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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Decline of Summer Stock in the 1960s

Summer-stock theaters rose and declined along with the summer resort hotels. Therefore, as the summer resort hotels lost business during the 1960s, the summer-stock theaters lost business likewise.

The rise and decline of summer stock is described in the book Summer Stock: An American Theatrical Phenomenon, written by Martha Schmoyer LoMonaco, Professor of Theatre at Fairfield University.

LoMonaco defines the expression "summer stock" as follows (pages xvii-xviii):
The term “summer stock” refers to a particular type of summertime entertainment that evolved in the northeastern United States during the 1920s and 1930s. It is an umbrella term for those independent theatres with a resident company presenting a number of different plays in weekly or biweekly repertory either in a permanent house or on tour, between the months of June and September.

The theatres were established in attractive rural environments near the new resorts developed for middle- and working-class clientele who, thanks to advances in corporate management and federal legislation, now had annual paid vacations. Wherever city dwellers fled to escape the summer heat at sylvan lakes, beaches, and mountainsides, a summer stock theatre was likely to appear to provide nightly entertainment. ...

These ventures became so successfull both artistically and financially, that hundreds sprang up during the next 40 years, frequently by converting a nearby barn or other spacious building to a rustic but workable theatre.

They ranged widely in artistic quality and intent, but all fulfilled the dual purpose of providing much-needed work for theatre artists and low-cost entertainment for vacationers. They also brought legitimate theatre to remote areas, thus affording many local residents an opportunity to see professional productions for the first time. Hence, summer stock, as America’s first truly regional theatre, had a major effect on the cultural, economic, and sociological development of the United States. ...

From the 1930s through the early 1960s, summer stock was the leading employer of theatre professionals in the United States. More actors, directors, designers, and technicians worked in legitimate theatre during the summer months than at any other time of the year. It also has provided a place for young theatre artists to garner their first professional credentials and to learn their craft. ....

Well over 50% of the theatres were dark during World War II, largely because of gas rationing, which prohibited summer travel. Summer stock made a powerful comeback following the war, however. In 1948 there were 130 Equity companies [theater companies that had labor unions] alone; that number grew to 152 by 1950. It is safe to estimate that in addition to the union operations there were at least 100 non-Equity stock theatres. Hence, during the 1950s, there were approximately 250 to 300 stock houses operating principally in the northeastern United States each summer.

An example of the development of a summer-stock theater in the Catskill Mountains is provided on the website for the Forestburgh Playhouse. Like many summer-stock theaters, it began as a converted barn.
In the mid 1940's in Greenwich Village, John Grahame and Alexander Maissel had been leasing the legendary Provincetown Playhouse ... for their Provincetown Repertory Company.

When they became aware that New York University was quietly buying up much of the property in the neighborhood for their future expansion, Grahame and Maissel became alarmed that they might lose the Provincetown Playhouse, and they began to look for an alternative space. Their search took them to the Klebs farm in Forestburgh, New York, which they decided to purchase as a summer home for their Provincetown Repertory Company, with the idea that it might become the full-time home of the company if NYU forced them out of the Provincetown Playhouse.

In the spring of 1947, they arrived at the site with their wives ... and a troupe of actors and apprentices and began the renovation of the building into a theatre.
The barn that was converted into the Forestburgh Theater.
Sullivan County was a far different place in 1947: Grossinger's was king, the resort hotels were jammed, and the Catskills was electric with excitement every summer. A small summer stock theatre in an already old barn probably seemed unlikely to survive in the face of such competition.

Nevertheless, by July 8, 1947, enough work had been done to transform the barn into a theatre, and the Forestburgh Playhouse, then called the Forestburgh Summer Theatre, opened its first of more than 250 subsequent productions, Blithe Spirit.

For the first 25 years of its existence the Playhouse operated as both a theatre and a school. Apprentices paid to attend for the summer, and took daily classes in acting, speech, and movement. They also spent many hours in rehearsal and many more hours working building sets, costumes and props. They performed in both the main stage productions and the children's shows. ...

Shakespeare, Shaw, and Ibsen were most commonly performed, and musical productions consisted almost exclusively of Gilbert and Sullivan.
The Forestburgh Summer Theater was located about 20 miles -- a half-hour drive -- south of the largest Catskills resort hotel, Grossinger's, which was at Liberty, NY. In general, the theater attracted guests who were vacationing at the summer resort hotels in the area.

The Forestburgh Summer Theater almost went out of business during the 1960s. The website tells how the theater barely managed to survive.
In the 1960's mortality took its toll on the founders of the Forestburgh Summer Theatre. Aida Grahame died in the box office of the Provincetown Playhouse in 1962, and John Grahame died in the dressing room before a performance a few months later. Al and Sally then ran the Forestburgh Summer Theatre themselves, but it was increasingly difficult without the Grahames. Al died in 1974, and this left Sally to run the place by herself.

