- by Tom Eastman
The Longest Running North Country Hit
In the beginning, there was only an idea, the product of the imaginations of two men interested in bringing summer theater to New Hampshire's North Country. Fifty years and close to 400 plays later, the theater company they founded thrives as a landmark in entertainment quality and longevity not only in New Hampshire, but in all of American theater. And judging from all indications, the Barnstormers of Tamworth might just be the longest running hit on their 100th birthday as well.
The small summer theater company has come a long way since that afternoon in 1931 when current director Francis G. Cleveland and the late Ed Goodnow met in Cambridge to discuss their theater plans. Cleveland had had relatively little experience with drama, having acted only occasionally. He has, however, always had an interest in theater since his days as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, helped along by an elocution teacher. The instructor was in truth a frustrated actor himself, gifted with a photographic memory which enabled him to recite, word for word, any act from a play. Young Francis, the son of the President of the United States, learned from Mr. Webber, and never forgot. Consequently, at age 28, he met with Goodnow, a drama teacher at Amherst College, and they agreed that a summer theater company just might be successful in New Hampshire.
They chose Tamworth area for a number of reasons. Having spent his childhood summers at the Cleveland family estate in the small, picturesque village, Francis was certainly familiar with the area. At the time, the region also lacked other theater companies, an important consideration. They came north and were offered the use of an old building in back of the Tamworth Inn located across the street from the company's current playhouse, and after a little fixing up, made the facility presentable.
The company was a traveling troupe in those first years, "barnstorming" on a regular schedule which included one-night stops in Franconia at the Sugar Hill Lodge, Poland Spring, Maine, the Deertrees Theater in Harrison, Maine; Wolfeboro, the Old Mill and Bijou Theater in Conway, and the Eastern Slope Inn in North Conway, beginning and closing the productions with performances at their Tamworth building.
The five to six actors and additional crew members comprising the company in the early years lived a demanding life, performing and rehearsing the play chosen for the 10-week schedule under often difficult conditions. They would all travel to the theater in three old Model A Fords and a truck laden with lighting and stage equipment, set it up, perform the play, and then be back on the road to Tamworth, always returning to their sleeping quarters at the Tamworth Inn.
Longtime Barnstormers supporter and current ticket manager Bill Goodson remembers telling Francis that there was no way the actors would be able to keep up with that demanding pace for long, but says that Francis had no other choice. Selling tickets the other day to a group of local theatergoers, he marveled at the earlier actors' stamina. "We do an eight-week grind in the beginning with rehearsals and performances all at the same time. It was tough, but they somehow always managed to do it," Goodson said.
The first season opened with Arnold Ridley's farce, "The Ghost Train" complete with original sound effects brought from the Copley theater in Boston where Francis used to work part-time while teaching at the Brown-Nichols School. Other plays chosen for that premiere season included "The Bad Man," "The First Year," "The Dover Road," "Miss Lulu Bett," and "Outward Bound." Theater attendance was strong in towns such as Wolfeboro and Sugar Hill in Franconia, but Francis recalls that Conway in the summers of 1931-1932 was not a good theater town. "I can remember standing by the window at the old Bijou Theater in Conway waiting for a car to drive up. Later, however, we moved into what we call the "Mill Theater," a stone building which stood between the two covered bridges in Conway, and attendance was better there," the 77-year old director related.
Tamworth was also a slow theater town in the 1930s, but Francis and Goodnow saw the potential in the village. When the old Kimble's general store was put up for sale in 1935, the two jumped at the opportunity and the 1817-built structure was purchases by Francis' mother. The building was then remodeled with the help of an architect friend of Francis's; the floor was replaced, a grange hall upstairs was removed and replaced with a balcony, and a 20-foot stage was installed. Forty-five years later, the renovated, white-sided theater shines as a centerpiece in the village as a result of their efforts.
