Playhouse of the stars

The Cape Playhouse, where Bette Davis once ushered, aims to become a regional arts center offering patrons theater, art-house movies, and museum- quality artwork.

America's longest-running professional summer theater has one foot planted firmly in its star-studded past and another pointed toward becoming a full-fledged regional arts center.

Nicknamed "The Playhouse of the Stars" - for the numerous appearances from movie and stage actors - the Cape Playhouse, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is celebrating its 75th season this summer.

It was here that Bette Davis took the first steps in her illustrious career, not as an actress but an usher, and a young unknown Jane Fonda had a small supporting role in a play that starred her father, Henry Fonda. And legend has it that flamboyant Broadway star Tallulah Bankhead could be heard from the playhouse all the way to Hyannis, Mass., scolding an actor who missed his cue and "spoiled my number!"

In the heyday of summer theaters, productions traveled unchanged from one venue to the next. The actual producing of the shows was left to "packagers," who casted and directed the plays or musicals. As the industry has changed, so has the Cape Playhouse - in its own way.

"We're not just booking anonymous productions. We are producing [especially] for us - either by ourselves or in collaboration with another theater," says Evans Haile, the theater's artistic director.

"The Cape Playhouse is a unique and vital American institution. [This season, which features revivals of four plays and two musicals], gives us the opportunity not only to celebrate its great legacy, but also to move forward with a sense of excitement in mounting our own productions, pioneering collaborations with other leading American regional theaters, and creating new traditions for the future."

'Entertainment is not a bad word'

Sandwiched between the season's full productions are one-day-only Sunday performances called "Afternoons with...." Last year, TV and theater star Jean Stapleton appeared in a one-person play about the late Eleanor Roosevelt. This summer, monologuist Spaulding Gray is doing one of his celebrated shows.

Mr. Haile isn't apologetic about the playhouse's mission: to entertain.

"I'm not afraid, like some of my colleagues, of saying we want to be entertaining," he says. "Entertainment is not a bad word. The plays of Tennessee Williams, many of them dramas, can be entertaining. And there's nothing to apologize for in '42nd Street' because it's terrific material. The plays we are doing are all first-rate plays."

Michael Kirker, a musical theater expert with the American Society of Composers and (music) Publishers, says the playhouse is much more than a national theater treasure. "It's a vital part of theater today, with its emphasis on a wide variety of plays and musicals featuring both established stars and promising newcomers."

Says another theater professional, "The Cape Playhouse really represents one of the last vestiges of a great tradition. But the difference is it's not stuffy."

On July 22, the theater will host a special fundraising "homecoming" gala that will feature some of the stars who have graced its stage over the years, with scheduled appearances from Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, and Gavin MacLeod.

But the playhouse isn't leaning too heavily on its old friends and associations.

"We have some wonderful young people as well," artistic director Haile says. "So it's a good combination of young people just starting to make names for themselves in the theater and some of the best of New York theater stars, along with some of the great TV personalities, such as Sandy Duncan and Rue McClanahan."

Broadway to Cape Cod

The Cape Playhouse was founded in 1927 by producer Raymond Moore, who purchased an abandoned 19th-century meeting house, which dated back to 1838, on 3-1/2 acres. His goal was to provide a professional summer theater close to some of the Cape's wealthier communities.

Mr. Moore hired the biggest Broadway stars of the day and lured audiences from Boston and New York with the dual promise of high-quality productions and "natural" air-conditioning. (In those days, many Broadway theaters closed during the summer because there was no way to keep them cool in the sweltering heat.) Over the years, the playhouse underwent many renovations, including the addition of air conditioning.

The 75th anniversary season opened June 18 with the first major American revival of the 1978 thriller "Dracula," as designed by Edward Gorey. Gorey won Broadway's Tony Award in 1978 for his sets and costumes for the show, based on Bram Stoker's famous novel of the same name.

The number of stars who have set foot on the Cape Playhouse stage seems endless, from appearances in recent years by Lucie Arnaz and her husband, Larry Luckinbill, John Ritter (currently in Neil Simon's "The Dinner Party" on Broadway), and Richard Thomas (from TV's "The Waltons"). Accomplished actresses Geraldine Page, Shelley Winters, and Ruth Gordon have also walked its stage.

Some actors have generated excitement offstage as well. The famed comedian Joe E. Brown took a break from rehearsals of the play he was doing here in 1954 to umpire an intracompany ballgame. Mr. Brown, known for his booming voice, was dressed more like a team owner, wearing a natty three-piece suit in the sweltering summer heat. When he cried "Yarrrr-out!" at the top of his lungs, the batter, spectators, and other ballplayers convulsed with laughter.

While most of the Broadway stars behaved with civility and decorum, Ms. Bankhead, who could have a fiery temper at times, lost her cool backstage one night in the mid-1950s when costar Jimmy Kirkwood failed to change his costume quickly enough. He came out on stage with his shirttail hanging out and couldn't help laughing at himself.

"How dare you break up during one of my numbers!" Bankhead was heard to thunder, whereupon she was reported to have started ripping up one of her costumes. "Stop it, Ms. Bankhead. Stop it!" cried the theater maid, who could be heard by startled audience members.

Along with its stars, the theater's set designs have shone over the years. The lavish productions were inspired by Charles Forsythe, one of a vanishing breed of independent producers. Mr. Forsythe, artistic director of the theater from 1986 to 1991, staged elaborate versions of shows such as "La Cage Aux Folles" and "The Sound of Music," which severely tested the technical capabilities of the theater. But critics began to compare some of the playhouse's sets favorably with their Broadway predecessors.

"The Cape Playhouse has never been the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movie concept of summer stock," says Richard Chambers, set designer of the playhouse, alluding to the spare sets that were seen in Garland-Rooney movie-musical comedies. "When you have the likes of Julie Harris, Jonathan Raitt, and Jerry Herman on stage, you don't put them in front of cheesy scenery."

Center for the arts

In addition to the stage performances in the playhouse's 605-seat theater, the playhouse also owns the Cape Museum of Fine Arts and the Cape Cinema, both on the same grounds. The cinema was designed by artist Rockwell Kent and the late Broadway set designer Jo Melziner. You won't find "Shrek" or "Pearl Harbor" here, but rather a wide variety of foreign and art films.

"With the theater and cinema and other events, I like to think of the Cape Playhouse as really a center for the arts, and that's what I want to see more and more of as we develop," says Haile, a regular guest conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra and producer of several events at New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

The playhouse also has a loyal subscriber base - some season seats to the theater have been willed to the children of current patrons.

Will Haile ever produce new plays at the playhouse along with the revivals and musicals? "I would never say 'no' to anything," he says. "But there is an incredible body of work already around to pick and choose from, to offer something for everybody. To me, that's my mandate."

But one new thing is high on his agenda: hosting performances by another regional arts organization, such as the Boston Lyric Opera, to further broaden the kinds of programming at the playhouse.

This summer, the Cape Playhouse features the Alan Ayckbourn comedy 'Communicating Doors' (through July 14) with Rue McClanahan and Morrow Wilson; Beth Henley's 'Crimes of the Heart' (July 16-28) with Sandy Duncan; '42nd Street' (July 30-Aug. 11) with the show's original star, Lee Roy Reems, who also directs the tap-dance extravaganza; A.R. Gurney's 'The Cocktail Hour' (Aug. 13-25) starring Judd Nelson and Louise Sorrel; and the rollicking 'Oil City Symphony' (Aug. 27-Sept. 8), including original cast members from its Off-Broadway run. For more information, call playhouse at 508-385-3911 or go online to

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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