Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The University Players of Cape Cod

A couple of months ago back in February of this year, Cape Cod, and New England summer theater, lost a bit of history when a house in Woods Hole, Mass. was destroyed in a fire. It was once a rehearsal space for the University Players.

The house, once part of the Whitecrest estate owned by Frances Crane, was used as rehearsal space in the mid 1920s, when Henry Fonda was part of that group.

Other members included future Hollywood actor Kent Smith, stage and screen star Margaret Sullavan, future Life photographer John Swope, and the future Broadway director Joshua Logan. The fledgling professional troupe was named “University Players” because these founding members were all then students at Harvard, Radcliffe, and Princeton.

Other members who in future years ended up on Broadway or in Hollywood were Myron McCormick, Barbara O’Neill, Bartlett Quigley (whose daughter, Jane Alexander accomplished much in films and on stage), character actress Mildred Natwick, Arlene Francis, and Martin Gabel. In the group’s final year, James Stewart joined them, and the gangly Midwesterner who had recently taken an interest in dramatics in college, learned how to be a leading man.

The young actresses were quartered, and chaperoned, in rented house in Quissett. The young actors slept on Charles Leatherbee's grandfather's yacht or on the Charles Crane estate in Woods Hole.

They later moved to an old movie theater near Old Silver Beach and most of the actors were later housed in West Falmouth.

The University Players lasted less then five years, disbanding in the depths of the Depression, though most of its members were more fortunate, going on to varying degrees of fame and fortune. According to Henry Fonda’s autobiography, “Fonda - My Life” (New American Library, NY, 1981), Fonda once remarked of his early exposure to theater in University Players, “The only people who’ve seen me are visitors to Cape Cod.”

In his autobiography, “My Up and Down, In and Out Life” (Delacorte, 1976), future Broadway director Joshua Logan wrote of these summers in West Falmouth, “…inside each member burned hot love not only for the theatre but for their company - yes, and for each other. We actually believed we were better than anyone. We would have challenged any company in the country. It was only this blind, idiot confidence that could make us accept minor parts, odd jobs with the crew, our meager salary of five dollars a week less laundry, our frayed clothing and our repetitious skimpy diet.”

If it was a cloistered existence, it was also ultimately a career-building experience.


  1. Does anyone have information about the summer theatre in Gloucester that was located on the waterfront in the late 1920s and '30s? It was a red frame building built over the water. My parents worked there (mother, costume design; father, lighting and scenic design).
    Martin Fallon and Harriet Richardson

    Charles Fallon 585-383-1048

  2. We'll have to look into that one. In the meantime, I hope a reader can answer your question.

  3. My grandfather was the bar manager at the theater of the university of players. He roomed with Stewart and Fonda and we have photographs! He had great stories, I miss him. I grew up on that beach,my dad lives down the street,I two miles you know where the actors lived in west Falmouth,addresses? Thanks, Scott, w.falmouth ma

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Scott. I would love to have heard your grandfather's stories. I don't know the exact addresses of the actors' housing in West Falmouth, at least not at this time. If I run across that information, I'll be sure to update in a future post. Thanks so much for commenting.

  5. No, thank you! I've been trying to research this and I'm glad to see others are interested. really soon, Scott.