Gradually, the theater's popularity grew, though today Francis stated that he sometimes finds it hard to understand why, looking back. He notes that in contrast to the group's professionalism today, the actors in the first years enjoyed themselves, sometimes too much, including Francis. "In the old days, we were younger, and we consequently did things onstage which we just wouldn't allow now. I can remember cast members doing what I now think are shockingly bad things; deliberately using lines from other plays, using lettuce in your hand when shaking hand you know, anything to get a laugh. We thought only of ourselves, instead of realizing that we were up there for an audience. I'm happy to say that today, the Barnstormers are much more low key and professional."
The lights were dimmer but not completely dark during the war years of the 1940s for the Tamworth theater, as films were shown in place of the plays. The schedule resumed in 1946, however, with "Blithe Spirit" and "Angel Street" (performed on an expanded stage) and has continues on a regular eight-play basis every summer since.
Throughout the entire 50-year history of the Barnstormers, there has been an emphasis on retaining the original tradition of summer stock theater of having no "star" in the cast. Many of the actors and actresses who have appeared there over the years were friends of Francis's, working as understudies at the Copley Theater, and they welcomed the chance to play leading roles with the summer group. While none of the performers were great stars when they acted in Tamworth, many have gone on to great recognition, including Arlene Francis, Theresa Wright, Conrad Bain, William Christopher, Robert Lansing, Emily McLoughlin, and Dooley Wilson. Best known for his role as piano-playing Sam in the film classics, Casablanca, Wilson appeared at the playhouse in 1939 and was the victim of some prejudice against blacks, according to Cleveland. "Dooley was a great guy and an extremely gifted actor, just a pleasure to know. He accompanied my mother and I to dinner one night at one of the local inns, and they refused to serve him. We simply left and ate at another place, but it gives you an idea of how things have changed," Francis said.
For the majority of the theater's first decade, Francis preferred to devote his time to acting. the directing chores were handled by Goodnow, a man whom Francis describes as an extremely well-organized individual, who possessed a natural understanding of the job. "Ed and I were close friends. In all the time we worked together, I can't recall there being one fight between us, and I can safely say that without him, there would have been no Barnstormers," the director said of his friend, the man who first named the company. Goodnow eventually left for work in New York and later traveled to Hollywood, keeping in touch but never visiting the theater again in his life.
Francis became director of the Barnstormers when Goodnow left, relying on his own personal judgement and the skills he had acquired over the years in working with his friend. As a director, he fits the quiet and patient mold, preferring to talk quietly with this actors in private rather than embarrassing both himself and them with temperamental outbursts as some other directors do. Although he said that the summer's hot working hours sometimes put people under stress, the lightning flashes are rare and usually not especially serious. He added that he learns just as much from his actors as they do from him, and that he tries to keep in mind that actors are people.
"As an actor, I realize how hard it is being yelled at," he says adding, "I also realize that you can't always get what you want when you are given only six days to work with for rehearsal. You're dealing with constraints of time with summer theater, and I must admit that it often seems as though you're only skimming the surface. The best you can do is work with the talent you have, and go from there."
The relaxed atmosphere, a direct result of Francis's attitude, is evident in the unity of the cast members. The director calls it a sense of togetherness and team spirit, one which allows for professionalism and cooperation. "We have an even keel where no-one tries to take away from the others, and I think that that has a lot to do with our so-called success," he stated, qualifying the remark by saying that he never really is sure whether the theater he had helped cultivate is a success. "I'm always asking myself why, or even if, the Barnstormers have been successful. It's a very delicate quality which we have, I think and that's why I sometimes am a little wary of someone new coming in and taking over from me. I do know that we have a cohesion, as many of the actors have been with us for 25 years or more, and we've all been good friends. I believe that all these factors add to our performances."
Those performances have been successful in terms of entertainment and attendance over the past three decades. The theater now enjoys the support of a third generation of patrons, something of which few if any other summer theaters in the country can boast. Much of that support is locally based, a fact which was made especially clear during last summer's gasoline shortage. The Barnstormers had a stronger season in 1979 than they had in the previous season, faring well while other attractions in the North Country suffered. Simply put by one Tamworth resident: attending the Barnstormers has become the thing to do, and newcomers soon get swept up by the overall enthusiasm exhibited by regular patrons.
