Wednesday, December 30, 2009

See you in 2010...

Taking the week off. Thanks for the pleasure of your company in 2009. See you in 2010...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Night Performance in Boston 1941

Christmas, for actors and actresses, is sometimes a celebration fit in between performances. In December 1941, when Pearl Harbor earlier in the month had already established that this would be the first wartime Christmas, Ruth Gordon played the Majestic Theatre in Boston.

From her “My Side - The Autobiography of Ruth Gordon” (Harper & Row, NY, 1976), Ruth Gordon captures a moment.

“Two days of dress rehearsals and open Christmas night…I hurried out onto Avery Street, deep in slush. No empty taxi, a cold rain beating down, dress rehearsal at two-thirty. I rushed along Tremont Street. No need to dodge the puddles; my feet and legs were soaked. I could feel the cold water squish. Only a few blocks, cross Boylston, then up the alley to the Majestic stage door. Just beyond it and across the alley is the stage door to the Colonial. Had Hazel Dawn ever had to run through rain and slush? I was perspiring from having hurried so. What if I took cold? What if tomorrow my voice was ragged? Or gone altogether? All those lines, all those words, all those changes and cuts and additions!”

Opening Christmas night, peace on earth, and anxiety backstage. Always, for the actor, putting one’s career on the line with every show.

“Backstage was taut with excitement, nerves, good wishes. Actors are great. None of us thought the show would make it, but the good wishes didn’t sound like that. One last sip of water, one last trip to the ladies, one last pat of the powder puff, last prayer to God, then wait in the wings. Deep breath. Cue, open the door On! A burst of applause, the first line.”

The play, which she does not name, got bad notices. As Miss Gordon wrote to Orson Welles afterward, “The Mayor of Boston gave me the key to the city, the pubic gave me the gate.”

The second week of performances was cancelled. They took the show on to Philadelphia. In five months, it was back to Broadway for Ruth Gorden in May 1942 with “The Strings, My Lord, Are False.” Directed by Elia Kazan, it ran 15 performances. The same play? Or another opening, another flop? One hopes her shoes dried out from the icy slush of Tremont Street by then.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Road Show - "Mister Roberts" at the Court Square Theater

Another opening, another road show. Here we have the program for “Mister Roberts”, which came to the Court Square Theater, Springfield, Massachusetts from December 11th through 16th, 1950, when the Court Square entered the period its last golden years.

Directed by Joshua Logan, the play starred Curtis Cooksey as The Captain, Robert Burton as Doc, and Don Fellows as Ensign Pulver. Cooksey and Burton were veterans, who first trod the boards on Broadway in 1915 and 1916, and Cooksey had appeared in several silent films. Both had worked in early television as well.

Don Fellows came to the road show from the original Broadway hit, where he was part of the ensemble. He had also originated the role of Lt. Buzz Adams in “South Pacific” and appeared in a number of Broadway musicals, films, and television in his long career.

The cast also included a couple of newbies who would one day become famous names, Jack Klugman and Lee Van Cleef.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Out of Town Tryouts - "Last House on the Left" - 1945

“Last House on the Left” came to Hartford in it’s pre-Broadway tryout in November 1945 with what must have been typical high hopes, but no crystal ball regarding the ultimate success of the show.

This was a comedy-farce written by Jean Carmen and Irish Owen, and directed by Irish Owen, not to be confused with the cult horror movie of the early 1970s with a similar name. Definitely not to be confused with that.

Jean Carmen played vaudeville, radio, and did a lot of B-westerns in Hollywood by the time she trod the boards at the Bushnell for this play in which she also starred with Gene Barry “and a cast of 20.” Her only Broadway stint was as a replacement in “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

Gene Barry had a lot of stage work under his belt, particularly on Broadway, mostly musicals, and would eventually make his fame on television, especially as TV’s “Bat Masterson.” Barry had just come off of “Catherine Was Great” on Broadway in January 1945 when “Last House on the Left” was in the works.

“Last House on the Left” never made it to Broadway. Barry’s career sailed on, however, and he went back to Broadway in a revival of “The Would-Be Gentleman” at the Booth Theater. It ran three months. Then presumably he joined Irish Owen and Jean Carmen in the eternal search for a new gig.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Theatre as Giver and Wide Receiver

“Theatre isn’t merely giver; it’s giver and receiver,” so wrote stage director Joshua Logan in his autobiography, My Upside Down, In and Out Life (Delacorte Press, NY, 1976).

Mr. Logan writes of the immediacy of theatre, not just for the actors but for the audience, “feeling yourself played to by live actors, that can be found nowhere else.”

At The Bushnell in Hartford, Connecticut, in January 2008, actor Brad Nacht, playing the character Max Bialystock in the road production of “The Producers” interrupted the second act, broke the fourth wall and told the audience, “New England 14, San Diego 6.”

The AFC playoff game was currently under way, and Mr. Nacht was passing along the most recent score to New England theatergoers who would presumably also be New England Patriots fans.

Giver and receiver perhaps may also mean wide receiver in some cases.

“It’s lover and loved,” Josh Logan said of theatre, and sometimes one’s lover strays, or at least one’s attention.

The Patriots currently lead the AFC East, so perhaps January will again bring some compromise to the relationship between audience and actor.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Arsenic and Old Lace at the Court Square Theater, Springfield, Mass.

“Aresnic and Old Lace” toured New England in 1941, and played two nights and a Wednesday matinee on November 25th and 26th. Featured in the cast was Laura Hope Crews (center, above), who returned to the stage after several film roles, among them the fretful and childlike Aunt Pittypat Hamilton in “Gone With the Wind” (1939). “Arsenic was one of Laura Hope Crews’ last roles before her death the following November in 1942.

Miss Crews and Effie Shannon, who was originally from Cambridge, Mass., played the sweetly sinister sisters Brewster. Forrest Orr, last seen here on tour with “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” played the bombastic and childlike “Teddy” Brewster who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt.

The unique, if, much parodied Hollywood legend Erich von Stroheim played the evil Jonathan Brewster. Mr. Stroheim, actor, writer, and director, must have made an entertaining evil brother Jonathan (the role was originated on Broadway that January by Boris Karloff).

Directed by Joseph Kesslring, the show would become a film vehicle for James Stewart in 1944 (last seen here getting bawled out by Jane Cowl in Boston), and would become for decades to come the favorite chestnut of community theater groups around the country. One wonders if this show is always playing sometime, somewhere, though surely Halloween must be its high season.

This local newspaper ad tells us the tickets went from $1.10 up to $2.75 for orchestra seats, though you could get cheap seats at the matinee for 55 cents.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Upcoming plays for December:

At the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut: “Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter” December 5th through January 3, 2010.

“As Christmas approaches the world of Frogtown Hollow, Emmet Otter and his Ma can only dream of buying each other gifts. So when a Christmas Eve talent contest is announced, both secretly enter, hoping to win the prize money. In a heartwarming twist on "The Gift of the Magi," Emmet and Ma risk all they have and end up with the greatest grand prize of all. Based on director Jim Henson's television feature, this new theatrical adaptation features a lovable mix of actors and puppet characters from The Jim Henson Company and a toe-tapping score. It's a classic holiday musical for all ages!”

Music and Lyrics by Paul Williams, book by Timothy A. McDonald and Christopher Gattelli. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli

At the Majectic Theater in West Springfield, Mass. “Piecemeal - The Frankenstein Musical” running through December 6th. Written by Howard Odentz, this “is the imaginative, dark, and very funny spin on Mary Shelley’s classic novel by re-telling the strange events that lead to the creation of Frankenstein’s monster. Igor, the hunchbacked undertaker’s son, yearns to be a doctor. By chance he meets the young Victor Frankenstein, who is destined to follow in his family’s medical footstep, but whose heart is set instead on a fashion career. He and Igor swap identities. Victor heads off to France to pursue his passion while Igor takes his new name and Victor’s pre-paid admission papers to the University. There he becomes the prized pupil of Professor Krempe, who’s been secretly working on reanimation. Add in a love triangle with Victor’s betrothed, the beautiful Elizabeth Lavenza, and you have “PIECEMEAL.”

