Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Teresa Wright - Summer Stock in Provincetown

Teresa Wright, remembered best perhaps for her performances in the films “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943) and “Mrs. Miniver” (1942), began her acting career in New England summer stock at the Wharf Theater in Provincetown, Mass.

A short time later she hit Hollywood by storm giving star Bette Davis a run for her money in “The Little Foxes” (1941). Teresa Wright remains the only person to have been nominated for Oscars for her first three films in a row. Such was her notoriety, that when appearing in the Lux Radio Theater version of “Shadow of Doubt” with William Powell, the show’s host, Cecil B. DeMille asked her to explain her acting experience, what was it that brought her to fame in Hollywood?

She responded, “I played in summer stock. Naturally, that included building scenery, wrestling props, painting backdrops, taking tickets, and sweeping up the theater.”

This radio appearance of January 3, 1944 could have been light years away from this description of her humble beginning as a summer stock ingénue, but it was only about five years.

While in high school in New Jersey, Miss Wright was encouraged in her desire to become an actress by a teacher, who himself worked summers at the Wharf Theater in Provincetown. She was allowed to become a member of the company (through paid tuition) as a student apprentice the summer between her junior and senior years.

According to an article by James Reid in Silver Screen Magazine, published June 1942, Miss Wright recounts, “I had the chance to study acting for eight solid weeks, along with about twenty other young hopefuls. The study consisted mostly of watching the professionals and playing a few bits…I was the youngest, smallest, and shyest of the group, and I would have been completely lost in the shuffle, if it hadn’t been for one lucky circumstance. Several child parts came up, and no one else was small enough to play them, so they gave them to me. That led to my being invited back the next summer to play bigger roles.”

In the fall of 1938, Teresa Wright understudied for Martha Scott and Dorothy McGuire in “Our Town” on Broadway, and took over the role of Emily Webb on tour, largely through the efforts fellow Provincetown actress Doro Merande who was cast as Mrs. Soames in the show and recommended her. Among the cities she played were Boston, Providence, and New Haven. Theater giants Walter Hampden and Eddie Dowling were also in the cast. She was nineteen years old.

The following summer she was back in stock with the Barnstormers Theater at Tamworth, New Hampshire. After that, when she was cast in Broadway’s “Life with Father”, Teresa’s life would change forever and Hollywood claimed her for many years.

It was film mogul Samuel Goldwyn who brought her to Hollywood after seeing her performance on Broadway in “Life with Father.” According to A. Scott Berg’s Goldwyn-A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, NY 1989), Goldwyn went backstage after the show to meet the then 20-year old Wright.

“‘Miss Wright was seated at her dressing table when I was introduced, and looked for all the world like a little girl experimenting with her mother’s cosmetics,’ Goldwyn would remember. ‘I had discovered in her from the first sight, you might say, an unaffected genuineness and appeal.’ He offered her a contract that night.”

Teresa Wright would later have regrets both about Samuel Goldwyn’s contract and the limitations of a Hollywood career, and in later years she happily returned to the theatre.

The Wharf Theater, where her theatrical career began, had its beginnings when members of a group called the Barnstormers, which had formed in Provincetown the year before, split from that group and established a separate theater company in 1924. They performed as the Wharf Theater on a pier in the west end of town. This West End Wharf Theater was destroyed in 1940 in a winter storm. The West End Racing Club, a non-profit sailing club for children, is now located here.

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