“Little has been written of the theatrical history of Vermont; yet that little state encompasses a colorful theatrical past.” Dr. George B. Bryan, UVM Dept. of Theatre, 1991.
This column examines the theatrical history of our local area. It defines theater in the broadest sense to include both professional and amateur performances on a stage. Examples include productions with local talent as well as those from away. It includes student productions and what might be referred to as high- or low-brow amusements.
Bryan’s article on theater history mentions that there were theatrical productions and traveling musicians in Vermont by the American Revolution. However, from the beginning attitudes were mixed, with some hostility to outside performers. Perhaps that is because performances were often held in taverns and even on the Sabbath. For many of the “moralistic contingent,” theatre was considered “a public nuisance and offensive against the state.”
In 1836, the Vermont Legislature passed strict anti-theater legislation and the region entered “a state of artistic repression.” The so-called Bell’s Law remained on the books until 1880, but while performances were curtailed, there was a growing tendency to ignore the restrictions.
After 1880, there were new or improved facilities dedicated to performances, both amateur and professional. They were locations for local talent, vaudeville stock companies and classical performers. In some cases, these were public town or village halls and, in others, they were private Opera Houses. Woodsville Opera House was built in 1892. Fairlee, Groton and Bradford’s theatre venues were referred to as “opera houses.”
Railroads sometimes offered reduced rates for those attending shows. In 1907, the Woodsville production of “Under Two Flags” was so popular that a special train ran from Groton.
The Chautauqua was a popular form of entertainment in the years after 1904. Founded in western New York in 1874 as an educational and social movement, it expanded into programs that brought tents to local communities before 1930. It was described as a “cross between a campground and a circus.”
In 1915, Chautauqua toured the area, with week-long events in Bradford and Woodsville. The United Opinion published a special edition and the Bradford town center was decorated in anticipation of the “rare treat” of lectures, music, stories and magic performances. It returned for several years after, with the 1921 schedule also including one on the common in Newbury. The 1922-26 editions included a Junior Chautauqua held in the afternoon for the area children. The one held in Wells River included ballet along with other performances.
Several local entertainers were regulars in the Chautauqua tours. From 1895 to 1937, Charles Ross Taggart of Newbury portrayed “The Man From Vermont” on the Chautauqua circuit. He was a gifted musician, humorist, and ventriloquist. Perley Klark and Luvia Mann, both of Woodsville, also added their musical talents to the tours.
The late Clara Aldrich of Bradford told one of my student interviewers that the Chautauqua shows under tents behind the Bradford Academy “furnished us with good entertainment which was needed in those days.”
One once-popular form of theatrical entertainment flourished in northern New England. The history of blackface minstrel shows holds a legacy of racial stereotyping.
Minstrel variety shows began nationally as early as 1828. As the term “minstrel” referred to traveling performers, early newspaper notices of “minstrel shows” may not have been blackface performances. However, after 1890, professional blackface minstrel shows toured the two states. Several were African American groups for whom the shows offered a significant means of income.
There were also local minstrel shows, using local talent and performers in blackface. In 1893, the Apollo Club Minstrels of Montpelier appeared in Woodsville to an overflow crowd. In 1896, there were two, the “Newbury Minstrels’ Big Black Show” and the Bradford Lady Minstrels. Bradford Academy students presented a similar show on several occasions.
By the 1920’s, minstrel shows were fairly regular local events. In 1922, the Modern Woodmen’s show had 37 men in the chorus. As with the professional groups, these local productions included dancing, singing, jokes, tableaus, slapstick routines and “a plantation skit.” Those shows performed by whites, often in blackface, portrayed African Americans men as “stupid and lazy and black women as rotund and genial.” Local men performed all the roles including that of the end men whose role was to engage in “comic repartee with Mr. Interlocutor.”
As late as the 1940s and 50’s, local men’s groups such as the Bradford and Fairlee firemen and VFW held regular minstrel shows as a fundraising activity.
With few citizens of color to correct it, the mocking racial stereotypes portrayed in the typical blackface minstrel show left a lasting negative impression. Dr. Byron concluded, “Vermont heartily supported minstrel shows long after their popularity waned in other places.” As local shows were discontinued after 1960, the controversy over blackface shows centered on UVM’s Annual Kake Walk. The 80-year old tradition came under considerable criticism and, after considerable discussion and attempted adaptations, it was dropped in 1969.
But minstrel shows were not the only form of amateur and professional theater to thrive in the 20th century.
After 1915, the Nellie Gill Players of Plainfield, VT toured the area, offering their annual productions to full houses. Manager Nellie Gill was a professional actor and utilized local talent in the plays. The review of the 1921 tour that included Fairlee, Bradford and Newbury, “guaranteed you’ll go home with a smile that won’t wear off.”
Burlesque was the “frisky cousin of vaudeville.” This gaudy adults-only show was not common in the area, although there were notices of such performances in Woodville. Risqué shows, such as “The Whirly Girly Music Show” that toured Barre and St. Johnsbury in 1912, were sometimes found in local fairs. Under the charges of “moral indecency” such shows were dropped from fair offerings by the early 1980s.
There have been many other plays offered by local organizations, including the following: Rebekahs of Woodville drama at the Haverhill Town Hall in 1897; Rebekah Lodge play presented in the Bradford Village Hall in 1910; Bradford Eastern Star farce “How the Story Grew” in 1912; Orford PTA presentation “Aunt Susie Shoots the Works” in 1948.