At the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Mass., the regional premiere of “Heroes” by Gerald Sibleyras, adapted by Tom Stoppard opens tomorrow, November 19th and runs through December 13th. “Henri, Gustave and Philippe survived World War I. Forty years later, as residents in a veterans’ home and armed only with what is left of their wits and a 200-pound stone dog, they battle old age, nagging war injuries, and a masochistic nun. A heartwarming tale of camaraderie and a moving portrait of the frustrations inherent in growing older.”

At the Portland Stage, Portland, Maine, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens runs from November 27th through December 24th. “Travel back in time to Victorian England where ghosts, time travel, and memories help a cold and lonely old miser regain his heart. Our adaptation remains remarkably true to Dickens' original book. Dickens' story seems best told in his words, allowing audiences to hear the richness of his language, and to experience the story of Scrooge's encounters with the spirits of past, present, and yet-to-come in the way that the author intended.”

The Shubert Theatre of New Haven, Connecticut, which opened on December 11, 1914, is celebrating its 95th anniversary with a special event December 11th, and continue on Sunday, December 13th.

Schedule of Anniversary Events:

Friday, December 11
Guided Tours of the Shubert Theater and Backstage: 12:30, 1:30, 2:30, 3:30
Rededication Program: 7:00pm
Followed by screening of "Shubert Moments" and feature film "The Sound of Music"

“The day-long 95th Anniversary Celebratory Events begins on Friday, December 11 with free tours of the theater and backstage areas including the famous “Graffiti Walls” featuring murals of past shows and cast signatures. Tours will run on the hour from 12:30–3:30pm. A rededication ceremony on the Shubert Stage hosted by Shubert staff and City of New Haven officials begins at 7pm, followed by a screening of “Shubert Moments,” a short film highlighting the Shubert’s rich theatrical history, and the feature film, “The Sound of Music.” This film was selected because of the show’s original association with the Shubert Theater – the original stage production of “The Sound of Music” made its World Premiere on the Shubert stage in October, 1959. Having recently marked the 50th Anniversary of its Shubert stage premiere, it is particularly appropriate to include the film version of this beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein classic as part of the Shubert’s Anniversary events.

The celebration continues on Sunday, December 13 with a Free Family Fun Day from 11am–3pm. Kid-friendly events including holiday arts & crafts projects and face painting and refreshments will be available throughout the day in the Shubert lobby. Participants will be entertained with Holiday Carols performed by New Haven youth choirs and a special visit by Santa Claus! Patrons will also be treated to a series of holiday-themed film shorts in the Shubert Theater.”

At The Bushnell in Hartford, Connecticut. “Amahl and the Night Visitors” with The Mostly Baroque Players - David Ole Hartman, Conductor and John Tedeschi, Stage Director/King Melchior - present a fully staged performance of the one act Christmas themed opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti. “The story concerns an unannounced visit by the Three Kings to a poor, crippled, shepherd boy and his widowed mother on their way to venerate the Christ Child in Bethlehem.” Starring Toby Newman as the Mother, Johan Hartman as Amahl, Wayne Rivera as King Kaspar, Stewart Battle as King Balthazar and Christopher Stone as the Page.

At Boston’s The Huntington, “A Civil War Christmas” by Paula Vogel will run until December 13th. “It's Christmas Eve 1864. In the White House, President and Mrs. Lincoln plot their gift-giving. On the Potomac, a young rebel soldier challenges a Union blacksmith's mercy. In the streets, a fugitive from slavery searches for her daughter on the night she finds freedom. In this new play with music from Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel, these stories and more are woven into an American tapestry, showing us that the gladness of one's heart is the greatest gift of all. This production includes beloved holiday music and will be enhanced by local choirs caroling before each performance.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Armistice Day - Tremont Theater, Boston

On this day in 1918, the World War ended by armistice and mutual exhaustion. At Boston’s Tremont Theater, “Tiger Rose”, a melodrama by Willard Mack, produced by David Belasco played to audiences whose number we can only guess.

In late August, early September, a few cases of the mysterious influenza were noted among servicemen at the Chelsea Naval Hospital. Soon, civilians began catching the influenza, and dying. All aspects of daily life were suddenly overburdened with the inability to cope with the sickness. Educators, health care providers, the clergy, the police and fire departments suffered the loss of scores of workers, so that in the end, citizens were told to just quarantine themselves as a best measure of fighting the epidemic. In the last four months of that year, the end of the war, an event hoped and prayed for, seemed secondary to the 22,000 deaths in Massachusetts from the influenza.

One wonders how the theatre was able to cope when schools and churches were closed and the city seemingly locked itself down. The Tremont boasted itself The Safest Theatre in Boston, “Equipped with the celebrated Regan Water Curtains which are positive in their action. Also an Asbestos Curtain” so a program from that era proclaimed. Safe from fire, the theatre’s traditional enemy, but not from the flu.

“Tiger Rose” was about a French-Canadian spitfire, loved by all, particularly the villain of the piece, a Mountie played by the play’s author, Willard Mack. Lenore Ulric, who played Rose, later went on to star in the 1921 silent film.

Willard Mack eventually gave up acting to concentrate on his writing career. In another play he wrote, called “The Noose” in 1926, Willard Mack is perhaps best remembered for plucking a girl out of the chorus called Ruby Stevens. So impressed with her natural talent, he rewrote parts of the play to expand her role, and convinced her to change her name. So, Ruby Stevens became Barbara Stanwyck, and Barbara Stanwyck became a star, first on Broadway in “The Noose”, and then for the rest of her long career in film.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Meltdown in Boston: Jane Cowl vs. James Stewart

Jane Cowl, one of the most famous stage actresses of the early 20th century, was a Boston native who, while appearing in Boston, may have inadvertently aided the future film career of her bumbling stage manager.

The play was “Camille”, and the bumbling stage manager was James Stewart. The year was 1933, that awful financial and emotional trench we’ve come to recognize as the depths of the Great Depression.

James Stewart had begun his fledging acting career with the University Players on the Cape the year before in 1932 upon his college graduation. After the University Players had a seven-week run with “Carrie Nation” in New York, and then broke up, Stewart managed to catch favorable reviews for minor roles in a few other similarly frustratingly short-lived plays. Needing to feed himself between roles, a common problem for actors it seems, Mr. Stewart accepted a job in Boston as the stage manager of “Camille.”

It might have been a slight detour in his quest to be an actor, but any job in a company with Jane Cowl in it was valuable. Miss Cowl, with only a handful of film credits spread out over many years, made her real home the stage where she not only acted, but wrote plays and also directed.

She was perhaps most famous for playing Juliet. In 1933, between her Broadway stints of engagements of doing the romance “A Thousand Summers” ending in 1932 and the comedy “Rain From Heaven” which went up in 1934, Jane Cowl found herself in the city of her birth to sink her scenery-chewing teeth into one of the most famous diva roles ever written.

During her final, famous, frenzied death scene where she coughs her farewell to her sobbing lover, Miss Cowl’s young stage manager became distracted, and left off following the script.

Stewart, fumbling with his cue book, had heard noises out in the alley. He went to investigate and found a drunk amusing himself by lobbing rocks at the theater building, either at the wall or trying to land them on the roof. Stewart went outside to get rid of him.

Then, realizing in a panic that he had left his post at a crucial moment, ran back to his place in the wings, only to mess up the final curtain. We have at least two versions to consider: in “Jimmy Stewart” by Marc Elliot (Harmony, 2006), Stewart is said to have missed the cue to drop the final curtain just as Jane Cowl dies of tuberculosis, leaving her there hanging. Dead. So to speak.

