DENNIS — It has been said that the Cape Playhouse is haunted. In 2004, the story goes, several employees were discussing the presence of spirits, and in particular one they nicknamed “Gertie,” when a sliver of paper came fluttering down from a wooden ceiling beam. Written on the paper was Gertrude Lawrence’s signature, next to the date 1943.
The paper is now framed and hangs in the theatre lobby, alongside an Oscar and an Emmy (courtesy of former Chatham resident Shirley Booth), and dozens of posters from plays dating to opening night in 1927 when Basil Rathbone was center stage.
The Playhouse hasn’t changed much in nearly 90 years. The worn, wide pine floors, the post-and-beam ceiling, the church pew wooden benches and the quaint, cozy lobby speak to another time when summer theater attracted Broadway’s biggest stars. The theater remains the centerpiece of the Cape Cod Center for the Arts in East Dennis that includes the 85-year-old Cape Cinema and the Cape Cod Museum of Fine Arts.
“The Playhouse is more than going to a show. It’s an event,” says Mark Cuddy, Playhouse producer and chief executive of the Cape Cod Center for the Arts. “It’s magical in the evening when the lanterns are turned on and people gather in the lobby and outside on the lawn. So many of them came here as kids and now they’re taking their own children or grandchildren.”
The Playhouse was the brainchild of Raymond Moore, who sought to create a summer theater close to Boston and the more affluent Cape communities. He purchased 3½ acres of land fronting the Old King’s Highway and found an abandoned 19th-century meetinghouse located in another part of town. He then had the meetinghouse moved to its present site.
The curtain went up for the first time on July 4 with Basil Rathbone starring in “The Guardsman.” He was the first in a long line of legends to grace the stage, many appearing at the Playhouse before they became household names. The Playhouse’s second season included a slender, dark-haired unknown named Henry Fonda. One of the ushers was a young girl who had driven to the Cape with her mother hoping to land an apprenticeship. None were available, so Bette Davis showed patrons to their seats for a couple of weeks before landing a small role. Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Ruth Gordon, and Talluhah Bankhead all made appearances here.
Lawrence arrived on the Cape in 1939 for a three-week stay to appear in “Skylark.” She came armed with a long list of demands that included a cottage by a lake, rooms for her maid and secretary, accommodations for any guests she might invite, and a house stocked with fresh flowers, quail, rainbow trout, and caviar. A furious Richard Aldrich, the Playhouse’s business manager, met Lawrence at the train station in Yarmouth, determined to set the diva actress straight. It turned out that the demands were made by Lawrence’s agent in an attempt to buff up her image as a star. One year later, Lawrence and Aldrich would be married on the grounds of the Playhouse. Portions of the film “Star,” chronicling Lawrence’s life and with Julie Andrews in the lead role, were filmed here in 1967.
Romance also bloomed at the Playhouse for Betty White, who met her future husband, Alan Ludden, when both were appearing in a show. They would return regularly to celebrate their anniversary.
Those who make it backstage are treated to a walk through history. The walls are lined with posters of past performances, featuring stars from A (Don Ameche) to Z (Stephanie Zimbalist). Stage right is the diminutive Gertrude Lawrence dressing room for the female lead; stage left is the slightly larger Rathbone dressing room for the male lead. Perhaps a sign of the times. “If these walls could talk,” says Mimi De Quesada, managing director of the Playhouse.
The Playhouse has undergone a transformation since Cuddy took over last summer. After staging mostly musicals during the past decade, Cuddy returned the theater to its roots with a more balanced season that this summer will include comedies, dramas, and a murder-mystery. It will also feature “My Fair Lady,” which is an ambitious undertaking for the century-old theatre.
“This building is like an old ship where you have to maximize every inch of space,” Cuddy says. “We’ve never done a show of this magnitude, but we’re taking it on. Finding an area for all the costumes and for the large cast will be quite a challenge.”
Across the lawn from the Playhouse is the Cape Cinema, which has its own unique history. Opened in 1930, the front of the building was designed after a Congregational Church in Centerville, while the side resembles a cow barn.
But it’s the interior that sets it apart from modern cookie-cutter movie houses. Moore hired American painter Rockwell Kent to create the 6,400-square-foot mural that covers the auditorium ceiling. Kent designed a soaring, splashy panorama that depicts the heavens, with signs of the zodiac, comets, galaxies, and constellations in a rainbow of orange, gold, yellow, and green. He also designed a sunburst Japanese curtain to roll across the stage that remains in place today. In the old-fashioned lobby, he painted the ceiling sky blue.
Moviegoers settle into individual Art Deco arm chairs of black lacquer and tangerine suede adorned with white cloth seat covers. Eric Hart, Cape Cinema manager for the past 30 years, theorizes that the white covers were initially used to protect the seats from dust during the winter, when the cinema was closed. Over time, as the leather cracked and tore, the covers became permanent.
“The 1930s was the Golden Age of atmospheric theaters. You didn’t just come to watch a movie; you came to enjoy a complete experience. That’s what makes this building special,” Hart says.
The Cape Cinema screens mostly independent films these days, but its most memorable moment came in 1939, when it hosted the world premiere of a mainstream film called “The Wizard of Oz.” Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West, had made her professional debut at the Playhouse and is rumored to have been instrumental in bringing the iconic film to the Cape.
Nine decades later, the Cape Playhouse and the Cape Cinema remain forever distinctive.
“When people come here to see a play or a movie, they feel like they’re having the same experience as someone 60 or 70 years ago,” Cuddy says. “It’s quintessential Cape Cod.”Rob Duca can be reached at email@example.com.