There have been at least three repertory theatres in the area that have presented one and three-act productions. The Thetford Parish Players began their production-filled history in December 1966. Organized by Ed and Gillian Tyler and David and Linda Strohmier, their first production was “The Long Christmas Dinner” by Thornton Wilder. It was held in the First Congregational Church on Thetford Hill, thus the name “parish players.”
This volunteer-based company continued to produce plays, sharing the nearby Eclipse Grange Hall with the local Grange organization. When the Grange disbanded in 1992, the theatre group acquired the building. According to the Parish Players website, the group presented 350 local talent productions in the first 50 years of their history.
The Tabor Valley Players was established in 1976 by Jim and Gloria Heidenreich and other local talent from Corinth and Topsham. Using a $50 donation from theatre lover Maurice Page, they produced “Aaron Slick of Punkin’ Crick” in East Corinth’s Mason Hall. This play had been first produced during Corinth’s bicentennial in 1964. The Players produced it again in 1990. The second production directed by Jim Heidenreich in the fall of 1976 was “The Devil’s Disciple.”
As the reputation of the Players spread, actors from the area joined them for their productions. Those offering included comedies, musicals, and serious drama. There were as many as 20 productions including one-act play performances.
Most of these shows were in the East Corinth Mason Hall, but other venues included the Bradford Academy and the Topsham Town Hall. Lack of performance spaces in Topsham and Corinth because of changes in the Mason Hall and the Topsham Town Hall were major cause of the Players falling apart. Their last performances were as about 2002 as part of the Corinth Coffeehouse.
The Old Church Theater was housed in the building that had originally been the Bradford town church. Over the years the building had been used as a venue for public meetings, a movie theatre and a fraternal meeting hall. In 1970, the Connecticut Valley Jaycees sponsored a repertory theater with college students, most of whom came from the Mid-west. After the students departed, interested locals kept the Bradford Repertory Theater alive, with at least one production using the Oxbow auditorium.
In 1984, Maryalice Klammer and Dominique Buffair, transplants from New York City, found the empty theatre too much to bear and began the Old Church Theater. The first production was “Finian’s Rainbow.” The group has continued to present summer theater in the old building for nearly four decades. They have presented children’s shows each year and provides child actors training. All participants from directors and actors to technicians are primarily drawn from the Upper Valley and has often shared their members with both the Tabor and Thetford groups. Currently the OCT building is undergoing extensive renovations causing the company to temporarily move their productions to the Lower Plain. The current summer program will feature two plays, one of which is a children’s production.
Amateur talent shows with local performers have entertained area audiences. Sometimes these shows involved competition for prizes or just bragging rights. Examples included Orfordville Grange annual show at the Town Hall, Fairlee Fireman’s Follies in the decade after 1958; “ The Mama’s and Papa’s Show” presented by the Bradford Pre-School Mothers Club in the 1970s; Tri-Village Firemen shows in the 1980s in West Topsham; Oxbow’s FBLA club talent show that began in 1974 and continued annually for years and Cottage Hospital Auxiliary talent show that began in 1991.
Traveling and local choral groups have been a part of local performances since before the Civil War. As early as 1877, Grand Concerts were held. These were large-scale works for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Choral union societies were formed throughout the valley after 1895 and made presentations from Groton to North Thetford.
At the other end of the musical genre spectrum were the traveling cowboy shows that came to the area as early as 1952. The Ernie Lindell show and the Doc Williams show were two that were in the area beginning in the 1950s. These shows performed in various local sites including Orford’s Bedell Barn and the Fairlee Town Hall.
The vocal tradition is kept alive by local groups such as the Thetford Chamber Singers, Full Circle and North County Chorus. The latter, established in 1947, is, like the others, a mixture of trained voices and others who just share the joy of singing. It continues the Grand Concert tradition.
As a result of theater’s popularity, it is perhaps not surprising that snake oil salesmen sought to exploit the medium. Occasionally, a medicine show would visit and with entertainment came a sales pitch for an astounding cure-all. In 1901, the London Medicine Show offered a week of shows in South Ryegate to “very good and well pleased audiences.” In 1921, the Pawnee Indian Medicine Company offered West Fairlee a show along with a “liver and kidney renovator.”
Unlike those performances, others came without a sales pitch. Local schools have a tradition of introducing students to dramatic productions. In addition to frequent one-act competitions, senior plays have existed in local high schools since about 1900. In 1906, Thetford Academy’s seniors presented “Little Valley Farm.” Two senior plays I especially recall are the Orford High production of “For Pete’s Sake” and the Bradford Academy’s class of 1967 senior play “The Mouse That Roared.” I was a lead in the former and the director in the latter. For “Mouse,” the house was filled for several performance with a total of over 700 spectators. These plays were often staged between major sports seasons and had the added benefit of drawing a class together for their final year.
I am sure that I have only touched on the many and mixed examples of performances that have delighted audiences over the years. Venues such as Alumni Hall in North Haverhill, the Corinth Coffeehouse, and local churches as well as area commons continue to offer performances spaces. An overriding characteristic of all of the different entertainment I have mentioned is that volunteers made them happen. Volunteers were the producers, performers and production workers. The proceeds from many of these productions were used for good works in the local community.Recently Gillian Taylor remarked “I can’t wait for my cherished Parish Players to burst forth from under this coronavirus rock with new lines, new loves, and lots of laughter!” She expressed the attitudes of all those who love live presentations everywhere and of all types. Let the curtains go up on new productions, concerts and performances. Break a leg!