A major reason for that popularity has been the theater's policy of performing only family entertainment rather than art. While putting on the more popular plays such as "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "Harvey," the company has also consistently performed a variety of little known productions as well, a feature which Francis and audiences are proud of. He selects the plays for each season personally, looking for a blend of comedy, drama, and musicals, though he says that the latter category has become more difficult to fill, as well as more expensive due to union requirements.
Francis has a distinct disdain for perverted melodramas about psychotics and the like, saying that life is much too short to be bothered with morose stories about such nonsense. "I like plays about regular people in identifiable situations - that's why I think that a playwright such as George Kelly is so good." He remarked that summer theater's true value has always been as a form of entertainment and escapism, and that philosophy has guided him over the past 50 years in choosing the eight plays for each season. "We have done more serious pieces in the past with some success, but I think that people really do want escapism, especially with the way things are in the world. The melodrama may be fine for someone else to perform, but not for me."
The plays chosen for the Barnstormers' 50th anniversary season reflect the director's preference for light-hearted favorites and first-run performances, with four of the plays selected of the latter category. The season will coincidentally open with "The Solid Gold Cadillac" on July 8th, and will be followed by Agatha Christie's "Verdict" and the all-time favorite, "Arsenic and Old Lace."
The entire 50-year history of the Barnstormers will come full cycle when the group presents Arthur Ridley's "The Ghost Train" as the fourth play of the season, July 29th-August 2nd. The play has been done five times since its premiere performance by Francis's and Ed Goodnow's theater company in 1931, each time enjoying great success. The show will be presented complete with the original sound effects used 50 years ago in the Copley Theater, with some members of the original cast expected to perform. Foremost among them will be Francis, as he once again dons the uniform of the station master in this ghost farce, just as he did as a young man in the theater's first years.
A special reunion of past Barnstormers cast and crew members will highlight the anniversary celebration on August 2nd-3rd, with over 250 members anticipated to return. Francis spent the past winter working with the theater's board of trustees tracking down the former cast members, using college records, the resources of the Actors' Equity Union, and the help of friends to help contact them. Explains Francis, "We've had to devote countless hours to the project, and we're still waiting to hear from a few of the actors and actresses. I think that it will be a very exciting occasion, one which we are all looking forward to." A special matinee performance of the play will be given for the cast members on August 2nd, with informal socializing and a banquet at the Tamworth Inn, on Sunday, the residence for many of the actors when they appeared with the group years ago.
Following the production of "The Ghost Train", four plays will complete the 50th season. "Laburnum Grove," "A Shred of Evidence," "Ten Times Table," and "Dona Clarines" will be presented, with the latter play a first in the United States, according to Francis. "It is a gentle and unusual comedy that I have been wanting to put on for years. It was written by Quintero and enjoyed a great popularity in Spain around 1906-1907; very similar to George Kelly's in terms of content and characters. I sent it along to one of our long-time favorite actresses, Susan Riskin, and she loved it. She agreed that she would do it, and so we are, with her starring in it," the director commented. The play is filled with memorable characters whose idiosyncrasies are the essence of its comedy, the kind of entertainment for which the Barnstormers are known throughout the acting circles of the United States.
After the last curtain call of "Dona Clarines" on August 30th an end of an era will take place. Francis has decided that he will retire at the end of the 50th season, explaining that it is time for him to give up the director's chair to someone younger. A successor will be confirmed by the board of Directors in September, leaving Francis time to serve on the board himself as well as do all the things he and his wife Alice haven't had a chance to do for the past half-century or so, such as gardening and caring for his Tamworth house.
While others doubt that he will be able to stay away from the theater for long, he says that this time he really means it, noting that he is sure that the theater will continue in the same tradition. "This theater has always been a success because of the people both onstage and in the audience - I'm always happy to see new faces in the theater, smiling at the end of the performance. It just must mean that we have been doing something right for all these years. and I can't see how any of that is going to change all that much when I step down."
NOTE: Now in its 88th season, the Barnstormers' line of plays for 2018 can be found here.