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History > Through the years, the show always goes on in Cape May

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The history of stage plays in Cape May includes interesting information dating from the 1950s to the present time. Many successful theatrical productions were presented here in those days, although producers were hard pressed to live up to the adage that the show must go on, especially where it must go on. Finding a place for the actors to emote was not always that easy.

Today, in what may be the city’s finest hour in its theatrical history, three professional companies perform in the heart of Cape May within walking distance of each other. Cape May Stage’s venue is at the corner of Bank and Lafayette Streets. Down the street, just a few steps away, is Elaine’s Famous Dinner Theater and across town on Decatur Street a block from the ocean is the East Lynne Theater Company.

Those companies are well settled now in this historic city, East Lynne and Cape May Stage having performed here since 1987 and the dinner theater since 1990. It is a tribute to their perseverance, creativity and marketing that the trio has lasted this long while others have failed before them. East Lynne, typical of its plays of earlier Americana, is the oldest of the three, having been founded in 1980 in North Jersey.

But life in the theater hasn’t always been as settled for East Lynne and Cape May Stage as it is now. Michael Laird, the founder of Cape May Stage, recalled that his first performance was at his house at Grassy Sound. His audience consisted of neighbors.

When he moved to Cape May, he and his actors became a traveling troupe, performing at places like the grounds of the Historic Cold Spring Village where at intermission Laird squirted the air with bug repellant to combat the biting mosquitoes; at the converted sweltering ballroom of the Congress Hall Hotel; at the Chalfonte Hotel and at its present site which has been converted into an air conditioned, modern theater.

Warren Kliewer, an actor like Laird, formed the East Lynne Company in Rutherford in North Jersey, and eventually brought it to Cape May where it too lived a Gulliver-type existence, performing at various sites including a converted part of a college facility that was so far off the track that some theater goers needed radar to find it. It later went to Franklin School and then to its present location at Cape May’s Presbyterian Church.

After he died, Laird was succeeded by Michael Carleton and the current Roy Steinberg. Kliewer’s successor is Gayle Stahlhuth, who has taken East Lynne beyond Cape May to additional venues in and out of the state.

Years ago, the Cape May Stage building, now called the Robert Shackleton Playhouse, was the home of the Presbyterian Church before the church moved to its present site. It is said that with the convenience of a church for a theater, the actors of East Lynne can play and pray without leaving the sanctuary.

Before there was a revitalization of theater, the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, which has since added Humanities to its title, nobly tried to take the stage from 1983 to 1989.

It first held performances on an outdoor stage where the elements frequently interfered, and then under a tent where the mosquitoes got into the act. MAC’s first outdoor production was “The Fantasticks” but there was nothing fantastic for rest of the seasons as the mosquitoes won out, the shows ultimately biting the dust and certainly the attacked audiences.

Occasionally in the winter and during what was then called the off season (now identified as the shoulder season) a traveling troupe would stop in Cape May for a one night performance while on the way to bigger places for longer runs. One time during the ‘80s, before Cape May became an almost year-round theater venue for its three companies, a troupe stopped off to present a soap opera satire at what is now referred to as the old Convention Hall. The only on stage furniture was a bed and most of the theatrical action centered on that bed, as per soap opera scenarios. This, of course, was not William Shakespeare, but neither was it x-rated. A few people were in the audience and the performance spoke of the status of theater in Cape May then.

Perhaps the glamour days of theater in Cape May occurred in the 1950s and early 1960s when a producer named T.C. Upham brought the stars here. It was a time when there were superstars such as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.

Except for Gloria Swanson, who traced back to the early days of movies, most of those who brought their talents to Cape May fell into the star category: names like Dorothy Gish, Fay Bainter, John Carradine, Guy Kibbee, Edward Everett Horton and Zazu Pitts.

Still, despite their status on the ladder of recognition, these impressive names brought people to see them at an improvised theater in a building that also housed a carousel at the northwest corner of Beach and Madison Avenues.

Arthur “Mickey” Blomkvest, who was to serve as mayor from 1976 to 1988, recalls he was a child then living in a house on New Jersey Avenue, to the rear of the playhouse after his family moved from North Jersey. On hot days and nights, management kept open a side door or two and he and other youths watched the performances of Swanson and Kibbee and others.

“It was a fun time to be in Cape May,” he remembers.

A sampling of some of the plays and their box office drawing attractions includes Arthur Treacher, usually cast as a butler type in films, in “On Approval.” Zazu Pitts, sometimes a comic movie maid, appeared in “Ramshackle Inn.” Edward Everett Horton in played “Nina” and Fay Bainter performed in a new play, “The Swallow’s Nest.”

Upham’s theater had a long run in Cape May but like many theaters he ran into hard times and announced on July 26, 1962 that he would close the following Saturday because of economic reasons. It didn’t help matters that it was soon after the devastating storm of April of ’62, when Cape May was rehabilitating and not that many tourists were coming.

Help was on the way, though, the next year when Paul Barry, an actor majoring in Shakespeare, came on the scene with Broadway actor and drama critic Philip Dorian. They started the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival here. Barry’s credits before initiating the local festival included performances on Broadway and in television and, especially appropriate for his hopes here, for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and in the Miami and New York Shakespeare festivals.

In his first season at Cape May Barry presented only one play written by the Bard of Avon, “Taming of the Shrew,” but he included a group of conventional and unconventional plays, including the 1959 “Rhinoceros,” written by Eugene Ionesco, which was then considered part of “the theater of the absurd,” and the Japanese thought provoking mystery “Rashamon.” Just to make sure the box office would not go silent he added some commercially popular plays to his season including the musical “South Pacific” and the comedy “Come Blow Your Horn.”

Barry persevered in Cape May for a while, moving to the Lafayette hotel as his theatre site before expanding his theatrical horizon to the campus of Drew University in Madison in 1972. It was a big move because the theatre, which has rearranged the words of its name from the New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre to the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, has survived all these years and has earned the reputation of being one of the nation’s most prestigious Shakespearean theatres.

Now 80 years old, Barry is retired and lives in Morristown, a few miles from the theatre he founded years earlier some 160 miles to the south during another glory time of stage plays in Cape May.

 

(Some of the information for this article was researched at the reference department of the county library in Court House.)


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