July 13, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
I have spent the past five weeks at the Priscilla Beach Theatre in Plymouth, Massachusetts directing Guys and Dolls on its stage. Now that it’s up and running, I took some time to do a little research in order to go behind-the-scenes of how this 143-year-old barn structure became what is now an historic playhouse.
Although down to two acres, from what was once a sprawling farm that was spread over dozens, this plot of land in the village of Manomet — a community consisting of a private beach on Cape Cod Bay called Priscilla Beach — is on the site of the Taylor farm, first erected in 1875. The property was purchased for $12,500 from the Taylor family in 1937 by Franklin and Agnes Trask, whose idea it was to house a summer stock playhouse in the barn. They had done something similar a few years earlier with another barn in Massachusetts, but after a few seasons there, discovered there was no audience for it in the small town of Westford, and decided to look elsewhere, finally settling on Plymouth.
Calling it the Priscilla Beach Drama Festival, Franklin Trask scavenged the best he could in order to turn what was already then a sixty-two year old barn into a theatre. My favorite story is how he got its original seats, which he procured from the old Manhattan Opera House. Hearing that the theatre had recently had to remove the first ten rows of plush red chairs to make room for an enormous stage production of Max Reinhardt’s The Eternal Road (a history of the Jews), Trask worked out a deal that by just hauling them from West 39th Street in New York City up to Plymouth, they were his for free. Only the chairs were so opulent in size and splendor, that when they were finally installed, a row capable of holding seven seats was reduced to four, thereby curtailing the theatre’s capacity and severely cutting into revenue for selling tickets.
Since this was pre-World War II and still the height of the Depression, Trask also had his ears out for making any deals he could with venues that were going under. When he heard that the City Theatre in Brockton, some forty miles to the west of Plymouth, was auctioning off three floors of stage scenery, props and furniture, he acquired eight van loads, which was fine — save for the fact it became an enormous storage problem for the theatre.
Following a process they had done previously, the Trasks advertised that coming to the theatre would give young men and women the chance to act, as well as a promise they would receive instruction in all aspects of theatre (translation: they would build and paint scenery for free). That’s always been a part of the allure of stock, and in actuality, classes in speech, dance, pantomime, stage makeup, and improvisation were offered. And these young people paid for the privilege: $180 was the initial tuition, which was A LOT of money then. And yet, the first summer managed to lure 120 actors, which proved way too much of a burden on its finances, and so by the summer of 1941, a limited enrollment was instituted, capping the residents at forty.
Shortly thereafter, the Trasks decided to shake things up a bit and introduced the concept of genuine “stars” playing PBT (as it was becoming known) and integrate them into the standing summer company for a single show. This is how Gloria Swanson, as well as Veronica Lake, Flora Robson, Edward Everett Horton and Charlie Ruggles came to grace the barn stage. Pat Carroll, who has enjoyed a long career as an actress, capped off by providing the voice of Ursulla in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, described how as a PBT apprentice that “Ms. Swanson never spoke directly to any of the students, preferring to communicate with them through the stage manager.”
Besides Pat Carroll, other apprentices over the years included Paul Newman, Sandy Dennis, Estelle Parsons and Jean Seberg (at age seventeen, a year before she won an international acting competition to play Joan of Arc in the 1957 film Saint Joan). Even Albert Brooks and Rob Reiner, best friends at Beverly Hills High, travelled 3,000 miles to appear in shows at PBT.
And though by nowhere near as famous as those names, I am an alumnus myself of three summers between 1974 and 1976. I arrived at seventeen, still in high school, and performed with mostly Tufts University students, grandfathered in through a local home town connection. By the time I left at nineteen, I cemented many friendships I maintain to this day. One of those I most cherish is with Peter Gallagher, with whom I played in The Fantasticks, Forum and Dames at Sea. We even by sheer chance wound up living on the same street in Los Angeles for a number of years when he moved out to play the dad on The O.C., with our kids becoming friends and going to the same school together.
PBT has been lushly brought back to life only three summers ago by Plymouth locals Bob and Sandy Malone (deserving of an entirely separate column all to themselves), who in an enormous investment of love and serious dough, have made it possible for the old barn to once again pulsate with life … and musical theatre.
Amongst the theatre’s archives are testimonials from many who played on its stage between the 1940s and 1970s, when the theatre was in its hey day. They read as if they were interchangeable with how the young college students currently living on the campus feel about the experience. It is too much damn fun putting on plays that are rehearsed in the day and performed at night. Though some of these summer days are hot, the nights usually bring a cool ocean breeze that you can’t get from living in a major city in the months of July and August. For me, that’s part of the irresistible appeal of coming here for what is now my fourth summer. And as you can see from this photograph of our current production of Guys and Dolls, the joy is immediately apparent (and infectious).
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.