s Young Company performing the musical Really Rosie. Also showing this summer are Once, Lost in Yonkers, The Music Man, Long Days Journey Into Night, Tenderly and Buyer & Cellar.
The Weston Playhouse is poised to launch a new arts center for the development of a new generation of playwrights, actors and directors.
703 Main St., Weston, Vt.
Theatre by the Sea
In 1933, Alice Jaynes Tyler brought “Broadway in a Barn” to the Rhode Island village of Wakefield in South Kingstown. It was on the grounds of a summer camp that had been crippled by the Great Depression.
For the next 35 years the Theatre by the Sea thrived as visitors spent days on the nearby beaches and nights seeking entertainment. Along the way, the Hurricane of 1938 put a dent in the theater’s façade. During World War II it did its part for the war effort by serving as a target for training pilots to dive at.
In 1963 it faced its closest brush with death when it nearly was demolished. But for a few seasons when it went dark, however, the summer theater never wavered.
Stars such as Marlon Brando, Carol Channing, Groucho Marx, Tallulah Bankhead, Mae West, Judy Holiday, Shelley Winters and more entertained the summer crowds night after night. In 2017, the summer theater opens again with Beehive, The Music Man, Beauty and the Beast and The Producers.
364 Cards Pond Rd, Wakefield, R.I.
If you don’t recognize the stars at the top of the page, they are Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Bette Davis and Lloyd Bridges.
Images: Theatre By the Sea, By Swampyank at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20434102