In “James Stewart: Behind the Scenes of a Wonderful Life” by Lawrence J. Quirk (Applause Books, NY 1997), we are given the further picture of Stewart panicking, rushing back to his post, and ringing down curtain before her death scene was completely over. Jane Cowl, being Jane Cowl, might have taken a rather long time to die.

Cowl was furious, screamed at him, that he had ruined her scene, and had him fired.

James Stewart headed dejectedly back to his shared digs with pal Henry Fonda in New York City, still stinging from his blunder and his return to joblessness. But the darker days of the Depression were coming to a close for Mr. Stewart. He went back to acting, which unlike stage managing does not require one to pay attention every single second, and the following year, to Broadway in “Yellow Jack”, a performance which earned him a screen test with MGM.

Jane Cowl also eventually left Boston and went back to Broadway, where among other roles (as a bit of trivia) she originated the role of Dolly Levi on Broadway in 1938, when Dolly was a minor character in Thornton Wilder's "The Merchant of Yonkers."

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Out of Town Tryouts - "Sing Out, Sweet Land"

One aspect of New England’s rich tradition in theatre lies in its proximity to New York City. We are sometimes the land of the Out of Town Tryouts for new Broadway plays.

This could have been more than unusually daunting back in the day, since New Englanders had the reputation (much more then than now, I expect), of “sitting on their hands” or not being very generous with applause.

However one out of town tryout was well received on November 9, 1944. A brand new musical came to The Bushnell in Hartford called “Sing Out, Sweet Land.” Starring Alfred Drake, who had just enjoyed enormous success starring in “Oklahoma!” the previous year, this new musical was compared to “Oklahoma!” in its folksy examination of American history through popular music.

Among its featured performers was Burl Ives, who sang his trademark “Foggy, Foggy Dew,” “Blue Tail Fly”, and “Rock Candy Mountain.” Negro spirituals, folk music, Tin Pan Alley tunes all flowed through this musical which opened on Broadway the following month, and ran 102 performances, closing in March 1945.

Time Magazine, however, panned the show when it was on Broadway, writing in January 1945, “What should have been an exciting show remains, at best, a pleasant song recital.”

But Hartford loved it, according to the New York Times review of November 10, 1944, which compared the show favorably to “Oklahoma!”

“A delighted audience of more than 3,000” enjoyed the musical parade of history through “energetic singing and dancing.” The book was by Walter Kerr, the score by Ellie Siegmeister. Hartford did not sit on its hands this time, if Time Magazine did.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Upcoming Plays

At the Goodspeed Opera House of Haddam, Connecticut, the musical comedy “A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” continues through to November 29th.

At the Merrimack Repertory Theatre of Lowell, Massachusetts, “The Seafarer” a hilarious and chilling Irish tale of the sea opened last week and runs through November 8th.

At The Shubert of New Haven, Connecticut, the riotous “The 39 Steps” opens November 5th and runs through November 7th. This Broadway smash is described as what happens when you “mix a Hitchcock masterpiece with a juicy spy novel, add a dash of Monty Python.” A cast of four plays over 150 characters.

At the American Repertory Theatre, using the Old Lincoln School in Brookline, Mass., a unique theatre experience in an unusual telling of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

Award-winning British theater company Punchdrunk makes its U.S. debut with “Sleep No More”, an immersive production inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, told through the lens of a Hitchcock thriller.

“The Old Lincoln School in Brookline, Massachusetts, will be exquisitely transformed into an installation of cinematic scenes that evoke the world of Macbeth. You, the audience, have the freedom to roam the environment and experience a sensory journey as you choose what to watch and where to go. Rediscover the childlike excitement of exploring the unknown in this unique theatrical adventure.”

At the New Hampshire Theatre Project in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Edward Albee’s “Seascape” opens November 12th and runs through November 29th. Directed by Blair Hundertmark.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Oklahoma!" Kicks off Post-WWII Season

The first post-World War II theatre season in New England got off to a rousing start with what had been a wartime favorite in New York, “Oklahoma!”

This first celebrated pairing of the music and lyrics of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II opened at Hartford’s Bushnell Memorial Hall October 15, 1945, and played for a week. This road company featured James Alexander as Curly, Mary Hatcher as Laurey, former vaudevillian Mary Marlo as Aunt Eller, and Dorothea MacFarland as Ado Annie (who had understudied Celeste Holm in the New York production). Richard H. Gordon played Jud Fry.

While wartime privations continued in Great Britain, and the European continent and Asia would take years to recover from the war’s devastation, Americans were seemingly already shedding the horror of the world’s largest and most terrible conflict, and were moving on to an unknown modern world with a vengeance. An ad in the program for new perfume sold at Hartford’s famed department store, G. Fox & Co. (see more on G. Fox & Co. in my New England Travels blog), called “Yanky Clover” sold with a dress inspired by “Oklahoma!” and its depiction of “box luncheons, picnics under the stars…the romantic, nostalgic feeling of our own wonderful West.” See Toiletries, street floor.

That romantic nostalgic feeling might be fleeting when the new realities of post-war life set in, some exciting, some foreboding. For now, it was “Oklahoma!” in Hartford, where the cheap seats in the second balcony went for 90 cents, and most expensive orchestra seats would cost you $3.00.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Comedy Comes to the Boston Museum

Back in the days before theatre was acceptable, the Boston Museum on Tremont Street staged dramatic performances such as John Wilkes Booth in “Romeo and Juliet”, as well as other cultural presentations. Calling the theater a museum somehow made it more legitimate, as if Shakespeare performed in a building called a theater would be déclassé.

The Boston Museum was also really a museum, however, with art and natural sciences exhibits. One wonders if any pretense to culture was blown out of the water when The Dalys came to town.

Above is an ad from Byrne’s Dramatic Times of October 18, 1884, announcing the two-week engagement of The Dalys at the Boston Museum beginning November 3rd. Their show was “their now famous athletic comedy” called “The Vacation - or- Harvard vs. Yale”.

Perhaps “athletic” was used for what would later be termed “slapstick”, but this was such a novelty at the prestigious Boston Museum that the ad declared, “The only comedy on earth that ever played an engagement at the Boston Museum in its regular season.” The show had come straight from a brief run at Tony Pastor’s in New York, billed as “the most pronounced hit of any comedy during the present season.”

The Dalys were a popular family of vaudeville performers in the late 19th century. Several siblings entered the business one by one, and eventually formed a troupe that appeared together in plays.

Author William Ellis Horton in his “About Stage Folks” (Free Press Printing Co., Detroit, 1902), gives us a bit of background on the performing Daly family. Brothers William and Timothy were song and dance men, later joining with Mort Emerson and Willis Clark to form the “Four King High Kickers”, which was, according to Horton, “at one time considered the strongest act of its kind in vaudeville.”

The siblings William, Thomas, Robert, and Daniel were joined by Thomas’ wife Lizzie Derious for the comedy “Vacation.” There were other brothers and sisters, either not involved in the theater, like their oldest brother Timothy, who was a prosperous merchant in Boston, or had their own acts, like sister Lizzie who was a dancer and married minstrel show man Billy Buckley.

At the time of Horton’s 1902 book, some 18 years after their appearance at the Boston Museum, we learn that Thomas had died from “the effects of a severe beating given to him by a cowardly set of ruffians” who were the stage hands at the Academy of Music in Chicago. There’s got to be more to that story.

Robert died of consumption, and sister Lizzie, now a widow, performed a dance act with her daughter Vinnie.

All the Daly siblings owned summer homes on Crescent Beach, back in the day before summer stock, when theatre folk took it easy during the summer months. The only “season” was the theatre season. They, or the ad men, called “Vacation” -- “The laughing success of the century.”

Note: the photo of the Boston Museum is from the Library of Congress, now in public domain.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Vaudeville at Poli's Palace - Springfield, Mass.

