Photos by Cheryl Landes
In the summer of 1933, Walter and Maude Hartwig and opened a theater in a renovated garage on the town square in Ogunquit, Maine. The Ogunquit Playhouse attracted well-known directors, producers, and actors to the stage in this seaside village because of Walter-s reputation and connections to Broadway and Hollywood. Ethel Barrymore, Edward Everett Horton, and Rand Maude Adams are just a few legends who performed there.
Four years later, the couple bought a parcel of the old Weare Farm on U.S. Highway 1, south of the town square, and started building the current playhouse. It opened on July 17, 1937 as the first summer theater built exclusively as a seasonal theater. Its quality rivaled many theaters in New York City.
Walter died in 1941. Maude continued operations until World War II forced her to close. When gas rationing prevented travelers from attending shows in Ogunquit in 1942, she produced shows 15 miles away at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She reopened the playhouse a year later and continued running it until her retirement in 1950.
When Maude retired, she offered to sell the playhouse to John Lane, the General Manager of the Manhattan Theatre Company. He accepted, and with his business partner, Henry Weller, continued to improve the building and grounds.
Over the years, the playhouse grew from a 10-week summer theater to a regional theater that became recognized nationally and internationally.
Now, under the guidance of Artistic Director Bradford Kenney, the playhouse runs from five to seven shows from mid-May until late October. He also produces an annual holiday show for The Music Hall in Portsmouth in December.
I go to shows at the Ogunquit Playhouse when my trips to New England coincide with its schedule. The playhouse has retained the charm of the classic summer theaters of the 1920s and 1930s, and it’s fun experiencing an era that’s mostly faded. Today, the playhouse is the only one of its kind left from this period.
Today’s armchair photo tour explores the grounds and inside of the playhouse.
Outside the playhouse, guests often relax in the yard while waiting for the doors to open for the shows. Snacks, soda, and water are sold in the gazebo.
The gift shop (left) and box office (right) inside the playhouse
The lobby of the Ogunquit Playhouse
Mary Poppins, starring Gail Bennett
Gail Bennett was a veteran lead in Mary Poppins by the time she arrived in Ogunquit. She’d played this role more than 100 times during the show’s first national tour and regional premiere. During her performance at the Ogunquit Playhouse, she captured the hearts of the audience and the children she cared for on stage with her confident, upbeat, compassionate personality. When she decided her work as a nanny was done and flew into the clouds with her magical umbrella, it was hard not to cry.
The sign at the entrance to the playhouse
The stage at the end of Mary Poppins. The text reads, “Au revoir.”
Nice Work If You Can Get It, starring Sally Struthers and Valerie Harper
Sally Struthers starred in this production set during Prohibition in the 1920s. The story begins when Jimmy Winter (Joey Sorge), a wealthy, charming playboy, meets Billie Bendix (Lea LaVergne), a rough female bootlegger, the weekend before his wedding.
Billie assumes that Jimmy and his new bride will be out of town, so she and her gang hide cases of booze in Jimmy’s Long Island mansion. So when the engaged couple and his fiance’s prohibitionist family show up for the wedding at the mansion, the hijinks begin. The gang poses as the staff to protect their stash in the basement.
Struthers plays Duchess Estonia Dulworth, a temperance enforcer who gets drunk after accidentally drinking spiked punch at a dinner the night before the wedding. She has some hilarious moments as she tries to sort out what’s happening, including swinging from a chandelier in the dining room.
The entire cast fit their roles perfectly. I loved Stuthers’ performance, but my favorite characters were Billie, the female bootlegger who falls in love with Jimmy, and Cookie McGee (James Beaman), one of the male bootleggers.
Valerie Harper was scheduled to play the fiance’s mother, but she fainted before the performance and was rushed to the hospital. She recovered but was admitted for observation.
The sign at the entrance to the playhouse
The stage at the Ogunquit Playhouse