The Lakes Region Playhouse
Over the years, many changes were made to the theater – a new wing was added with a shop, screen dock, storage, new windows, etc. Wilkes often breathed a sigh of relief when the season was off and running, saying “there were times when I thought we’d never get the playhouse open in time… everytime I turned around there was something else that needed fixing. For example, after we put the new windows in the balcony, we discovered we had to lower the white letters in the front of the building. When we moved the letters, we found we’d have to paint the entire front of the building, and with the front painted, you have to paint the rest of the theater.” Anyone who attended a performance in the early days of the theater could testify to how unbearably hot the theater could become. Not surprising then when Henry Morgan, star of the show, did the unheard of and refused to go on, saying it was too hot. Air conditioning was eventually added. A decade after opening, the first play of the 1960 season marked the 100th production and according to Wilkes, that summer dated the barn “in which we’ve given our shows… as exactly 200 years old…” If so, the barn was probably constructed by John Smith, son of Ebenezer Smith.
In spite of the difficulties, Wilkes loved what he was doing. Among the rewards of running summer theater was obviously the actors themselves. “We’ve had some wonderful actors here…I can close my eyes now and see them…Tallulah Bankhead, striding down the aisle toward the stage proclaiming, ‘Why, this is the way a summer theater ought to look… Vincent Price restaging “The Winslow Boy” to give the other actors the center of the stage…Will Mahoney’s arrival carrying one small suitcase, two boxes of casting flies, two fishing rods, four boxes of model airplanes and a parakeet…Mae West and her car and her business manager and her chauffeur and her hairdresser and her bodyguard and her generosity…”
Eloise Armen became the owner-producer in 1970 and changed the name to The Gilford Playhouse. From all accounts, Mrs. Armen was very popular both with the performers and with the stage crews and staff for her warmth and her abilities. For the next five years, the quality of the productions continued. Many television personalities began to appear, including Milton Berle, Imogene Coco, Art Carney and Vivian Vance were among the talent playing in summer stock.
In 1976, when the Armens retired, a number of different owner/producers ran the playhouse, once again under the name of the Lakes Region Playhouse. Circumstances, such as diminishing audiences, the higher fees being demanded by the stars and the overall costs of operation were making it increasingly difficult to turn a profit. At the end of the1982 season, the doors closed for the last time. In 1983, the history of the barn itself came to an end when it was burned by the Gilford Fire Department in a planned burn. Alton Wilkes died in 1999 at the age of 84.