Above is the bill of acts for the Poli’s Palace in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1917. At this time, the Poli Palace was a vaudeville theater, but entrepreneur Sylvester Z. Poli was among the first to introduce movies to his theaters. So, right after Evelyn Elkins “singing comedienne” performs live, we are treated to a silent Western “Their Compact” starring Francis X. Bushman.

The flickers and the “legitimate stage” share an audience, and presumably, worlds collide.

Not that vaudeville was ever really considered “legitimate” stage, but Poli, an Italian immigrant who made his fortune through a string of theaters he owned, most located in New England, intended that his vaudeville theaters provide, according to a publication of the day called “S.Z. Poli’s Theatrical Enterprises”, quoted in The Papers of Will Rogers - Wild West and Vaudeville, Volume II (ed. Arthur Frank Wertheim and Barbara Bair, University of Oklahoma Press, 2000, p. 404) “devoted to progressive and polite vaudeville.”

We can’t be certain how progressive singing comedienne Evelyn Elkins was, but she was probably polite.

Will Rogers toured the Poli chain of theaters in 1908, and came to Sylvester Poli’s Springfield theater in February of that year. The theater was located at 286 Worthington Street, and after having its name changed to the Park Theatre in 1913, was destroyed in a fire in 1914. Poli was already busy building a new theater, called Poli’s Palace, a little farther down the street at 192-194 Worthington. This theater would continue as a vaudeville house, and after some years of sharing its audience with silent films, would eventually be turned over completely to that new medium when the talkies arrived, and Poli merged his chain with the Loew’s Corporation in 1934.

Vaudeville had its own hierarchy of “top banana” comics, and lesser acts that “played to haircuts” (meaning people walked out on them, so all the performers saw was the backs of their heads). There were “small-time” vaudeville theaters and “big-time”. In Springfield, Poli’s would have been considered small-time, compared to the vaudeville acts that were booked for the more prestigious Court Square Theater in town, which would carry an odd week or two of vaudeville in between legitimate stage shows.

The Shuberts, Keith, Albee and William Morris, all top vaudeville bookers who, regulated by the Vaudeville Managers Association, collected acts to run on the country’s regional vaudeville circuits. Springfield’s Pat Shea, one manager on the New England circuit, helped start the United Booking Office, a clearing house for vaudeville acts.

In February 1922, Shubert’s “High Class Vaudeville” played the Court Square Theater, and fifth on the bill was “Whipple and Huston.” Walter Huston, who later went on to movie fame, at this time played in comedy sketches with his wife, Bayonne Whipple.

Over at Poli’s Palace, there were lesser known acts, like the Harvey-Devora Trio, which billed themselves as “Grotesque Singing and Dancing Novelty.” We cannot be certain if “grotesque” was added to attract attention, or was merely an honest assessment of their abilities.

Things were more hopefully put with Bixley & Lerner, who called themselves “The Melba and Caruso of Vaudeville.”

Spectacular acts were saved for last, “show-closers”, and on July 13, 1914, Gilmore & Castle, “Blackface Singing and Talking Comedians” (yes, they could also talk), were followed by show-closer Hassan Ben Ali’s Troupe.

In his American Vaudeville: It’s Life and Times (NY: Dower Pub., Inc. 1968), author Douglas Gilbert noted of the Troupe, “Their handsprings were never springy, and their tumbling was wild, reckless, effortless. American acrobats could never approach them. At the end of the act Ali held the entire troupe on his head, shoulders, and arms. Then, at curtain, they would take off like pigeons, throwing themselves, so it seemed, out into space. The illusion was perfect. This was the best of the alley oops and no act has beaten it since.”

Box seats were 50 cents at the Poli’s Palace (orchestra seats were double that at Court Square), but if half a buck was still too steep, you could sit in the balcony for 10 cents.

Sylvester Poli, incidentally, was among the first theater owners to construct a single cantilevered balcony in this building, built in 1913.

Vaudeville ran with a new bill every week at Poli’s from Labor Day through May 30th, when summer stock would take over. Poli had his own traveling theater group, called the Poli Players, that would tour his theaters. One future film actress to get her start with the Poli Players was Gladys George.

Sylvester Poli, known not only for adding to his chain of theaters, but remodeling old ones, built the Poli Memorial Theater in 1927. The Springfield Republican noted in December 1926, “Modeled, to some extent, after the elaborate Metropolitan picture theater in Boston, its stage and auditorium will be suitable to legitimate productions, vaudeville, and motion pictures.”

The might be what’s known as having it all, but we never have anything for very long. Vaudeville was dead by 1930, and the talkies carried what would be known as the Loew’s Poli theater for the remainder of the decade and beyond, until that distant day when downtown theaters would be replaced by suburban cinemas.

But for a good while, one could ride the trolley on Main Street, get off on Worthington and walk up to the Poli’s Palace to see Archie Onri “The Original Juggling Genius assisted by Miss Dolly”, and Rohem’s Athletic Girls, which featured feminine exhibitions in “Fencing, Wrestling, and Bag Punching,” or the ever popular Spencer & Williams “Singing and Dancing Duo.”

Later, Loew’s Poli showed first-run MGM films for another generation.

Note: The photos of the exterior and interior of Poli's Palace are from postcards posted on the Image Museum site. The programs and tickets are from my collection.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The File on Esther Zidel

As mentioned on my "Another Old Movie Blog" this week, I'd like to refer you to another blog called “The File on Esther Zidel.” This blog is comprised of scrapbook photos taken by a young woman named Esther Zidel in the late 1930s and 1940s. The photos are of actors and actresses (stage and screen) she seems to have accosted outside the stage doors of Boston, Massachusetts area theaters. Some dressed to the nines; some, like one of Bette Davis, devil-may-care casual. The more famous actors are easily recognizable, but many others are not.

The photo of James Dunn seems especially poignant to me, strolling alone through the deserted back alley.

See if you can help identify some of these actors, and fill in the blanks.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Upcoming Plays

Upcoming plays for September and October:

At the Barrington Stage in western Massachusetts:
“Freud's Last Session” is being extended September 23rd through October 4th. The play by Mark St. Germain is suggested by "The Question of God" by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., directed by Tyler Marchant. After escaping the Nazis in Vienna, psychiatrist Dr. Sigmund Freud invites a young, little known professor, C.S. Lewis, to his home in London. Lewis expects to be called on the carpet for satirizing Freud in a recent book but the dying Freud has a more significant agenda. On the day England entered WW II, Freud and Lewis clash on the existence of God, love, sex and the meaning of life – only two weeks before Freud chose to take his own.

At Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” runs from September 25th through November 29th.

In Ivoryton, Connecticut, the Ivoryton Playhouse presents William Gibson’s classic “The Miracle Worker” September 23rd through October 11th.

At “The Kate”, the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, Connecticut we have Shakespeare’s “All's Well That Ends Well” on October 1st.

The Legacy Theater Company of Saco, Maine presents “Run for Your Lives” October 9th through October 18th, a series of funny and poignant short works by David Ives, author of "All In The Timing"

The Portland Stage Company of Portland, Maine presents “Third” by Wendy Wasserstein, September 29th through October 18th. From their website: "A liberal university professor finds her seemingly well-ordered life as mother, friend, and daughter thrown into disarray when she accuses a conservative student of plagiarism. Full of the smart dialogue and easy wit that made her famous, Wasserstein's last play is a thoughtful examination of politics, family and the unconscious misconceptions that still divide America."

Hartford, Connecticut’s Bushnell presents Tony winners Roger Bart and Shuler Hensley reprising their roles in the first national tour of the musical “Young Frankenstein” October 6th through 11th, book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, music & lyrics by Mel Brooks. Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman.

Boston’s The Huntington is currently running August Wilson’s “Fences”, directed by Kenny Leon through October 11th.

