The following informative article about the Playhouse was written by Diane Mitton and appeared in the August 7, 2008 issue of the Gilford Steamer.
The Lakes Region Playhouse, later the Gilford Playhouse, was a shining star on the summer theater circuit in New England, drawing crowds to watch such stars as Lana Turner, Tallulah Bankhead, Ginger Rogers, Henry Fonda, Walter Pidgeon and James Mason along with scores of other top names from Hollywood and the New York stage. The theater was located in the Harris barn at the junction of Routes 11and 11B, as was laughingly pointed out by Betty Grable appearing in “Born Yesterday”in 1970 when she supposedly told the audience, “Last week I played the Paladium in London and this week I’m playing in a barn on the corner of 11 and11B.” The barn in question was well over 100 years old and in a state of disrepair when it was purchased in 1949 by Alton Wilkes of Connecticut. A year later, Wilkes, a decorated WWII captain in the Air Force, and a former teacher of English speech and drama at the University of Connecticut, recreated the barn as the Lakes Region Playhouse, which he successfully ran for 18 years, retiring at the end of the 1968 season. The eight-week summer season featured a strenuous program with a new play each week, customarily including two musicals and six plays, mostly comedies with an occasional serious drama.
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.
For more information regarding the Lakes Region Playhouse, contact the Thompson-Ames Historical Society of Gilford, the recipient of several collections of materials related to the Playhouse.
In the fall of 1965, the webmaster’s father, Sidney Ames, invested $200 with Alton Wilkes, then owner of the Lakes Region Playhouse, for an off-Broadway play, “The Deadly Game”. Wilkes was the producer and directed the play. The play opened at the Provincetown Playhouse (which was not located in Provincetown, MA, but at 133 Macdougal Street in New York City), on February 13, 1966, and closed a few months later. The letters below regarding the investment are interesting, with the letterhead listing many of the famous actors and actresses who had appeared at the Lakes Region Playhouse.
Among the many Hollywood and Broadway stars who appeared at the Playhouse was William Shatner, in 1969.
John Raitt was another star who appeared at the Playhouse, signing the program below.
The Playhouse was renamed the Gilford Playhouse from 1970-1975, but the Lakes Region Playhouse name returned in 1976.
A 1974 Gilford Playhouse poster.