Summer Theater on Cape Cod: the Early Years

Cape Cod has long been a popular summer vacation destination for people from Boston and beyond as a way to beat the heat of the cities. Certainly the beaches are one of the big draws, but for many people the summer theater scene is just as important. It's been that way for over 100 years, ever since the first theater was established in Provincetown in 1916. 

It Started in Provincetown

Provincetown was discovered as a place especially suitable for artistic pursuits by the American painter Marcus Waterman. He was particularly interested in the relationship between light and color, and found that the quality of light found in the Provincetown area was just to his liking. It wasn't too long before more artists came to the area, helped by the addition of a railway line put in place a few years before Waterman arrived. In 1899, the painter Charles Webster Hawthorne founded the Cape Cod School of Art. The writers and dramatists showed up in the early 20th century. 

The Provincetown Players first came together in 1915 with a group of three people: George Cram Cook, Susan Glaspell, and Neith Boyce. They performed a few short plays for themselves and friends in their homes. It was so successful that in 1916 they took over an abandoned fish house on Lewis Wharf and made it into a theater. The Wharf Theater, as it was known, could seat up to 200 people, if they didn't mind sitting very close to one another. In 1917 the building burned down, and in 1922 one of the original members of the Provincetown Players turned his barn into a theater and called it The Barnstormer's Theatre. The Provincetown Players came back to the town from New York City to write and perform in this new theater. 

The theater functioned as a laboratory for the group, which had grown and was made up of writers, editors, costume designers, actors, and poets. The group was part of the Little Theater movement which originated in the early 20th century. This movement looked to produce experimental plays that were different from the works put on at large commercial theaters at the time. They believed that plays could be used for the betterment of society and be a form of self-expression. 

Audience members couldn't purchase individual tickets for the plays, but instead had to subscribe at a cost of $4 for 10 performances. These performances lasted for over two hours, and would consist of three or four one-act plays. All plays were written by living American authors, and new productions appeared every three weeks. The Players made everything themselves: sets, costumes, and props. The most expensive production cost $13, including the scenery and costumes. Except for two salaried officers, all members provided their services without any payment. The first real season in 1916, they put on 11 original one-act plays, plus two more that they had performed the previous summer. This season in Provincetown proved to be so successful that they made a New York City location, where they would put on polished plays in the winter. The Provincetown location was kept as a place to try-out and refine new plays. The second season saw a premiere of "Bound East for Cardiff" by Eugene O'Neill, who became a regular contributor to the group. 

University Players

The University Players was a group founded in the summer of 1928 in Falmouth. The members were all undergraduate students from Harvard, Princeton, Radcliff, Smith, and Vassar. That first summer, the summer home for the men was a 110-foot yacht called Brae-Burn, while the women had a cottage with a chaperone in attendance in Woods Hole. Their first productions were put on at the Elizabeth Theatre in Falmouth. This theater was principally a movie theater  that would seat 750 people and when built in 1920, cost $50,000. It had a small stage and agreed to give the Players Monday and Tuesday evenings for eight weeks. For the rest of the week, the theater would show its usual fare of movies.

The University Players got to have their second season of performances at the new $12,000 theater that was built for them at Old Silver Beach in West Falmouth. They had a 10-week season and put on a play every night. The building that the theater was in also had a room called the Pavilion Supper Club that functioned as a dining room and dance hall, and dances would follow each performance. The new theater had seating for 400 people. Henry Fonda, a student from the University of Minnesota, joined the group for their second season. Besides acting in the plays he also decorated the Pavilion Supper Club. Jimmy Stewart got his start here, too. Stewart had studied architecture at Princeton, and the day after he graduated he came out to Falmouth where he played his accordion before shows in exchange for room and board. By 1931 the group had expanded its showings from just summer productions to include winter productions as well. In 1932, they changed their name to The Theatre Unit because they no longer required members to be college students. Unfortunately, that was their last season. The following year the theater's name was changed to the Beach Theatre, and in 1935 it produced a play that starred Tyrone Power Jr. It was destroyed by fire in 1936.

Raymond Moore and the Cape Playhouse in Dennis

Raymond Moore attended Stanford University as an art student with a focus on landscape painting. After he graduated, he taught at the college for a year and then moved to Cape Cod to make a living as an artist. This turned out not to be a good financial decision, so in order to make money he started a small theater despite knowing little about the stage. In the 1920s he turned his attention to locating a spot for a new theater that was located in the middle of the Cape, and found three and a half acres in Dennis. In another part of the town he found the abandoned Old Nobcusset Meeting House that dated back to 1790. He had the building moved to the land he purchased, and hired the architect Cleon Throckmorton to make the building into a theater. Throckmorton made certain that the new construction would still bring to mind a New England meeting house with its front pillars and pointed-arch windows. The theater opened with its first show on July 4, 1927, with "The Guardsman" by Ferenc Molnar.

The new theater originally had seating for 442 people and parking for 200 cars. By 1936 the grounds had expanded from the original three and a half acres to 30 acres with a cinema and other buildings, plus a large formal garden. 

The theater was able to attract the talents of major stars of the stage and screen. Some of the actors who appeared in the early years include Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, Eva Le Gallienne, Paulette Goddard, and Imogene Coca. Bette Davis was a complete unknown when she was hired as an usher for the second season. Her first break came when one of the actresses got ill and Davis was asked to fill in. Not bad for an actor who had been told by both Eva Le Gallienne and George Cukor that she'd never make it as an actor!

Shawme Hill

Katherine Searle, an actress from Cambridge, summered at her estate Shawme Hill in Dennis. In 1926 she started an outdoor theater for summer productions in a natural ampitheater on her property. The theater was founded with three principles in mind. First, all money from the plays was to go to the Samuel Wallace Beal Fund at the Cape Cod Hospital. Second, to produce new plays, as opposed to plays already in the repertory. Third, it was meant to give young actors experience on a professional stage. Plays were rehearsed for ten days before being presented to an audience, and the young actors lived with Miss Searle and her sister during that time. She died in December 1944.

Mary Young Playhouse in Centerville

In 1936, Mary Young and John Craig transferred their Copley Theatre Company to the old Howard Hall at Centerville. The performed eight plays that opening season, starting with John Galsworthy's "A Family Man." Galsworthy is perhaps best known today for "The Forsythe Saga," published in 1922. Like many of the other summer theaters, a purpose of the theater was to give young film actors the opportunity to learn the rudiments of stage acting. She felt that these young actors also needed the experience of working in front of a live audience and receiving applause. In 1937 the theater presented the first New England production of the play "The Children's Hour," by Lillian Hellman. This was a famous play of its time that ran for a long time on Broadway, but was banned in Boston.

Monomoy Theatre

The Monomoy Theatre in Chatham opened in 1938 for an eight-week season with "George and Margaret," by the English playwright Gerald Savory. The building that housed the theater was originally a residence from the mid-19th century. This building was later expanded to include a general store, a livery, and a blacksmith shop, and had operated as a theater since 1934. In 1958, the theater was acquired for Ohio University's summer theater program, and the theater closed for good in 2019.

Additional Resources

Author Talk

A History of Theater on Cape Cod, by Sue Mellen, opens a new window

Join author Sue Mellen on September 15, 2021, for a lecture, selected readings, and a Q&A about Cape Cod theater.

Books

A History of Theater on Cape Cod

The Provincetown Players and the Playwrights' Theatre, 1915-1922

The Road to the Temple

The Guardsman

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