The Ridgefield Theater Barn of Ridgefield, Connecticut is currently running “Beyond Therapy” by Christopher Durang, directed by Lester Colodny through October 3rd.

"This comedy/farce involves the unstable lives of two New Yorkers searching for a stable romantic relationship and the 'advice' they receive from their equally unstable psychiatrists. The line between neurosis and insanity blurs as complications....and comedy....inevitably follows."

Connecticut’s Westport Playhouse presents Jane Alexander and Stockard Channing in “The Breath of Life” by David Hare, directed by Mark Lamos September 29th through October 17th. On a small island off the coast of England, two women with a shared history meet for the first time. For twenty-five years, though strangers to one another, Frances and Madeleine were intimately connected in ways they’re only now beginning to understand. Over the course of a single night, as they confront the past, they finally come to terms with the choices they’ve made and the lives they’ve lived.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Opening of "The Kate"

A couple of days ago, a new theater opened, or re-opened we should say, in New England. We welcome the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center.

Located in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, the theater was once the town hall that opened in 1911, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

For many years the building was the home of the Musical and Dramatic Club, showed movies, and the Ivoryton Players moved here for a time during WWII. Ethel Barrymore trod the boards in 1935. By the 1950s, the town offices required more room and theatre was abandoned.

When the town offices moved to a new Town Hall, the historic building underwent, and is still undergoing, a most delightful transformation as the Town of Old Saybrook set upon creating a 250-seat theater, as well as a museum honoring Katharine Hepburn, their most famous resident.

Have a look at the link above and welcome the inaugural season of “The Kate.”

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Kitty Carlisle On Tour at the High School Auditorium

This program for “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is undated, but could have been about 1949, the year Kitty Carlisle toured in summer stock with this now theatre classic written by her husband, Moss Hart, and his partner George S. Kaufman.

Intriguing in this production is the cast of theatre veterans, and the theater: the auditorium of the Springfield (Massachusetts) Trade High School.

This small brick inner city trade school has long been defunct, but evidently had appropriate facilities for what was billed as the Springfield Drama Festival. The Albert Steiger Company, whose flagship department store was in Springfield, also now defunct, (see this article on Steiger’s in my New England Travels blog), took out a full-page ad. The fox furs worn by Miss Carlisle and Miss Libaire came from another local business, Scott Furriers, and the radio equipment for the broadcast scene was provided by the local downtown radio station, WMAS. In between acts we are encouraged to drink Coca Cola, “On sale ice cold in the lobby.”

The program might have the look of a senior class play, but the cast carried a few veterans who’d probably played in more humble venues, and certainly in theaters more grand.

Kitty Carlisle’s career on stage spanned decades, though beyond her few films is probably most remembered for her stint as a game show panelist. She played Maggie Cutler, who is the secretary of the impossible Sheridan Whiteside, played by Forrest Orr. No longer a household name, Mr. Orr made his Broadway debut back in 1907 in the old chestnut, “Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines.” His Broadway career continued through the middle 1940s, and he appeared in the original “Philadelphia Story.”

Kevin McCarthy, Joseph Pevney also had long stage careers, and Dorothy Libaire, who played the gold-digger Lorraine Sheldon had a number of films under her belt by the time this gig at the Springfield Trade School came along.

Harold J. Kennedy, who played the prankster Beverly Carleton, also directed the show and co-produced with Harald M. Bromley.

Summer stock requires one to wear a lot of hats sometimes, and demands a lot of versatility, in cast, and in venue, including a high school stage. Now that it’s September and school is back in session, we conclude our posts on summer stock.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Summer Theatre Summary - 1940

The first summer theater is believed to have begun in the 1890s in Denver, Colorado. But like most new inventions, the public was not exposed to this new entertainment, at least not in very large numbers, for a long while, not until the late 1920s and early 1930s. This is when more people could afford to leave the sweltering cities in the summer. This is when they began to vacation in the country, and this is when the automobile first made that journey a bit easier. This is when those lush and lovely locales in the mountains or by the sea provided theater entrepreneurs the opportunity to push their own unique product to the vacationers.

In June 1940, Theatre Arts magazine celebrated the first decade of summer theatre with an article by author and theater manager, Warren P. Munsell, Jr., who noted, “It is no longer a quaint idea to pop out to the country in July and take in a straw hat show.” He rejoiced that now it was a commonplace thing to do. He noted that “actors, like everybody else, like to get out of the city in the hot weather. Unlike everybody else, in their spare time actors like to act.”

Interestingly, Munsell observed that even at this time, slowly over the preceding decade of the Great Depression, the old-style repertory theater was being altered by the presence of big-name stars from Hollywood. If the audience was asked to pay the enormous sum of $2.75 a ticket to see Henry Fonda live on stage, then by golly, they would expect to see an entire season of big stars rounding out the casts. Munsell notes that such demands by the audience, no longer content with the backwoods repertory, put a huge strain on the theater’s coffers, so much that summer theaters are “generally close to bankruptcy.”

He notes that audiences prefer familiar titles of recent Broadway hits (at the time of this article, it was “You Can’t Take it With You” and “Susan and God”). Giving the public what it wants also extends to what he calls his hesitancy “to offer Oscar Wilde to an audience comprised mainly of farmers.”

He notes comedy is a bigger draw than drama, and notes the risks of trying out new plays as opposed to presenting familiar chestnuts. Except for the price of the tickets, he could be talking about today. Munsell closes his article with a warm summation at which we might smile, “But if, in its maturity, the straw hat circuit seems to have less spontaneity, and to be of less value as an incubator for Broadway plays and Hollywood protégés than before, it has evolved its own special, significant function. It is another outlet for theatre. For summer theatres are supported on the whole by communities a varying percentage of which have no contact with the stage.”

That, too, may still be true, although the big cities are not so far away anymore, just a few exits down the superhighway for most people. But with so many competing sources of entertainment, is live theater likely to be any more popular today for an evening or afternoon’s entertainment than it was in the Great Depression when money was scarce, but many more small communities had a tradition of theatre?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"Singin' in the Rain" - Ogunquit Playhouse

Ogunquit Playhouse brings to life “Singin’ in the Rain” with elaborate sets, complex technical effects, and a cast whose energy and talent impress and delight. Ogunquit has a huge show in “Singin’ in The Rain,” and a huge hit.

Joey Sorge, Amanda Lea Lavergne, and Jon Peters seem to almost channel Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor of the original film on which this stage musical is based. The 1952 landmark movie has become so iconic that a stage musical must of necessity evoke memories of the film, and for this production we therefore have the iconic Gene Kelly pose on the street lamp, umbrella in hand, by Joey Sorge, the Donald O’Connor inspired frenetic sight gags during the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number performed by Jon Peters, and Amanda Lea Lavergne’s “All I Do is Dream of You” bursting from a cake a’la Debbie Reynolds.

Particularly impressive for the audience to remember is that Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor were not singing at the top of their lungs while doing those impressive dance routines; they were lip-syncing to playback. On the stage, everything is live (though the tinny sound of the mics is somewhat distracting), and Sorge, Lavergne, and Peters don’t have the luxury of mouthing to playback or re-takes. They give it everything they’ve got, and what they’ve got is great. Their soaring voices and snappy tap dancing may have evoked the actors of the original film, but no mimicry was used or needed. They let us know from the start that, though this show might have been inspired by an old movie, this was live theater in all its immediacy and energy, its ability to excite and involve.

Other moments inspired by the film is the scene of the gossamer scarf of dancer Cyd Charisse enveloping Gene Kelly during the “Broadway Rhythm” number, and it is replicated with an interesting and creative variation. In the “Good Morning” number, at the moment Sorge, Lavergne, and Peters leap in unison onto the back of the couch and tip it over, the audience responded with impromptu applause, because that is one of the most memorable moments of that dance number in the film, and they were delightfully surprised to see it replicated on stage.

