The First Williamstown Summer Theater

Posted by on Mar 13, 2021 in Featured slider | Comments Off on The First Williamstown Summer Theater

The First Williamstown Summer Theater

Williams professor Max Flowers and students Talcott B. Clapp, Gordon Kay and Thomas Morgan (L-R above) were heavily involved in local theater. In 1936 and 1937, the students organized a summer theater in the old Opera House, pictured.

By Dustin Griffin

This article was published in part in our Winter 2021 newsletter. Read more of the newsletter here.

Most people know that the Williamstown Theatre Festival, formerly called the Williamstown Summer Theatre, was founded in 1955. But few probably know that back in the 1930s there was an earlier “Williamstown Summer Theater” that had nothing to do with the WTF of today.

In the spring of 1936 three Williams sophomores– Talcott B. (“Teeb”) Clapp, Gordon Kay, and Thomas Morgan, all members of the Class of 1938 and members  of the Little Theatre, a student group that put on evenings of one-act plays, and of Cap & Bells, the college’s major dramatic organization  –  decided to organize what they called a “co-operative summer theater.” There had long been a lively theatrical culture at Williams during the academic year, but there was little theatre in the Berkshires in the summer, apart from the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, which put on 8-10 plays a summer. (The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, which hosted traveling productions, closed in 1934, and reopened in 1937 as a movie theatre.) Morgan and Clapp constituted the production staff of the new organization , Morgan the general manager and Clapp the stage manager. They raised money from the Rotary Club and hastily assembled an acting company of local amateurs, including Williams students – Gordon Kay was a talented character actor – Bennington girls, Williams faculty, and several faculty and staff wives. They were joined by Linda Grantham, a drama school graduate with some summer stock experience. As director of the productions, they hired S. Wesley McKee, a recent graduate of the Yale Drama School who had directed summer theatre in Connecticut in 1934 and 1935, and established himself as an itinerant director-for-hire.

A 1936 article in The North Adams Transcript describes some of the plays offered in the Williamstown Summer Theater’s inaugural season. One was Candida, headlined by longtime Williamstown resident Eleanor
Bloedel, pictured, who returned for seasons in 1937 and the 1950s.

The new Williamstown Summer Theatre put on an eight-week season in July and August of 1936, a new play every week. This was back in the days before the Adams Memorial Theatre was built. The founders initially planned to put on plays in a barn on Rt. 7 south of town that later became the 1896 House restaurant, but then secured access to the Williamstown Opera House on Water St., where they arranged to put on three performances a week in the 300-seat auditorium on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. During the day the company would rehearse the next week’s play. Tickets were only 55 cents (35 cents for children), and season tickets were available. The plays, mostly forgotten now but popular in their day, were chosen to appeal to “every variety of taste.” But they tended toward light, summer fare, including J. Frank Davis’s “Gold in the Hills; or, The Dead Sister’s Secret” (a 1929 melodrama), George Kelly’s “The Torchbearers” (a 1922 comedy about community theatre), and Arnold Ridley’s “The Ghost Train” (a mystery thriller). The most ambitious production was George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida” (1894), with Eleanor Bloedel (a staff wife, and the mother of Pam Weatherbee, still a Williamstown resident) and William J. Sprague (a Williams undergrad who aspired to a career on the stage)  in the lead roles. It played to enthusiastic audiences, including a capacity crowd on Saturday night.

The season was a critical success, with glowing reviews in local papers. Thus encouraged, the producers set their sights higher for the summer of 1937. McKee was again hired as director, and he brought with him several professional actors to play the leads, including Maury Tuckerman, a New York actor who had some Broadway credits, and Marion Rooney, an instructor at the Yale Drama School, as well as Robert Crane, Joy Higgins, and William Whitehead, who had all played summer stock around the northeast for several years. The company also included several actors who returned from 1936, including William Sprague and Gordon Kay, Mary Lou Taylor (a Bennington student), Isabel Calaine (a Wheaton College student), as well as Linda Grantham.(The acting company of today’s Williamstown Theatre Festival has long included some local amateurs alongside professional actors.) For the 1937 season Williams undergrads again served as Business Manager, Stage Manager, Property Manager, and House Manager. Bennington students designed the sets. Constance Welch from the Yale Drama School was brought in to run the “Williamstown School of the Theatre,” which enrolled seven apprentice actors. Ticket prices were doubled, to $1.10. Members of the company were put up in a college fraternity house (Theta Delta Chi, now Mears House, on Park St.)

Again there were eight plays in eight weeks, this time including plays that had enjoyed successful productions on Broadway in recent years (Samson Raphaelson’s “Accent on Youth,” a 1934 comedy; Philip Barry’s “Spring Dance” from 1936) and two plays that had already become modern classics, Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock” (1924), with Marion Rooney in the title role, and “Candida,” brought back from the 1936 season, with Mrs. Bloedel again in the lead. She also starred in Clement Dane’s “Bill of Divorcement.”

In 1938, control of the Williamstown Summer Theater was transferred from its student founders to a board of local residents. In a fundraising campaign, they only sold 60 out of their goal of 200 subscriptions, ending the festival until its return in 1955.

The 1937 season was also critically successful, but it struggled financially to meet its expenses, apparently failing to sell enough tickets.  And the three Williams students who founded the theatre were all scheduled to graduate in June 1938. So in the spring of 1938 a newly-formed Williamstown Summer Theatre Association took over management of the theatre, with a board of local residents, including several of the actors who had performed in previous seasons. President of the board was Mary Dempsey, who was then serving as the town’s Postmaster. Another member was the president of the Williamstown National Bank. They determined that to be successful they would need to sell 200 subscriptions to a four-week season. They planned to put on four plays, including Shaw’s “Arms and the Man” (1894) and Ferenz Molnar’s “Liliom” (a 1909 drama that was a hit on Broadway in 1921 and was later the basis for the Rogers and Hammerstein “Carousel” in 1945). 

