Theatre yesterday and today



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For anyone who follows, or even stumbles upon these columns, "summer stock" is a familiar term that might conjure up feelings of nostalgia: old-time plays and musicals performed at venues in idyllic settings crucial to their success. Its name is a combination of reusing stock scenery and costumes and performing exclusively in seasonal weather out of old barns or under ourdoor tents designed for temporary use. It's not for nothing the rather dimwitted and beleaguered lead character in Mel Brooks's The Producers cries out: "I am Max Bialistock! The first producer ever to do summer stock—in the winter!"

Gene Kelly in an old barn theatre dancing on newspapers in MGM's Summer Stock (1950).

But if you stopped the average person on the street, I'm certain nine out of ten won't ever have heard of summer stock, and would be unable to even take an educated guess at what it means. This once thriving American institution is still around, but its hey day in the early and mid-twentieth century is long past. In fact, it was seriously on the wane when I first dipped my toes in its waters; an apt metaphor, as the Atlantic Ocean is still a few minutes walk behind the Priscilla Beach Theatre in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which is where I was first introduced to it all. There, during three successive summers in the years 1974-76, from the ages of seventeen to nineteen, I performed with a group of students mostly from Tufts and surrounding Boston colleges and universities. Though it was amateur stock, we somehow managed to get our shows listed in newspapers right alongside more distinguished theatres back then, such as the now defunct Falmouth Playhouse, in productions that starred the likes of Jean Stapleton and Ted Knight, television stars with sturdy theatre credits, itching to get out in front of large audiences while their hit sitcoms were on summer hiatus.

Ted Knight ("Ted Baxter of the "Mary Tyler Moore Show") from the mid-1970s.

It pleases me no end that in my research while writing this piece I uncovered that four of the earliest professional summer stock theatres are still going strong. They are the Muny (1919), the nation's oldest and largest outdoor musical theatre in St. Louis, Missouri; the Manhattan Theatre Colony, first started near Peterborough, New Hampshire (1927) then re-situated in Ogunquit, Maine; the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts (1927); and the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (1928). These theatres thrived for some forty years between the 1920s and '60, part of the "straw hat circuit," that also included New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, among other states.

Early 1960s productions at the Storrowton Music Fair in West Springfield, Massachusetts

I love that back in the day there were ambitious New York theatre producers who demanded to be in on the action, and thus would grab the rights to just-closed Broadway hits, recast them with everyone except the star at Equity minimum, and send them out into the Bronx; the Flatbush section of Brooklyn (where my parents grew up), and on into Queens. These engagements would be dubbed "the subway circuit," as good a name as any for it.

From a 1982 article in the New York Times about summer stock, the now-four-time Tony Award winner Frank Langella reminisced about his days in the trenches: "My most vivid memories of summer stock are as an apprentice and they are mostly of 'strike' nights (the final performance in a particular theater). We would stand in the wings, waiting for that Equity ham to finish his last line so we could demolish the thing we had built the week before. Later, as we slept in the aisles wrapped in tarpaulins, one of us would wake the others by imitating a moment from the play that had just closed, and we were soon helpless with laughter as we parodied the departing stars whose autographs we had collected the night before. Someone was always in tears because someone else was going away. Love affairs seemed to begin and end on strike nights. It was a time for major decisions. In 48 hours we wiped away a world of experience and art and rebuilt a new one with hope and anticipation. It is to me what is most exciting about the theater. It lives hot and immediate and then it's gone. But it can be born anew."

Every word of that rings true for me and my experiences. My world was that of two-week stock, which meant that a big musical like Guys and Dolls would open on Monday night, then Tuesday morning rehearsals would start for Fiddler on the Roof. Thirteen nights later, the curtain would fall at 10:00 p.m. and everyone would be up all night tearing down scenery for G & D and putting up new ones for Fiddler, which would open twenty-two hours later. On little sleep, fueled by pure adrenaline, it was opening night again—with another scheduled thirteen days later.

It was insane—and I loved every minute of it.

Of many memories—enough to fill a book—I will never forget the night in 1974 when one of our cast members borrowed a film projector and a 16 mm print of the Gene Kelly-Judy Garland 1950 MGM musical Summer Stock. Don't forget, these were the days before a VCR (then DVD player and now streaming) were available in people's homes. It was a rare treat to see a classic, and this film took place in a barn theatre just like ours. To see Gene Kelly perform his famous "newspaper dance" projected onto a screen at our theatre, on a bare stage exactly like ours, was an extraordinary experience for our group in that setting. And if you've never seen this particular piece of Kelly perfection, get ready to be wowed at this YouTube link below:

And though it won't be two-week stock this time, I begin rehearsals tomorrow morning for a three-week run at that same Priscilla Beach Theatre, the one I once performed at forty-one years ago, recently renovated in magnificent fashion. This time I am directing ... and the show is The Producers. My two recent college graduates, Michael Caizzi as Max and Matt Kurzyniec as Leo, will be tearing up the joint from August 3-19. If you're anywhere in the vicinity of Plymouth, south of Boston and north of the Cape, please drop in. Although I may have to sit you in the aisle: we're already sold out.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: