In May 1928, the Mountain Lakes Dramatic Guild was founded by Arthur Stringer and a small group of local people dedicated to the idea that good amateur theatre holds an important place in the life of a community. The following month the Guild was organized at the home of Mrs. Jennie Robertson in Mountain Lakes with its purposes set forth in a charter and Mr. Stringer (in whose memory your theatre's annual 'Arthurs' are awarded) as its first President. Work was immediately begun to renovate an out-building on Mrs. Robertson's property to be used for their first theatrical production that same year.
Act One: 1928-1938
On September 28, 1928 the ambitious Mountain Lakes Dramatic Guild, ancestor of today's Barn Theatre, made its debut in the State Theatre in Boonton. The play "Ice-Bound", by Owen Davis, with a specially written prologue by Arthur Stringer that was "charmingly recited" by Jean Houser (as Jean Hooper, she became a familiar figure to future audiences for 45 years as both actress and director even after total loss of her vision.) Other newspaper comments - "Brilliantly presented ... successful ... " The elegant program for the evening contained page-after-page of text outlining the Guild's objectives and makeup ... a different idiom, but the message much the same 50 years later. The preface by Arthur Stringer notes that their own Little Theatre was nearly ready to open its doors.
Close your eyes for a moment and travel back in time to December 6, 1928 and join the audience. You are dressed in evening attire, with the ladies wearing short beaded gowns. All are seated on backless benches inside the renovated structure - formerly an estate-sized CHICKEN COOP! The actors are taking their places on a 20-foot stage added to the building ... the 4-act drama "The Narrow Door", by Arthur Stringer, enfolds as the 1st 'Playhouse' production.
The benches were later replaced with 80 comfortable seats discarded by a Paterson theater and dressing rooms were added to the loft. The Guild began its second season with Barry Conners' "The Patsy" in October 1929, presented for the public at the Lyceum Theatre in Boonton as seats in their own theatre were restricted to members, only. Then the first calamity of many to come ... the STOCK MARKET CRASH 2 months later! They prudently weathered those 'bad years' . . . their growth best described by Arthur Stringer in the preface to a collection of some of his one-act plays published in 1939: ". . . since these plays first saw the light of day in that valorous and active band of play-lovers, I dedicate this volume to the Mountain Lakes Dramatic Guild in memory of those adventurous and often laborious but always happy days when with three planks and a passion we built our tenuous pathway to the Land of Make Believe."
Act Two: 1938-1948
The 'Little Theatre' was now securely established as a highly respected amateur group with approximately 100 members. Membership was limited to age 18 and up, only to Morris County residents and the cost per season was $3.00 for 2 tickets to each of three formal productions plus informal afternoons of poetry readings, music and short plays. An Apprentice Group was also sponsored in which persons with no acting experience were given an opportunity to take part in informal productions. (The few differences between the 'Little Theatre' of yesteryear and your 'Barn Theatre' of today are: basically expansion of theatrical experience to more 'do-ers' and 'view-ers', more productions per season and, as you may have noticed, the inflationary cost of a season's membership. But, WE have a hefty mortgage and THEY didn't!) Meanwhile Guild officers were becoming concerned about the group's ability to continue to provide "dramatic study for its members and furnish wholesome entertainment to the community" in their picturesque, but tiny, theatre as the list of potential new members grew. FATE stepped in with World War II and the death of Mrs. Robertson on whose property stood 'The Little Theatre on the Boulevard.'
In 1939 the Guild departed from its usual format by taking advantage of the availability of the new Mt. Lakes High School auditorium. "SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE" was presented to a large audience -an opportunity to mount a large-cast and technical production demonstrating the wealth of talent within its membership. Two other plays, "NAT JARVIS III" and "GHOSTS", are known to have been presented that year in their own 'Playhouse', as it was sometimes called. "NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH" was one of the Guild's 1940 productions, but, mostly one-act plays were the fare for the rest of the season. The membership began to dwindle via the draft, enlistments and preoccupation with world affairs.
The 'Little Theatre' was used by a professional group in the summer of 1941 but was taken over again in September by the determined Mt. Lakes Dramatic Guild with a 1941-42 season reorganization of nine committees and a strong membership drive. "HERE TODAY" was presented in the Fall followed in December by the Guild's most ambitious, Cooperative endeavor to-date: three performances of a dramatization of Charles Dickens' "A CHRISTMAS CAROL" with a huge cast at the Mt. Lakes H.S. as a BENEFIT for the Morris County Children's Home. There were several county sponsoring committees, radio announcements for all-out attendance, a write-up in Cue magazine, police alerts for the crowds attending a production that made amateur theatre history!! - (10 days after the destruction at Pearl Harbor).
In 1942 the Guild concentrated its efforts on entertaining servicemen at Fort Dix and other army camps made possible by a constant drive for actors and technicians to off-set gas rationing, etc. They even managed an occasional performance of one-act plays at their theatre during the war, but then-Mrs. Robertson passed away, her property sold-THE GUILD WAS WITHOUT A HOME! After the war ended, that old dynamic drive came to the fore and, in 1947, the nucleus of the pre-war Mt. Lakes Dramatic Guild merged with the post-war Community Players. Their first production: "THE LADY INTERVENES" written by their 1928 founding father, Arthur Stringer, and presented at the John Hill School in Boonton January 1948 as a benefit for the Boonton Kiwanis Ambulance Building fund. Group meetings were held in libraries, etc. - They performed 'on the road' in search of a permanent 'home. A ten-year real-life melodrama!
Act Three: 1948-1958
The melodrama had not yet reached a climax in 1948. While searching for a new theatre and performing where they could, the Guild members, some of whom dated back 20 years to its origin, remained firmly bonded together. So did their audiences, who followed them to schools, parish halls and restaurants in such areas as Boonton, Lincoln Park and Mt. Lakes. In spite of the fact that there was no definite schedule, membership hovered around that magic number of 100. Participants in this saga of 'trials and tribulations' tell tales of having lost the use of a school two days before an opening after weeks of rehearsals. On another occasion, the Guild upheld the "show must go on" tradition when a performance was completed after frantic improvisation of lanterns and flashlights when the electrical system failed, 1953: Meetings, decisions - a humorous newspaper article:
"Wanted: That piece of property nobody wants, that large old ham or ice house, that empty warehouse or similar idle building that used to house a shop or laundry. Must be big enough to accommodate creative work in dramatics after structural repairs convert it into the Little Theatre this area needs."
Meanwhile, an 'officio' drove past a delapidated red building an Route 46 i in Parsippany any. An inquiry revealed that it was owned by a former publisher of The Citizen, had been a blacksmith shop and was VACANT!).
1953: Their SILVER ANNIVERSARY ... a new 'home' for $50 a month. (But not before much hustle and muscle as many of the 90 members pitched in to pour cement over the dirt floor, install seats from the old Lyceum Theatre in Boonton, paint, etc., etc.) 'The Little Theatre' opened in October that year with a production of "Goodbye My Fancy". There were only 110 seats, a powder room backstage shared with the audience and a pantry-sized 'his and hers' dressing room-a theatre so small that the front row of viewers were almost 'in the scene' with the actors. Few sets permitted behind-the-scene cross-overs forcing the actors to make exits and entrances to and from the OUTSIDE in all kinds of weather.
Because of it's outward appearance, people began referring to the 'Little Theatre' as the Barn, but an official name-change came much later. The current annual 'Arthur' awards were initiated during the 1954-55 season, with "Affairs of State" winning the trophy for the 'Best Production'. The following season, the theatre was expanded slightly to provide a larger dressing room (but still 'co-ed'). Audiences, casts and crews were members of a closely-knit social club. Well-deserved acclaim was bestowed by critics for such ambitious 'Arthur'-winning 'Best Productions' as "The Women", "Picnic ... "Time Limit" and "Detective Story". ....