Amy Bodnar, who plays the ditzy diva Lina Lamont, rates a special mention for her fabulous performance. One would have to go a long way to top the comic antics of Jean Hagen in the original film, but Ms. Bodnar does it. I think whenever I see the 1952 from now on, I will be reminded with a warm memory of Ms. Bodnar’s performance. She is utterly hysterical in each line, each pose, managing to be both exasperatingly haughty and charmingly endearing. She was singled out for a standing ovation at the conclusion of the performance I saw, and well deserved.

Celia Tackaberry, who doubled as Phoebe Dinsmore the much-put-upon vocal coach, and Dora Bailey, the gossip columnist guiding us through the Hollywood premieres, gave us a touch of zany spoofing.

A fascinating, and highly entertaining aspect to this production is the use of silent film style film sequences of the actors shown on a screen in several scenes that meld with the live action and illustrate the sometimes wacky film world of the late 1920s. This was through the efforts of one of the new sponsors of the Playhouse, Video Creations. We see the difficulty transferring the accustomed silent film story to the new and groundbreaking sound film technology, not always with expected results. The “movie” clips were inventive and really funny.

And of course, it rained on stage.

Boy, did it rain. A spectacular special effect, this must have been a terrific challenge, and audience was taken away by it, and Joey Sorge leaped and splashily tap danced through puddles before our eyes. Bradford T. Kenney, Executive Artistic Director and Jayme McDaniel, director/choreographer are to be congratulated for the triumph “Singin’ in the Rain” represents for Ogunquit Playhouse. Musical director for this show is Matthew Smedal, who led the orchestra through the familiar, and some unfamiliar original numbers by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed.

“Singin’ in the Rain” runs at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Ogunquit, Maine through September 12th. Make every effort to see this show if you can; it’s terrific. If you’re lucky enough to catch it, let us know what you think.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Upcoming Plays - August

Upcoming plays for August 2009:

The Barrington Stage Company of Pittsfield, Mass. is currently running Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” through August 29th.

The Berkshire Theatre Festival down the road in Stockbridge is running “Ghosts” through August 29th.

Across the state and by the sea, the Cape Playhouse will present the Ken Ludwig comedy, “Moon Over Buffalo” beginning August 17th through the 29th.

The Ivoryton Playhouse, in Ivoryton, Connecticut is currently running Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple”, directed by Lawrence Thelen, through August 30th.

New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington Valley Theater will present the musical favorite “Hello Dolly!” August 18th through the 30th.

Connecticut’s New London Barn Playhouse cast off last night with the Cole Porter shipboard musical “Anything Goes”, running through August 23rd.

The Weston Playhouse of Vermont gives us “Musical of Musicals - The Musical! for its Vermont premiere. Opening tonight, the show runs through September 6th, with music by Eric Rockwell, Lyrics by Joanne Bogart, book by Eric Rockwell & Joanne Bogart. According to the website: “is a send-up of some of the musical theatre’s greatest composing teams. The time-honored tale of a damsel in distress is told by four actors in five musical styles. From Cats to Mame and from the cornfield to the cabaret…”

The Williamstown Theater Festival of Williamstown, Mass. also opens tonight with “Quartermaine’s Terms”, running through August 23rd. Written by Simon Gray, directed by Maria Aitken, this is “heart-felt 1960s comedy about an endearingly eccentric group of English teachers in Cambridge whose insatiable quest for knowledge has masked their secret longings for passion, romance, and true happiness.”

Lastly, at Maine’s Ogunquit Playhouse, another opening night tonight for the movie-now-stage musical “Singing in the Rain” based on the MGM film starring Joey Sorge, Amanda Lea LaVergne, and Jon J. Peterson, and running through September 12th. Next week, we’ll review this Oguinquit Playhouse production.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ethel Barrymore and the Democracy of Summer Theatre

One of the most fascinating and irresistible aspects of summer theatre is the prevailing panache of democracy not clashing, but complimenting stage “royalty.”

Here we have an ad from a Cape Playhouse program from August 1935 announcing the upcoming appearance of the legendary Ethel Barrymore in “The Constant Wife.” Her name is followed by a group of lesser actors, most of whom are probably unknown to most of us today, but who for that moment are noted forever as colleagues of the great Ethel Barrymore.

Ethel Barrymore, Library of Congress photo.

The producer, Raymond Moore, also boldly proclaims with equal enthusiasm, a couple of kiddy shows featuring a magician and some puppets. Ethel had to share the bill with puppets, but probably took it in her stride.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Summer Stock - 1939

As the lazy summer of 1939 lingered, we would have no way of knowing that the peace, and the familiar world of the present, would be shattered on September 1st when Hitler’s march into Poland started World War II. The beginning of that promising summer in June marked the last summer stock season free of any impending threat of being interrupted due to the war. The only threat to summer theater in New England in those days, as now, were financial.

But Newsweek magazine reported on June 26th that “summer show producers are looking forward to a prosperous season” and in those innocent days, along with the Broadway hits and the Broadway stars, “the usual hatch of untried plays that come to life under a rural moon before braving the harsher lights of Times Square.”

Most summer theaters, then and now, are in rural locations, and that perhaps in itself presents them as old fashioned, from another time, from another more innocent world. In 1939 summer stock had gone from crawling to walking, and was in fine form before the war disrupted many seasons for many summer theaters.

That season Libby Holman and Clifton Webb took “Burlesque” on one-week stands to the Ogunquit Playhouse in Ogunquit, Maine, then to the Cohasset Theater in Cohasset, Massachusetts, and then down to the Cape Playhouse in Dennis.

Glenda Farrell returned to the stage after five years in Hollywood to appear in “Anna Christie” at the Westport Playhouse in Connecticut. After Westport, Glenda Farrell was hopping down to the Theater-By-The-Sea in Mantunuck, Rhode Island to appear in “Dateline, Geneva,” a new play by Alan Rivkin and Leonard Spiegelglass.

Mitzi Green was to appear in several plays over at the Ivoryton, Connecticut Playhouse. Walter Hampden and Kitty Carlisle appeared at the Cape Playhouse in July with “A Successful Calamity”, a play in this previous post on Walter Hampden’s appearance in Ridgefield, Connecticut in August of 1938.

Over on the other end of the state, Thornton Wilder appeared as the Stage Manager in his play “Our Town” at the Berkshire Playhouse.

Skowhegan, Maine’s Lakewood Theater would present “Indian Summer” with Jessie Royce Landis. Diana Barrymore, the 18-year-old daughter of John Barrymore, would make her stage debut in Ogunquit. Rudy Vallee would appear over at Deertrees Theater in Harrison, Maine.

Newsweek noted that Vermont and New Hampshire summer stock was thriving on “the stages of almost a dozen active cowbarn playhouses.” It might sound dismissive, but it’s really kind of a triumph.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review of "Sleuth" - Cape Playhouse

The Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts is the oldest continuing summer theater in the U.S. Knowing that, and knowing that Henry Fonda and Robert Montgomery began their careers here in the summer of 1928, along with another first-timer who also ushered, Bette Davis, is part of the experience of attending a play at the Cape Playhouse on a warm summer night.

(c. 1940s photo.)It goes along with the rough broad-beam rafters in the peaked barn-like ceiling above, and the wooden floors, the wooden benches reminiscent of when founder Raymond Moore dragged (not by himself, surely) a former Unitarian meeting house to this sand-and-scrub pine lot along scenic Route 6A. This is no Cineplex, no grand beaux arts palace. It’s what summer theater used to be in an age when the greatest actors and actress of the day spent their summers playing in barns, and boathouses, tents, and old meeting houses.

A peculiar delight to sit on your bench, glance at the heavy rough oak rafters above, at the plush red curtain ahead, and imagine a young Bette Davis showing a perhaps much less-awed audience where to sit. A little of the shine is diminished today when you see a bored-looking young usher jerking his head and telling two elderly ladies with cardigans around their shoulders, “You guys are over here.”

