The Summer Playhouse 'Beautiful'
In the summer of 1939 Harvey’s Lake hosted a series of Broadway-quality shows at the Harvey’s Lake Playhouse at Alderson. The playhouse was located at the Stull General Store, built for the early railroad and lumbering era at the Lake but completely renovated as a modern playhouse.
The 1939 Broadway season in New York City had a disappointing ending in June. The World’s Fair in the city, combined with exceptionally hot spring weather, drew crowds away from confining theatre productions. (The fair had $3 million in advance ticket sales). Of 97 Broadway productions in 1938-39 only 10 were hits. Helizapopin, The Little Foxes, The Philadelphia Story, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Abe Lincoln in Illinois were leaders. There were 63 failures including Wuthering Heights, inspired by the 1847 Emily Bronte novel, which closed after 10 days.
In the late spring of 1939 Chamberlain Brown, a New York producer, assembled a Broadway cast as the Manhattan Stock Company to form the artistic backbone of the Harvey’s Lake theatre. Summer theatre companies could be found throughout the United States. In the Wyoming Valley region, the Little Theatre, although non-professional, was among the oldest and well-respected of community theatre companies. On May 31, 1939, the Little Theatre closed its season with the comedy So Is Your Uncle Dudley (also a hot and sticky night performance) with Catherine Swank among the key players. Her future husband, Attorney Daniel J. Flood (later Congressman), was Chairman of the Little Theatre Board of Directors.
Elsewhere, at Lake Nuangola’s Grove Theatre, a Broadway-level cast, under the direction of Royal C. Stout, would open its sixth season in mid-June with What a Life. In Drums, near Hazleton, the Green Gables Playhouse also offered summer productions as did other highly-regarded playhouses. The Pocono’s Shawnee Playhouse opened in 1904. The Bucks County Playhouse would also open in July 1939.
The Harvey’s Lake Playhouse was among 71 professional “straw hat” summer theatres in 1939 sanctioned by Equity, the actors’ union. Summer playhouses were increasingly drawing “name” actors when headliner parts on Broadway, and in Chicago or large cities were sparse. Three major Broadway stars announced they were leaving for Hollywood film careers: the Abe Lincoln star Raymond Massey; the British stage actor and perhaps the greatest actor of the twentieth century, Lawrence Olivier; and Mary Martin, who would later return to Broadway as the triumphant Peter Pan. (Olivier would star as the iconic and moody Heathcliffe in the movie version of Wuthering Heights).
The Harvey’s Lake Playhouse cast was led by Stephen Courtleigh, a young actor who had considerable success as the lead in the 1938 Broadway production Prologue to Glory, the story of Lincoln’s youth in the Midwest. The play was also featured in a Life magazine article. Courtleigh later appeared with the noted British actor Maurice Evans in the Broadway plays St. Helena and King Richard II. His Broadway debut was in the comedy Napi in March 1931. Courtleigh was slated for “leading man” roles at the Lake playhouse.
Copyright 2006-2008 F. Charles Petrillo