By 1958, the end of the third decade of the Barn Theatres history, Guild officers were beginning to worry about their ability to accommodate bulging membership and box-office demands in the future. Could it be that the "Perils of Pauline" saga had NOT reached a climax?
Act Four: 1958-1966
The hard-working core still had time for fun with the Beaux Arts Ball, a theme-costume affair, the most popular social event each season. Firmly established with a large, loyal mem-bership and financially solvent, the Guild's profits were funnelled into a building fund in preparation for the inevitable. An unbelievable degree of p. rofegsionalism was achieved despite their cramped quarters in such productions as "Streetcar Named Desire" "Separate Tables" "Antigone" and "Death of a Salesman". During the 1957-58 season when author Henry Denker attended a performance of "Time Limit", the first amateur production of his play, he was quoted as saying that the Barn's production surpassed Broadway's in many respects (particularly in set design and the prisoner-of-war scenes which had the audience gasping in horror).
The theatre's compactness was an asset only in that audiences felt as it they were part of the enfolding plots and, also, in awe of the ingenious space illusions created by set designers. Both were contributing factors to its popularity but alumni of the old Barn, looking back on those wonderful years, attribute success-after-success to not only the wealth of amateur talent both on and off-stage but their tenet that professionalism was a state of mind. Their objective was 'the best, not 'good enough' . . . with, of course, pleasing audiences their first priority and self-satisfaction of having made it 'happen' secondary. The first of two driving forces was the annual 'Arthur' awards selected by anonymous qualified judges (usually out-of-town non-members) and coveted because they were earned for one's talent, not for how hard he worked. The second criteria was 'measuring up' to The Citizen's reviewer/ publisher, a stickler for authenticity and quality . . . he knew what he liked and, his opinion was much respected. "Guys and Dolls", the 1st musical, ever, was presented in 1960 (Can we? ... They did!). The Robert Foth Memorial Award (presented annually to the top drama student in the Mt. Lakes H. S. graduating class) was instituted in 1963.
Behind the scenes, the real-life saga of the theatre continued with its mixture of minor calamities and hilarious incidents. A sampling: "A Roomful of Roses" (1958) - necessary replacement of the female lead (learned whole part one day before opening); "Detective Story" (also 1958) - actor had to carry bench, to which be was handcuffed off stage with him (key misplaced); "Come Back Little Sheba" (1962) - male lead voiceless with laryngitis (first time in 36 years that a performance was cancelled); "Macbeth", (1965) - rows of die-hard viewers sat ankle-deep in freezing water (theatre storm-flooded), actors 'stopped traffic' on Rt. 46 as they dashed between scenes from one exit to another in full costume holding their shields over their heads to ward off falling snow (no inside cross-over) ... the last production in their blacksmith shop 'home' (great critical acclaim but another major CALAMITY was about to happen!)
During the 6-year interim above, a turning point in the Guild's history came about when the property on which the building stood was sold (1960) and the new owner announced new plans for the property's use. A two and a half year search ensued for land on which to build ... fund-raising in the form of pledges (see names posted in the lower lobby) from new Barn Founders, expanded the existing building fund. After a variance application to build an Vail Road in Parsippany was denied, The Citizen campaigned on behalf of the group in a 1962 editorial: "We respectfully urge (Par-Troy) Township officials consider a site for a cultural center with a Barn Theatre and Library as its nucleus. Both . . . limited funds . . . need consideration."
Once again FATE STEPPED IN ... FIRE IN ATTIC after "Macbeth" closed midseason ('64-65) . . . true to their heritage, back 'ON-THE-ROAD' without interruption (rehearsing in basements, building sets in driveways, performing here and there) . . . "Shot in the Dark" (Community Church); "Fiorello" "Never Too Late", and "Mary, Mary" in the Boonton High School auditorium. MEANWHILE, the present Barn was under construction at its present site; the skeleton structure folded up like a house-of-cards during a severe windstorm and, while being rebuilt, "Miracle Worker" (Premiere show) was in rehearsal in the Boonton YMCA . . . ANOTHER chapter in this 50-year melodrama!!