Note to young people ushering, waiting tables, or running checkout stands in stores: ladies are always “Ma’am” and men are always, “Sir”, and should never be referred to as anything else except “ladies” or “gentlemen.”

I feel pretty sure even a tough gal like Bette Davis would have known that.

Another thing while we’re on the subject, the witless and lazy expression, “Have a good one” can be retired at any time.

Now, back to work. The Cape Playhouse just wrapped up its production of “Sleuth” by Anthony Shaffer. Directed by Russell Treyz, the show starred Peter Frechette and Malcolm Gets.

Yoshinori Tanokura designed the multi-level set, which featured a high narrow staircase to an upper level landing, large arched windows, and dark wood paneling, illustrating an ornate English country house. The fire place, the large elk’s head mounted above it, the crossed swords on the wall, all give us the illusion of English aristocracy, wealth, power, arrogance, and this goes a long way to establishing the character of the master of the house, played by Frechette.

The plastic-domed turntable stereo with the LPs tucked beside it remind us it is the 1970s.

Mr. Frechette plays Andrew Wyke, the writer of mystery novels whose wife is leaving him for Milo Tindle, played by Malcolm Gets. He invites Gets to his home to discuss the situation man-to-man, and soon sets him up in a most creative, and most cruel, game to exact his revenge. Frechette is brilliant as the playful, funny, arrogant, and somewhat manic writer who uses his expertise at writing mystery stories to manipulate and bully Gets into humiliating, and occasionally terrifying, scenarios. Frechette is teasing, bubbly, childlike, scornful, and at times appearing a bit unhinged. That’s a lot of oranges to juggle.

Gets, a more sensitive but no less clever man, is at first overwhelmed by the forceful life-of-the party personality of Frechette, who makes him jump through emotional hoops, but in the second act Gets proceeds to ploddingly turn the tables. The final scene is shocking, and we see that the relentless drive to be the winner in this peculiar game of one-upmanship comes at great risk for both men.

It is a literate play, and frequently the dialogue erupts into long and complicated soliloquies, but this is managed very well by both actors. Both employ credible, and several, British accents in the course of the action as they role play. They are well matched, and deserve much credit for instilling a great deal of energy into what is essentially a very wordy play.

Good company on a warm summer night on Cape Cod.

For more on the rest of the season at The Cape Playhouse, have a look at this website.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Upcoming Plays - July, August

Here are some upcoming plays in summer theatre:

The Acadia Repertory Theatre of Mt. Desert Island, Maine presents the comedy “Pool’s Paradise” by Philip King July 21st through August 2nd.

At the Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Mass., the thriller comedy “Sleuth” runs July 16th through August 1st.

The Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass. presents “The Einstein Project” by Paul D’Andrea and Jon Klein, directed by Eric Hill.

The Mt. Washington Valley Theatre Company, of North Conway, New Hampshire presents the musical comedy “The Producers” July 15th through August 1st.

Rhode Island’s Newport Playhouse & Cabaret Restaurant presents the comedy “Goodbye, Charlie” by George Axelrod, directed by Bruce Lackey, July 15th - August 23rd.

New Hampshire’s The Peterborough Players gives us the musical comedy “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”, book and lyrics by Joe DiPetro, music by Jimmy Roberts, July 15th through 26th.

The New London Barn Playhouse of New London, Connecticut presents Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic American musical, “South Pacific”, directed by Kathryn Markey, July 7th through July 19th.

Maine’s Ogunquit Playhouse, presents another classic American musical, “Guys and Dolls” July 15th through August 8th.

Vermont’s Weston Playhouse presents the New England premiere of the rock musical “Rent” July 30th through August 22nd. Book, music & lyrics by Jonathan Larson, directed and choreographed by Bill Castelino. Music director is Greg Brown.

Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse presents “How the Other Half Loves” by Alan Ayckbourn, directed by John Tillinger, July 28th through August 15th.

And finally, the Cape Playhouse of Dennis, Mass. (also, see Barrington Stage above) presents the thriller comedy “Sleuth” by Anthony Shaffer, July 6th through July 18th, where a wealthy crime writer matches wits with the unemployed actor who ran off with his wife, “plotting games full of twists and turns that end in potentially deadly results. A classic chiller that will have you on the edge of your seat!”

This blog will review the Cape Playhouse production of “Sleuth” next week.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Mount Holyoke College Summer Theatre

The Mount Holyoke College Summer Theatre retired their trademark orange and white tent at the end of their 18th season in 1988, and so symbolic was the tent to the identity of the theater that the future seemed uncertain for the organization. But, there would be a 19th season, and many seasons more until at last the curtain rang down for good.

But this was theater-in-the-round, where there are no curtains, and that is surely one of the factors that made the Mount Holyoke Summer Theatre so fondly remembered as a unique theatre experience. Their productions were, by necessity, intimate and cleverly presented.

Founded in 1970 by Mount Holyoke College Department of Theatre faculty member Jim Cavanaugh, this South Hadley, Massachusetts summer stock event was borne of a desire to create, as Mr. Cavanaugh wrote in the 10th Anniversary special program, “a theatre in which students would take positions of responsibility, on and off stage, and learn by doing.” Students had shared with Cavanaugh their less than satisfying experiences paying money to apprentice with major professional companies and “learning little except how to withstand lack of sleep.”

The first season produced eight plays in eight weeks, as Cavanaugh notes, “We didn’t know it couldn’t be done, so we did it.” Some memories over the years includes stopping a performance of the musical “Carnival” for 35 minutes to wait for a rain shower to stop so that the audience hear the performance. In the meantime, the actors taught the audience the words to songs from the show and they had a sing-a-long until the rain stopped.

Occasional rumbles from C5 aircraft taking off from nearby Westover Air Force Base always required a pause in the action, but were thankfully less frequent, and not as long-lasting than very loud rain on the tent roof. In fair weather, there was something tantalizing about the warm summer night, with the moon and stars lingering just beyond the tent wall and the screened door.

The series was reduced to seven plays in later seasons, and always ran the spectrum of comedy and drama, from Moliére to Thornton Wilder, from Neil Simon to Tennessee Williams. No big names from Hollywood or Broadway were among the casts, but none were needed. The mixture of professional guest actors and technicians, and company apprentice and journeymen students created a vibrant, intimate, and emotionally charged world in the orange and white tent. They are still missed.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Walter Hampden at Ridgefield Summer Theatre

Continuing our season of summer theatre, we take a look back at Walter Hampden’s appearance with Connecticut’s Ridgefield Summer Theatre in August of 1938.

Hampden was himself a resident of Ridgefield, having bought a farm here in 1911. He seems to have been part of a vanguard of wealthy New Yorkers to establish grand homes here. One America’s foremost Shakespearean actors of the turn of the 20th century, Walter Hampden toured the US and Europe, and formed his own stock company in 1919. In the 1920s he launched his own theater in New York, playing Hamlet to Ethel Barrymore’s Ophelia.

Hampden also enjoyed a varied Hollywood career noted in this post from my Another Old Movie Blog (see here).

This small town in Connecticut where he rested on his farm between engagements may have been a less illustrious venue for his considerable stature as an actor, but Walter Hampden’s appearance here in “A Successful Calamity” by Clare Kummer demonstrates what once was common among the great actors. Actors, real actors, toured in summer stock, no matter their stature or fame, no matter if the theater was a high school auditorium, a barn, or a boathouse, or a tent.