In order to keep the place going, Sally rented the barn to various companies during the 1970s ... In 1977, John C. Barron and his mother Jane Barron leased the theatre, and he spent the next three years as producer, director, and occasional actor.

In 1980, when John chose not to renew the lease, Sally began advertising for the sale of the property. In that year, Gregg Harlan and Craig Sandquist, in association with Gregg's sister, Cindy, purchased what had become a somewhat run-down property. The name was changed from the Forestburgh Summer Theatre to the Forestburgh Playhouse, and a new era began at the theatre.
Most of the summer resort hotels and stock-stock theaters in the Catskills have gone out of business. The largest such hotel, Grossinger's, went out of business in 1986. The Forestburgh theater is one of very few summer-stock theaters that have survived to the present day. Below is a photograph of the current theater.,39694824p
The Forestburgh Playhouse (a different building than the barn)

A 1950 movie, called Summer Stock and starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, tells the story of a traveling theater troupe converting a barn into a temporary theater in order to put on a show for the local population.

A barn scene from the 1950 movie "Summer Stock"

A barn scene from the 1950 movie "Summer Stock"

During the 1950s, a few summer-stock companies used circus tents for traveling theaters. Such a company would come to a location, set up its circus tent, and perform plays in it for a few days or weeks. Such a summer-stock enterprise was called a "music circus".

Such a circus tent was significantly larger than a converted barn, providing the room for a larger stage, cast, orchestra and audience. Major problems were acoustics, noise form bad weather, and inadequate air-conditioning.

Because the circus tents were circular and the audience sat around a central performance area, music circuses gave a boost to theater-in-the-round staging.

The Wikipedia article on music circuses includes these passages:
Music circus is an American theatrical form begun in Lambertville, New Jersey, by St. John Terrell in 1949. Established as summer stock, the new theatre venues primarily housed light operas and operettas, produced in the round, under a circus-style big top.

Actor and adventurer St. John Terrell ... started in show business with a carnival act ... Referred to as "Sinjun", he served in the Philippines with the USO. When a visiting touring company of an Irving Berlin musical needed performing space, Terrell suggested bulldozing a large pit for a stage in the center and audience on sloping and rising seating all around covered by a tent.

This became the genesis to his original New Jersey Music Circus in 1949. ... He used his back pay, war bonds and loans after the war, to do it himself. Inspired by Greek amphitheaters, audience members sat in folding chairs no further back than 15 or 16 rows. Although a full orchestra was used, the sets were simple and low to keep sight lines clear. Props were carried on and off by stagehands, in clear view, running up and down aisles. Within 8 years, 30 separate canvas-topped theatres had opened in the US.

St. John Terrell's Music Circus was an instant success, and launched a wide variety of copycats, with 40 "tune tents" scattered around the country ....

While the modern musical theatre genre was being developed on Broadway by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, the product being produced by most summer stocks remained primarily older works. The first Lambertville season included The Merry Widow, The Desert Song and The Chocolate Soldier, but nothing from the contemporary Broadway canon. As modern musical theatre works became more popular, music circus producers incorporated more of the contemporary works and fewer light operas.
A music circus in Cape Cod, Massachusetts 
Other photographs of Cap Cod's "Melody Tent" can be seen on this webpage.


Researching her Summer Stock book, LoMonaco interviewed former summer-stock producers. As far as I noticed, the producers did not blame the decline of the theaters on the decline of the summer resort hotels. I think that the theater producers simply were not aware of the decline of the hotels. LoMonaco blamed the decline of summer stock primarily on the growing costs imposed by the Equity labor union. Monaco's explanation for the decline of summer stock follows (pages 187 - 193):
Thomas Gale Moore, who published an economic study of the American theatre in 1968, declared summer stock to be “the strongest branch of the theater outside of York.” His research dates from the early 1960s, a period that can now be considered the final gasp of summer stock’s golden era before the steady decline in numbers of theatres and profits eliminated all but the most tenacious operations. ....

He estimated that the attendance at summer stock theatres during the summer of 1962 — a period of three to four months — exceeded that of either Broadway or road tours for their entire 9- to 10-month seasons by one to almost three million people. ... The attendance figures ... are staggering — 7.6 million on Broadway, 7.8 million on the road, and between 8.8 million and 10.2 million in summer stock — which leads one to question why something ostensibly so popular could decline so rapidly. ....

When asked what contributed most forcefully to the declining fortunes of summer stock, producers cited the following culprits:

* rising costs, particularly those imposed by Actors’ Equity [the theaters' labor union];

* the hegemony of the star system (paying high salaries to star actors);

* competition from television and, to a lesser extent, film;

* competition from music tents [musical circuses];

* and a growing lack of product in the paucity of suitable new scripts

.... What most concerned summer stock producers, how ever, was the nearly annual rise in cost of doing business with Actors’ Equity. ... Certainly, all star theatres had to be Equity houses, and others that still maintained resident companies preferred the union affiliation. ....