Act Five: 1966-1978
It was a bitterly cold day in the late winter of 1966 when the 1st rehearsal was called at the present Barn stage. Eager actors walked up a gangplank (grounds not graded as yet) to the framework that would soon house the stage doors. Looking for a place to sit (seats not installed), the prompter (your historian) pulled up a cinder block and leaned against the back wall. The cast, unused to such an enormous stage, took giant steps in order to cover the 'territory' as per prior blocking and script instructions.
On April 9, 1966, in the basically completed theatre on Skyline Drive, Montville, N. J., the first art exhibit graced the lobby walls and the 200-seat auditorium was full as actors and technicians took their places. The lights came up on the first production, "Miracle Worker", in what was officially named The Barn Theatre Guild. "By George, We Did It" was the theme of this gala Premiere Night. Among the beautifully gowned ladies and their black tie escorts in the opening night audience were Anita Louise of Hollywood fame and the Younces, formerly very active members before their move, who had flown in from California for the festivities!
JEAN HOOPER, who read the prologue for the FIRST PRODUCTION IN 1928 by our ancestor Guild, was co-director of "Miracle Worker", another BARN PREMIERE 38 YEARS LATER! RUTH HILL, who acted as a teen-ager in the ancestral "CHICKEN COOP", then ON-THE-ROAD and in the OLD BARN was in the cast of this NEW BARN opener! (The only member to ACT in all phases of Barn history?) Space permits mention of but a few Barn dignitaries present that night: MENTORS ZACH MORFOGEN (President and since made honorary life-time member of the Board of Directors), DOT HARNISH (building committee innovator of the art gallery lobby) and ESTELLE CRANE (grand dame who was influential in obtaining many benefits for the non-profit organization which made a dream into reality).
Though officially open, the new theatre was lacking in many finishing touches. As in most 'home' construction, costs exceeded estimates and cash on hand. One of the necessary shortcuts was the NOISY fan-driven heat as a substitute for SILENT baseboard beating (replacement plus air conditioning on current 'wish list'). And there were THOSE seats with that need-a-seatbelt feeling (second-hand and not designed for a pitched floor). A trading stamp drive through newsletter appeals and as price of admission to 'Happenings' made possible the purchase of new center section seats in 1969 (remaining 'oldies' also on 'wish list). The worst item was the parking lot! Gold-slippered, evening-gowned ladies gallantly waded through mud for a number of years until finances warranted a loan for its recent paving.
Among the many assets was the art gallery lobby designed for the VISUAL ARTS. An undeniable degree of PROFESSIONALISM in the realm of PERFORMING ARTS was made possible by the expansive stage and relatively shallow seating. It was thus possible to mount elaborate, ambitious productions and yet maintain intimate theatre that would prove to attract viewers and doers from a 20-mile radius of Montville. The Barn's drive to provide lively, stimulating community theatre was heralded by the privileged opportunity to produce a new play by Robert Anderson entitled "The Days Between" which was attended by the author in 1966. In subsequent years, some original works, now published, were presented along with the well-known ranging from "The Lark" to "Godspell".
In this chapter in the Barn Theatre's long history, The Estelle Crane Award for outstanding non-theatrical contributions and the Frank Gaffney Award (in memoriam) for outstanding backstage contributions were established. As would be expected, changing times are reflected with the presentation of an occasional play with controversial subject matter, musicals have the greatest audience appeal, no dress code prevails as the blue jean-clad mingles with the more formally attired. Increasing youth and community involvement plus innovation have brought the first half century to an exciting climax - A heralded one-act playwriting competition with a subsequent showcase for the finalists plus a coveted Special Award for 1977 by the N. J. Drama Critics Association in celebration of the Barn Theatre's 50th year. As in years past, there is still an occasional departure from the aura of professionalism such as the night when hysterical laughter erupted as, during the death scene in "Carousel", a mouse sauntered down stage center and nonchalantly scanned the audience!