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.