Thursday, August 1, 2013

Big Stars in Small Towns - Summer 1965

The heyday of summer theater was coming to the end of an era in the 1960s.  There's still plenty of it around today, especially in New England, where it is possible to see journeyman actors and established stars trod the boards of a simple barn-like playhouse. 
But the golden era from the late 1940s through the early 1960s gave us a profusion of really big stars traveling to really small towns to perform live.  Comedies and musicals were the big draw in this period.  These two ads are from two different summer playhouses in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts.  The Storrowton Music Fair, which played in tent, theatre-in-the-round style, was located in West Springfield.  Here Lee Remick starred this August week of 1965 in Annie Get Your Gun.  The most expensive seats were $3.95.
Under that, we see an ad for the Mt. Tom Playhouse, which was a simple wooden playhouse perched up on Mt. Tom in Holyoke, the city just north of West Springfield.  Dana Andrews starred in the comedy, A Remedy for Winter. 
They were river towns, small, and since the superhighway I-91 had not yet been constructed along this stretch, accessible by the older, more narrow, eatery-lined Route 5 that crawled up from Connecticut to Vermont parallel to the river.  It is far from the bright lights of Broadway, and a different world altogether from Hollywood. 
In the coming week, Van Johnson would star at Storrowton in Bye, Bye, Birdie.  The husband-and-wife team of Craig Stevens (late of his Peter Gunn gig) and Alexis Smith, would appear in the comedy Mary, Mary.
It would have been a treat to travel to Boston or New York to see any of these actors in these shows, but the thought of them coming to a neighborhood near you (or me, as the case may be), just blows my head off.  And for $3.95, on a cool summer evening, in a big tent, or up on the mountain with the wooden screen door slapping shut every time someone opened it (audience or actor making his entrance), keeping out the skeeters.
By the way, I'm planning to write a book on the Mt. Tom Playhouse, and the summer stock group, The Valley Players, that were in residence in the previous decades (Hal Holbrook created his Mark Twain one-man show here).  If you have any information, or know of someone who does, please drop me an email:  Thanks.


Caftan Woman said...

The imagination goes to a very happy place via those advertisements.

In a second-hand buy of Mark Twain's "Pudd'nhead Wilson" I found a ticket stub used by the previous owner as a bookmark. It was for Walter Slezak in "Come Blow Your Horn" playing somewhere in New Jersey in the 60s.

I look forward to your book.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

"The imagination goes to a very happy place via those advertisements." - exactly.

I love that you found the ticket stub in your book. So neat.

grandoldmovies said...

My father grew up in Connecticut, and he often likes to tell stories of how, when a teenager in the 1940s, he worked as a bellhop at a hotel where well-known actors performing in summer stock would reside. He vividly remembers Bela Lugosi performing one summer (in Dracula, of course), and how he even briefly met him. (The encounter was not exactly one for the ages - My Father: Hello; Bela Lugosi: Hello.) He also told stories of other stars who performed in CT during the summer, including Tom Drake (with whom my father actually did spend some time conversing) and Diana Barrymore. For lovers of film and theater, it really did sound like a wonderful era.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I wonder what hotel or town your father worked in? It was a terrific era for summer theater, and though a lot of it still thrives in New England, those years were somehow special.

grandoldmovies said...

My father told me he worked at the Colony Inn in Torrington, CT, where he grew up. Nearby in Litchfield and Sharon were the summer theaters, and some of the actors who would be performing in those theaters (Tom Drake, Diana Barrymore) would stay at the Inn, which was considered a good hotel and had a French chef ("You couldn't get a better meal," he said). He recommended contacting the Torrington Library or the Torrington Register newspaper for more info on those summer seasons. Good luck on your book!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks so much for this additional information. I'm familiar with the area (I'm currently writing a cozy mystery set in Litchfield in 1950), and I really appreciate your father sharing his memory.

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