Hampden’s own personal ties to Ridgefield must have made this minor engagement all the more appealing. Ridgefield, Connecticut has two theaters today, the Ridgefield Theater Barn, and the Ridgefield Playhouse. The Wilton Bulletin of August 11, 1938, in anticipation of the coming event reported that Mr. Hampen, “has played “A Successful Calamity’ many times and has always delighted his audiences.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review - Broadway by the Year - Berkshire Theatre Festival

There is something rustically elegant and exquisitely symbolic about the wooden screen doors that gently swing open to the Berkshire Playhouse. They are an effortless gesture to the heritage and style of New England summer theatre. It is as if the building itself, designed by Stanford White in 1888 and now on the National Register of Historic Places, is both conscious and yet demure about its prestigious history.

Inside, a more pointed display is on hand with a number of headshots from stars of the past several decades, and period posters to which the patrons are riveted when they are not out catching the summer breeze on the porch, or having a drink on lawn.

The Berkshire Theatre Festival began in 1928, and celebrates its 81st season. Currently “Broadway By the Year” is playing here, and like the old wooden playhouse, makes the past real and relevant.

Musical review series created for New York’s The Town Hall by Scott Siegel, focused this time on the year 1930 and 1964. Mr. Siegel wrote the narrative which accompanies the songs, and hosted. His remarks were insightful, humorous, and along with his depth and knowledge of Broadway history, showed a warm admiration for the hits and stars of the past that the audience clearly shared and appreciated.

The singers were Scott Coulter, who also directed; as well as Christiane Noll, and Kerry O’Malley. Piano accompaniment was provided by Ross Patterson, musical director.

The 1930 segment featured songs from “Girl Crazy,” “The New Yorkers”, “Three’s a Crowd”, “Simple Simon”, “Nina Rosa”, “The 9:15 Review”, and “Strike Up the Band.”

The 1964 portion featured songs from “Fiddler on the Roof”, “High Spirits”, “Anyone Can Whistle,”, “Funny Girl”, and “Hello Dolly!”

Mr. Coulter’s mellow tenor was accompanied to great effect by Ms. O’Malley’s powerful, rich voice with its great range, and Ms. Noll’s beautiful high soprano. At a few turns in the show, most notably during “Sunrise, Sunset” from “Fiddler”, and “I Got Rhythm” the trio exhibited terrific close harmony.

First act costumes were formal and evocative of the era of 1930, and the second act boldly announced 1964 in the mod and colorful style, right down to Mr. Siegel’s multicolored tied and cummerbund, as if we’d all just gotten color TV.

Highlights included Ms. O’Malley’s second act opening shot-out-of-a-cannon rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, Ms. Noll’s tear-filled eyes at the end of “But Not For Me”, Ms. O’Malley’s lusty and fun “Home Sweat Heaven” sung on top of the piano, the soulful “Ribbons Down My Back” by Ms. Noll, and Mr. Coulter’s wistful “Anyone Can Whistle.”

The show continues through June 27th. It is a real treat, and well worth seeing. If you’ve seen it, let us know what you think.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Upcoming Summer Stock

Here are some more upcoming plays around New England as we launch into our season of summer theatre:

At the Acadia Repertory Theatre of Mt. Desert Island, Maine, “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher will be presented July 3rd through 19th.

Lakewood in Maine gives us the comedy “A Bad Year for Tomatoes” by John Patrick, directed by Stephanie E. G. Irwin. The show features Jeralyn Shattuck, Bart Shattuck, MJ Clifford, Larissa Gaias, Gary Dorman, Midge Merrill-Pomelow and Tim Pomelow. Dates are: June 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 27 8:00 p.m.; June 21st 4:00 p.m.; June 24th 2:00 p.m. & 7:00 p.m.

New Century Theater of Northampton, Mass. presents “Other People's Money” July 2-11th. Written by Jerry Sterner, directed by Keith Langsdale.

The Peterborough Players of New Hampshire presents the comedy “Bad Dates” by Theresa Rebeck, June 17-28 th.

Connecticut’s New London Barn Theater is currently producing Ken Ludwig’s “Leading Ladies”, directed by Peter Hackett, June 16-June 21st, the farce about two out-of-work actors who disguise themselves as women in order to inherit a fortune.

The Ogunquit Playhouse of Maine presents “Shout!” the Mod Musical, June 17th through July 11th.

The Ridgefield Theater Barn of Ridgefield, Connecticut will produce “Expecting Houdini” by Sam Havens, July 10th through 18th, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m .

Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse is presenting the musical, “tick, tick…boom!”, book, music, & lyrics by Jonathan Larson June 23 - July 18th.

The Weston Playhouse, Weston, Vermont presents “Fully Committed” by Becky Mode, June 23rd through July 4th

Rhode Island’s Newport Playhouse is currently running the comedy “Breaking Legs” by Tom Dulack until July 12th. Directed by Martin Raymond, the cast includes Matt Siravo, Kyle Medeiros, Ed Carusi, Bing McGrath, Camille Terilli, Nishan Lawton, and Fred Davison. The show is about three Mafia bosses who want to invest in a play, but have a few changes to the script.

Finally, Berkshire Theatre Festival of Stockbridge, Mass. is presenting the musical review “Broadway By the Year” June 18th through June 27th. Next week, this blog will feature a review of this show.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Valley Players - Holyoke, Mass.

A fondly remembered summer theater company produced plays and musicals on the top of Mt. Tom in Holyoke, Massachusetts. An idyllic spot of picnic groves, restaurant, ballroom, dance pavilion, amusement park, and zoo, Mountain Park also featured a theater called the Casino. At one time, it was the home of what was reputed to be the largest summer theater in New England.

From 1941 through 1962, the Casino was home to The Valley Players, a theatre company which helped nurture, or even launch the careers of many young actors, Hal Holbrook among them, who first performed his famous one-man show “Mark Twain Tonight” here. Future Tony nominee and native of nearby Westfield Anne Pitoniak appeared here as well.

Mountain Park was created in the late 19th century when the first train and trolley and mountain tram cars made their way up Mt. Tom. An early vaudeville theater was built here, later replaced by the Casino. In 1911 the Casino Stock Company produced stage plays here, but folded after one season. Vaudeville acts and silent movies shown at the Casino drew in the crowds. Stage plays were attemped again in 1924, and a 1935 renovation of the Casino led to more plays here showcased by the Works Progress Administration (more on the WPA theatre project another time). One Depression-era member of the company was future film star Wendell Corey.

Carlton and Jean Guild created the Valley Players here in 1941. They had been involved in other New England summer theaters, and along with collegues Dorothy Crane, Lauren Gilbert and his wife Jackson Perkins, Walter Coy, Louise Mudgett and Joseph Foley, were looking for a site for a new company. All would function on the administrative staff or perform in many of the plays produced by the Valley Players, or both. Joseph Foley went on to do some live television, was Gabriel Gurney the principal for the first season of “Mr. Peepers”, until his untimely death in the summer of 1955 in Holyoke.

The Valley Players was an Equity stock company. During 1943 Mountain Park was closed due to the wartime gas rationing. The heyday for the Valley Players was throughout the 1950s (coinciding with what is generally perceived as the golden age of summer theatre in New England), but the dawn of the 1960s brought rising production costs, lower attendance, and the curtain was brought down in 1962 with Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.”

Mountain Park closed in 1987.

Here are a few programs from The Valley Players. “Bell, Book & Candle” with Hal Holbrook was the final production of 1953. “Holiday” from July 1954 featured Si, (later billed as Simon) Oakland, later seen in many future film and TV productions. Hal Holbrook also appeared in “The Velvet Glove” July 1953, one of his earliest appearances with The Valley Players. The following month he had a part in “The Happiest Days of Your Life”.

Ralph Edwards, who at the time was the host of the “Truth or Consequences” gameshow on radio, and would also be the host when this show eventually moved to television, appeared in “Nothing But the Truth” in August 1942.

I’d love to hear from anyone who attended a show by The Valley Players, or was involved in any way in their productions.

Note: the postcards of the Casino Theater are from the Imagine Museum website. These programs for The Valley Players came to me by way of an old family friend (and collectibles & antiques dealer) Gail Watson. My dearest thanks to her.