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June 6th, 2007

A SUMMER WITHOUT THE JOHN DREW.

by Christian McLean

jd1.jpgWithin these brick walls are the silent echoes of cultural fortitude and artistic collaboration that were forged in the midst of the Great Depression. For 75 years the walls of the John Drew Theater have collected tomes of dialogue, the quips of special guests and the awe of patrons, compiling a theatrical history that rivals the mightiest playhouses in the country. But under the great weight of time and use, the John Drew has also accumulated cracks and has become outdated. Staging hundreds of productions has taken its toll on the theater and this summer, for the first time since its dedication in 1931, the house will remain dark.

The stock market had crashed in 1929 and somewhere between four and five million Americans were jobless. Many of East Hampton’s newfound aristocracy had lost everything, their oceanfront homes gone, their lives in shambles. The summer colony which had been established only 40 years earlier had lost its momentum.

jd.jpgCulturally, the theater was running aground as well. Earlier in 1921, The Clinton Academy, the local high school that doubled as a community center, had fallen into disrepair. The school was to be restored and turned into a museum, relieving it of its previous roles. Local philanthropists Mr. and Mrs. Lorenzo E. Woodhouse offered to finance the restoration of the Academy. In the process Mrs. Woodhouse, despite having a playhouse on her Hunting Lane estate, realized East Hampton was now without its meetinghouse and in serious need of a cultural center.

In 1930, she and her aging husband purchased a 161 x 200 foot piece of land at the corner of Dunemere Lane and Main Street. The Woodhouses, who had also built other community structures, donated $100,000 for the construction and preservation of the building. Believing that a community center should have something invested in it by the community, the Woodhouses left it to the citizens of East Hampton to raise the remaining funds. During a time of great economic hardship, $10,000 was collected and Architect Aymar Embury II was charged with the responsibility of creating Guild Hall; a brick structure for both visual and performing arts.

August 19, 1931 saw the opening of Guild Hall. The gallery was dedicated to East Hampton landscape painter Thomas Moran and the theater in the memory of matinee star, beloved East Hampton summer resident, and member of the Barrymore clan, John Drew. On behalf of Drew, who had died years earlier, his ten year-old grandson John Drew Devereaux graciously accepted the honor. The first theatrical show would be staged two weeks later: The Six Wives of Henry VIII, a one-woman show by Cornelia Otis Skinner.

Since that show, over 400 theater pieces have graced the stage of the John Drew, playing host to local and community acting troupes, traveling shows, and renowned actors, musicians and dance groups. In the 1940s, Helen Hayes performed in Alice Sit-by-the-Fire only to be outdone by Thornton Wilder starring in his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town. Bela Lugosi played his famed role in Dracula, where wooden bats were dangled by fishing poles – a sure reminder that this was, despite the premium casts, regional theater.

As time continued, patterns began to emerge. There was a combination of both old and modern classics, new and experimental pieces, and trial plays for Broadway. Double Door and Goodbye Again were both tested on the stage of the John Drew before making a showing on Broadway in the ’30s, but the most noted musical was The Fantasticks in 1960. The show had been bleeding money for three months off-Broadway and would surely have closed if it hadn’t been for a week-long booking in the Hamptons. The cast arrived with tennis rackets and beach gear, planning for a little R&R. To their surprise, the show was a massive hit with the East Hampton crowd and with notable theater figures like director/producer Elia Kazan and choreographer Jerome Robbins in the audience, word of the show traveled quickly. When it returned to off-Broadway, it embarked on the longest run in American theater history.

The John Drew and the Hamptons have had a symbiotic relationship since the theater’s inception. Local artists, renowned and otherwise, have helped build the theater into what it is, and in return, the John Drew has supported their creativity. For the most part this has favored all parties. But in 1972, when playwright Edward Albee and director/producer Richard Barr volunteered as artistic directors, the summer program was a bit of a roller coaster. They bowled audiences over with their opening double bill of The Long Christmas Dinner by Thornton Wilder and The American Dream by Albee. But their production of Dudes, staring a young James Woods, resulted in the resignation of two of Guild Hall’s trustees before its two-week run played to crickets.

Today, Guild Hall holds true to its charter “to cultivate and encourage a taste for the arts through the presentation of drama and music.” Last year’s 75th anniversary celebration was a shining example with jazz by Wynton Marsalis, and staged readings by Alec Baldwin and longtime supporter Eli Wallach. As mediums change, the John Drew has adapted, hosting films and talk-back sessions. Beginning with Night Must Fall with Robert Montgomery in 1952 to last summer’s Jaws with the film’s director Steven Spielberg and star Roy Scheider, the film talks have provided insight and anecdotes and always draw an enthusiastic crowd.

This year, the squeaky chairs and the jewel box stage of the John Drew Theater will remain empty. Three quarters of a century with minimal upkeep has led to welcomed repairs. The firm of Robert A. M. Stern Architects has implemented its plan for a restoration endeavor which will provide completely renovated dressing rooms, mezzanine, gift shop and lobby in addition to the actual theater reconstruction – with The Drew slated to reopen by spring of 2008. Restoration is nothing new in the Hamptons, but returning the intricate details and majesty to the John Drew Theater is unique. Antique fixtures must be seamlessly intermixed with state of the art lighting and sound equipment to provide a brilliant venue for performances, while maintaining the whimsical circus tent decor that Ms.Woodhouse loved. The cost for all this – roughly $10.4 million – is almost 100 times the expense of Guild Hall’s original construction.

Performances this summer will be divvied up between several locations in East Hampton. The season will open with the last of Guild Hall’s Naked Stage Readings. Performed at the Boots Lamb Education Center at Guild Hall, Isaac Klein will direct author and scientist Dava Sobel’s debut play And The Sun Stood Still on May 22nd. A month later, on June 29th, the Maidstone Tennis Club will host cocktails and drinks with a jazz performance by John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaski. As with many of these events, fundraising will be on the menu. This is definitely the intention of two late July dinners at private homes with local stars, offering an opportunity to dine with some of the regular celebrities that grace the John Drew’s stage.

In keeping with the theme of hosting events, Tony Ingrow has opened his estate for an outdoor modern dance performance by Armitage Gone! Dance company on July 21st. August 5th will see the return of the American Musical Theater Salutes program. This first installation, under the title Heart to Hart: The Warmth and Wit of Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart, will be performed by K.T. Sullivan and Eric Michael Gillett. It will be followed on the 26th with Berlin Goes Hollywood with Melissa Errico and George Dvorsky. Both are hosted by Lee Davis and take place at East Hampton Studios in Wainscott.

East Hampton Studios is a massive soundstage which, aside from playing host to the American Musical Theater Salutes program, will act as the stage for the only fully-produced play of the summer, Picasso at the Lapin Agile by Steve Martin (Aug. 14- Sept. 1) There are other things in the works: Playwrights’ Theater of East Hampton will have two readings (The Shakespeare Road, a comedy by Ruth Wolff, and Enter Laughing, a comedy by Joseph Stein) on August 12th and September 2nd, and talk of reading Mamet’s Oleanna is still on the table.

The season will push through, as it had in the 1930s and 40s while America danced on a fiscal pinhead, as it did through World War II and Black Monday. Despite local builder Ben Krupinski donating time and labor, fund-raising to pay for the renovations is a strong element this summer. After all, regional theater is only as successful as the willingness of its patrons. In a community which covets material goods more than the cultural good, it is reassuring that Guild Hall still holds true, by promoting “a finer type of citizenship” as it bolsters the performing arts with its sturdy brick walls.

Filed Under: Arts & Leisure | Community | the Hamptons

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