Over time, the union imposed additional costs that could potentially break a modestly capitalized theatre’s budget. The most ‘prominent of these was a practice known as “bonding,” whereby before a theatre could open, the producer would have to send Equity a check covering a full two weeks’ salary for all Equity members in the company’s employ, one week’s salary for each jobber hired for the first three productions, and an additional hundred dollars to cover possible bookkeeping charges, assessments, transportation costs, and the like. Most or all of the money was returned at the end of the season so long as everything had gone well, and all members had been able to fulfill their contracts, per the stipulated terms. Should the theatre close unexpectedly, however, or actors not receive what was agreed upon, money would be paid out of the bond. For many small theatres, the several thousand dollars needed to post bond at the beginning of the season was beyond their meager budgets.

Another unexpected hardship came with the 1963 Equity ruling regarding pension plans, which were now being included in stock contracts. Depending on the theatre’s classification, which, at that time, included the Association of Civic Music Theatres (large outdoor musical theatres), the Musical Arena Theatres Association (indoor musical theatres, including the tents), the Council of Stock Theatres, known as COST, which covered the larger summer stock companies, and the Council of Resident Stock Theatres or CORST, which oversaw intermediate and small dramatic companies, there was a different scale of pension contributions. All theatres began with 1% of payroll in 1963, with various maximum cutoff points, but all were scheduled to grow by several percentage points in subsequent seasons,

Also, beginning in 1965, contracts would be subject to cost-of-living increases .... All producers also had required payment for transportation and wardrobe cleaning costs, while others, depending on the size of their theatre, had illness and hospitalization insurance, Worker’s Compensation, and matching Social Security contributions.

Given these conditions, it is easy to understand why some producers chose not to seek Equity affiliation or in some cases, drop it in order to stay in business. In a 1954 article titled, “Summer Theatre at the Crossroads,” Thomas Ratcliffe, the producer of the Sea Cliff, New York, summer theatre and president of the Stock Managers’ Association, predicted that his peers would “do everything to cut down costs,” resulting in a decrease in jobs for the majority of the union’s membership, more theatres opting to “go non-Equity,” and more managers making an effort to do small-cast plays, cut parts, and use local actors and apprentices whenever possible. ....

The Equity dilemma faced by producers ultimately, affected actors in need of employment, who often found themselves in the unattractive position of debating whether to seek union affiliation or not. By joining the union they could guarantee a certain minimum wage and benefits while employed but an Equity card alone did not ensure a contract. ....

Producer Lee Falk outlined “What’s Wrong With Summer Stock” for Equity in 1959 by decrying rising costs, by warning of diminishing creativity in light of financial realities — a charge taken up by those producers finding new definitions for their old barns — and by considering the question of subsidy. Given the considerable expense of staying in business and the formidable competition for audiences from television, movies, and radio, he perceived that the “living theatre” had “been dragged into the position of being an expensive side-show next to the main tent, facing the fate of opera, symphony and ballet,” all of which, even by the 1950s, were heavily subsidized arts. ...

In summer stock,” Falk bemoaned, “we find three-quarters of our theatres 1osing money, being subsidized by people who can’t afford it.” His point — that subsidy can and does come from the artists and producers themselves — was critical to an understanding of how many of the summer stock theatres, specially the smaller venues, survived. Actors and other stage personnel would willingly work for low, sometimes barely subsistence-level salaries, just to have the opportunity to practice their art. Similarly, some producers often were not earning enough money to cover operating costs, yet would make up deficits via their personal bank accounts, which, as Falk argued, they could ill afford. Falk believed that summer stock could be an exciting, viable business if only managers employed creative solutions.
From the perspective of summer-stock producers, their biggest problems were the labor unions, competition from other venues, and a lack of attractive new plays.

Those summer-stock producers who talked to LoMonaco about their business struggles had not lived and worked in the area's summer resort hotels. The producers had not observed that every summer fewer and fewer people were vacationing in the hotels. As Max Kellerman remarked at the end of Dirty Dancing, more and more families were vacationing in Europe instead of in the Catskills.  Because fewer people were vacationing in the resort hotels, fewer people were coming to see the nearby summer-stock plays.

As the summer-stock theaters struggled to survive the resort hotels' decline during the 1960s, the labor unions delivered the death blow to most of those theaters. LoMonaco pointed out the year 1963 as a crucial year because that is when Equity demanded that the theaters begin contributing to pension plans for all the actors and other personnel.

As Baby Houseman declared at the beginning of Dirty Dancing, the years 1963-1964 marked a turning point from one cultural era to a new one.

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