History of The Little Theatre of Fall River
1936 through 1976 Written by Angus Bailey (1976); edited by Roger S. Belanger (2001)
In the beginning there were two one-act plays, Rosalinda and The Valiant, presented for an invited audience in the Women's Club. These performances were met with such enthusiastic response that the group responsible for the productions banded together to form a Little Theatre.
The Little Theatre's first full-length production was Molnar's The Swan with Elizabeth Belisle, S. Dewey Haas, and Duncan Hanley in the leads. The second production was Death Takes a Holiday featuring Haas again and Peggy McGuire. By now they were ready to embark on a season of at least three major productions, a schedule they have followed ever since, except during the years of World War II.
John B. Cummings was the first president of the Little Theatre and Grace Arnzen Ferguson its first secretary. She remained in that office until her retirement after many years of indefatigable concern with making the Fall River Little Theatre as good as it could possibly be.
These initial years in the Women's Club included some fine productions presented under conditions which would daunt most people today. The stage permitted no crossovers, had virtually no wing space, and stage right opened directly onto a fire escape. Plays as scenically complicated as Pygmalion, Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth the Queen, and Mary of Scotland were presented with considerable Ã©clat and long waits while the sets were shifted. The casts and stage crews were hardier then, as were the audiences.
When Pygmalion was produced, it was in the dead of winter. The sets were stored on the frozen fire escape. On stage Fred Hutchins as Henry Higgins ran across Eliza (played by Edna Hughes) behind a curtain of real rainwater that ran off in a drain concealed in the footlight trough.
All of this time, the Little Theatre of Fall River was breaking even financially. That was the objective. The goal was to bring good theatre to the people of the surrounding community at reasonable prices; prices nearly anyone could afford. With that as its goal, no vast profits were looked for nor found.
After World War II and the resumption of its full-scale activity, the group transferred to Herrick House on Pine Street, where it opened up with George Kaufman's production of John P. Marquand's The Late George Apley. At that time Frank Coolidge was still designing superb sets for us. There were some delightful productions in Herrick House. I especially recall The Man Who Came to Dinner and Our Town as standout productions. Leo Strickman and Lyn Mills did the leads in A Bell for Adano. Rev. Mr. Hill, assisted by Ethel Fuller, roared his way through Life with Father and Joe D'Adarno almost rolled off the stage on a portable set for I Remember Mama.
In 1954, after a brief interlude when it was producing in the old Richard Borden Hall, the group found a new home for itself in the Ziskind Auditorium which had just been built. Billie Benoit Hackett was president at the time and threw herself into what proved to be a major expansion of the group's facilities and subscription audience. The Time of the Cuckoo was our first production at Ziskind Auditorium. It turned out to be the first of a long succession of productions. The Ziskind Auditorium venue was used longer than any other location to that time.
Mrs. Hackett presided over our first years there, years marked by plays like The Little Foxes with Billie herself, Louise Follett, Jack Kennedy, and Don Carroll; The Cocktail Party with Dick Wilcox and Helen Marie Connors; and The Teahouse of the August Moon with Jack Manning and Larry Hussey. Joe D'Adamo directed The Women and lived to tell about it. Barbara Wellington brought her goat to add to the cast of Mr. Roberts. In Anastasia, Edith Allen as the dowager empress, gave one of the loveliest performances ever seen in these parts.
In 1958 the group began, with great timidity, to stage musicals. Leading off was the spoof of the 1920's The Boy Friend. The response of the audiences was so immediate that it was evident that musicals were here to stay. A few performances that crowded the next decade were Fred and Eleanor Lindquist in Brigadoon; Joe D'Adamo and Julie Rezendes in Guys and Dolls; and Penny Markell and Leo Strickman in The King and I (with Arthur Faria's superb staging of the 'Uncle Tom' ballet).
Ziskind Auditorium, which had proved so hospitable to us, was limited in space for the demands the musicals and plays were placing on it. The logistics of the new, non-realistic plays in terms of sets, even allowing for Sumner MacDonald's talents as a designer, placed a growing strain on the capacities of the stage. The new plays we were doing, The Glass Menagerie, A View from the Bridge, Death of a Salesman, Look Homeward Angel, and Rhinoceros, were more complicated to stage than the old line, realistic dramas with one simple interior and a few light changes. The Little Theatre was still striving to bring the city the best and the newest productions possible but it was evident that sooner or later a change of locale would be necessary.
The opening of the Diman Regional Vocational - Technical High School provided us with a fine auditorium and much more flexible stage. You, our audience, have accompanied us here, as indeed many of you have all the way from the Woman's Club of 35 years ago. Here we are able to present Robbie Morgan and Dave Connell in My Fair Lady; Oklahoma with Janice MacDonald as Ado Annie; and Julie Rezendes and Pauline Roy in South Pacific, pointing toward an indefinite future of plays and musicals.
All community theatre groups fear a loss of continuity. The Little Theatre of Fall River is now spanning several generations. After so many nomadic years, it became obvious it was time to find a place of our own.
That place of our own seemed to have been found when under the dynamic leadership of Sumner MacDonald and Peg Panos a lease was arranged for much of the former Quarry Street Methodist Church. The group moved in and even presented one production there, Peg's delightful staging of The Odd Couple with Norman Smith and Donald Carroll. Unhappily, the church burned down, leaving the group as nomadic as ever.
In 1975, a lease was arranged for the former Prospect Street Engine House and with the tenacity that has always characterized it in good times as well as bad, the group settled in there. President, Martha Howarth spearheaded the effort to make the engine house or fire barn, a truly viable center for the Little Theatre's activities, and, it is hoped, a place where more intimate productions can be staged.
While these various migrations were going on, the usual schedule of major productions at the Diman Regional Vocational - Technical High School continued. There were new directors and new performers, as there should be, both to keep the group alive and preserve its continuity. The audiences change to some degree as well, but fortunately, the community support for the Little Theatre of Fall River has never faltered in the first 40 years. After all this time the group is as alive and kicking as ever and the future still looks bright.
These are random thoughts and memories looking back over the decades. Memories in many instances of old friends now gone and in others of friends who are with us now to share the feeling that the Little Theatre with its hits and flops, its high spots and low, its hilarious misadventures and astonishing breakthroughs, is making a steady, real contribution to our community life.