The board hired McKee to return as director, and he arranged to bring four Equity actors – none of them headliners and apparently available at short notice – who would be joined by returning local amateurs, including Eleanor Bloedel and Hallett Smith (an English professor at Williams). But everything depended on selling 200 subscriptions. By July 12 the Theater Association  had only sold sixty, and on July 20 decided that they had to cancel the season. And thus the Williamstown Summer Theatre came to an end after only two seasons.

[End of printed version of article]

Wesley McKee moved on. He continued to work in regional theatre, returning in 1958 to direct the season at the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge. Gordon Kay became a movie producer. Talcott Clapp became a journalist in Waterbury, Ct, and while there joined a community theatre and wrote a feature story about Thornton Wilder. He later founded and directed the Woodbury (CT) Players. Maury Tuckerman continued to get roles on Broadway into the mid-1940s. In 1938 Marion Rooney performed in Robert Sherwood’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” with Raymond Massey as Lincoln, which played for more than a year on Broadway, and won the Pulitzer Prize. Mary Dempsey would go on to become a prominent businesswoman in town, and president of the local Board of Trade in 1954 when she helped Ralph Renzi and Irwin Shainman found the new Williamstown Summer Theatre, later serving on its board.

The local members of the company found other acting opportunities in Williamstown, where the two Williams drama clubs, Cap & Bells and the Little Theatre, continued to put on plays. Cap & Bells, founded in 1898, was in the mid-1930s putting on two major productions each academic year, one in the fall and one in the spring, in Chapin Hall, the largest auditorium on the campus. The fall production also went on tour during the Christmas holidays, playing in as many as eight cities in the northeast in as many nights. In the early years Williams students played all the parts, male and female, but beginning in 1931 faculty and staff wives, including Eleanor Bloedel, were cast in the female parts.

The Little Theatre had been founded in 1925 to supplement the dramatic offerings and opportunities on the campus. Part of a “community theatre” movement on college campuses and in towns around the country, the Little Theatre produced evenings of three one-act plays, sometimes work that was experimental or not commercially successful, including plays by Eugene O’Neill and Granville Barker, as well as plays written by Williams students. They performed in the auditorium in Jesup Hall, but also in the White Oaks Church and the Mitchell School gym. Initially Williams students played all the parts, but the group soon invited women – Bennington girls and faculty wives – to take the female parts. Beginning in 1927 Mrs. Bloedel performed in many  productions. Male professors were also recruited to play some roles. Leading members of Cap & Bells, including William McKnight ‘34 (father of today’s Phil McKnight), often performed with the Little Theatre as well. Plays were directed sometimes by Williams faculty, including Prof. Charles Safford, sometimes by students, including William Sprague, who had performed with the Williamstown Summer Theatre in 1936 and 1937. In 1936 he directed a production of “The Trial of Mary Dugan,” a 1927 melodrama that had run for 437 performances on Broadway in 1927 and 1928. In the lead roles were Mrs. Bloedel and Hallett Smith, who had worked with Sprague in the summer theatre.

Max Flowers, a Yale Drama School graduate and Assistant Professor of English at Williams, was involved in the campus drama clubs which gave the summer theater’s founders their early experience. He was later named the first director of the Adams Memorial Theater.

In February 1937 the Little Theatre and Cap & Bells decided to merge, forming a single drama club, under the presidency of Gordon Kay. The expanded group now planned to put on four productions each year, including evenings of one-act plays. And it continued the practice of inviting local women – mostly faculty wives – to audition for the female parts. In 1937 the new  Cap & Bells put on Maxwell Anderson’s “Both Your Houses,” a 1933 play that won the Pulitzer Prize, directed by Max Flowers (1908-2003), a 1937 graduate of the Yale School of Drama, and a newly hired assistant professor in the English Department. (Flowers was neither the first nor the last product of the Yale School of Drama to direct plays in Williamstown. He was followed by Nikos Psacharaloulos in 1955.) In 1939 Flowers again directed a Maxwell Anderson play for Cap & Bells, “High Tor,” billed as a “fantastic comedy,” that had played for 171 performances on Broadway and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award as the best play for 1936-37. It was presented not in Chapin Hall but in the Opera House. He also supervised the student directors of one-act plays. In the main-stage productions, Flowers cast two faculty wives, Mrs. Bloedel and Frances Chaffee (wife of the newly-hired Williams tennis and squash coach, Clarence Chaffee).

After he graduated in June 1937 William Sprague went to work as a radio actor, announcer, and writer. In World War II he commanded a tank group with Patton’s 3rd Army, winning four bronze stars. He returned from the war to build a career in radio journalism. Max Flowers went on to be named the first director of the new Adams Memorial Theatre, which opened on the Williams campus in 1941. During World War 2, he served for four years as a theatrical advisor in the Special Services division of the army, staging shows for troops in the Pacific. After the war he returned to Williams for two years, and then directed the Berkshire Playhouse Drama School for two summers, before moving to Illinois where he taught drama, with a special interest in Shakespeare, until he retired in 1970. Both Eleanor Bloedel and Fran Chaffee continued to perform with Cap & Bells for many years and then with the new Williamstown Summer Theatre, the only performers with the distinction of acting with the original Williamstown Summer Theatre and with its 1955 re-creation.