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Summer Stock: An American Theatrical Phenomenon

From the late 1930s through the early '60s, summer stock was the largest employer of professional actors in America. One of the earliest summer theaters was founded to boost ticket sales for the owner's trolley line. Engaging nuggets like these crowd the pages of theater historian Martha LoMonaco's affectionate tribute to this populist form of entertainment.

From the late 1930s through the early ’60s, summer stock was the largest employer of professional actors in America. One of the earliest summer theaters was founded to boost ticket sales for the owner’s trolley line. Indeed, it was the increased mobility and affluence of the middle and working classes, now able to take an annual vacation in the country, that prompted theatrical entrepreneurs to renovate barns and set up summerlong repertory seasons in the boondocks — taking care not to offend the locals with anything too risque. Engaging nuggets like these crowd the pages of theater historian Martha LoMonaco’s affectionate tribute to this populist form of entertainment, still valiantly hanging on in drastically altered circumstances in the 21st century.

Though the first summer theater opened in 1890, the 1920s gave summer stock its classic shape: a theater in a rural location featuring a resident company that performed a different play (primarily undemanding, vacation-friendly fare such as light comedy and melodrama) each week from June to September. Costs were kept down by reusing “stock” scenery, props and costumes, and by utilizing the unpaid labor of apprentices, who theoretically were receiving an education in theater craft. Abuses in the apprentice system were among the problems that led Equity in 1936 to promulgate national rules and a union contract that steeply increased producers’ costs.

Later chapters trace the rise of the star system, with damaging effects similar to those that killed year-round regional stock theaters in the 19th century. At first, it provided much-needed infusions of cash when nationally known names performed with the resident company. When touring stage luminaries willing to rehearse were supplanted by Hollywood stars who showed up on opening day, performances became a shambles and attendance eventually suffered.

Star package tours, which included the supporting actors, were more professional, but paying their high fees was difficult for theaters seating a few hundred people. Summer stock turned into “summer theater”: bigger, much more expensive and very far from its roots in those iconic barns.

LoMonaco chronicles summer stock’s evolution through thumbnail sketches of paradigmatic theaters, from such pioneering outfits as the Cape Playhouse, established in 1927, through St. John Terrell’s “tent theaters,” which vastly expanded audience size and (potential) profits in the 1950s, to against-the-odds new ventures like the Arundel Barn Playhouse, founded in 1998 by 66-year-old Adrienne Wilson Grant.

LoMonaco vividly profiles the colorful individuals who invented summer stock, including the Peterborough Players’ motherly Edith Bond Sterns and the Barter Theater’s dashing Robert Huffard Porterfield. And she knows a good quote when she sees one, such as Tallulah Bankhead’s famous advice to faded stars: “When the wolf’s at the door, run to the barns.”

The author is wise to take an anecdotal approach as in-depth analysis is not her strong suit. Comparing the high-toned Boothbay Playhouse with the strictly showbiz Kenley Players, for example, she opines, “Both went out of business for the same reason — money.” She is similarly unspecific about exactly what happened in the 1960s to turn the summer-stock circuit from a major employer into a struggling dinosaur.

A final chapter entitled “Still Here” argues that organizations offering “theatrical entertainment in the summer months” have devised viable new strategies (nonprofit status, family activities) and continue to provide valuable training to young people. But LoMonaco’s list of musical arenas, outdoor theaters, pageants, etc., underscores the fact that these venues are very different from the resident companies doing rotating repertory that defined summer stock in its heyday.

Charming though her appreciative history is, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that true summer stock is a thing of the past.

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