Behind the Stage Door of the Hampton Playhouse - chapter 1

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The "Institutions" of the Hampton Playhouse ...
The building ...
The care, housing, and feeding of everyone ...
after hours ...
Luminaries of the Hampton Playhouse ...
Burlesque ...
The Theatre Arts Workshop.


Alfred Christie

"Let's find a barn and put on a show!" Although this now famous line originated in a Mickey Rooney - Judy Garland movie, it was not the only time it was to be the start of something big.

Some of us believe that the Hampton Playhouse should be on a register of fabulous institutions known for nurturing love, talent, self-confidence, artistic endeavour, acceptance and incredible respect for one's self and one's fellows. We all know that the Playhouse is only the place at which all this happened, and that Alfred Christie and John Vari are the embodiment of all the really good stuff that went on here for the past 50 years or so. When I said to Bobby Stockbridge, Let's write the story of the theatre for its 5Oth, I thought it would be a quiet little exercise like finding a barn and putting on a show. Bobby, who has been involved with the theatre since nearly its beginning, sat down industriously to type. I took one look at the first stack of pages he produced, and gave him a computer, its manual and the tutorial and said try it this way. To his great credit and my even greater relief, within a day or two he was happily (well, maybe not so happily,) typing into the computer! When we then started collecting the memories of those who have joined Al and John here, I began to realize just how many lives had been touched, and the depth and breadth of the love that there is for these two men and the work they have produced here.

This has now become a full-blown tribute, not because of any special effort of ours, but because of what and who these two men are, and have been, and have done over the years.

The narrative of this story is Bobby's, except where memories are quoted. We sincerely hope that collecting it all on paper will bring as much joy and appreciation to others as it has to us.

Ann Carnaby -- friend, costume designer, cast party host, loyal fan.

Bobby Stockbridge tells the story...

"The time has come, Ann and I feel, to attempt to put together some sort of history of the Hampton Playhouse during the years that Alfred and John have been the managing directors. The result is a listing of shows through the years along with casts and some stories, comments, and photographs, The theatre has become an institution in the seacoast area, and has certainly stimulated business for motels, hotels, restaurants and other recreational facilities. Alfred and John can never be thanked enough tar what they have done for the community in bringing "Theatre" to the area. We who have known them are proud to be associated with them and be part of their contribution to the seacoast of New Hampshire. Ann hasn't been connected with the theatre as long as I have (who has?) so the early years have fallen to me to reconstruct, Since programs are not available for some of this time and the lack at memory plagues me, there are some definite loopholes in the first few years but otherwise most of it is here. please to begin..."

The Theatre ... Building An Institution

From the very humble beginnings ... the old barn with benches for seats and a ladder to get up to the balcony, the Hampton Playhousehas grown through the years until now it is one at the few remaining genuine summer theatres in existance.

Bob Jeffords remembers...
"In 1956 the Hampton Playhouse was a basic summer stock barn. There was no upstage nor right stage area. The garage on the east side of the barn was the 'shop'. Al Christie invited me to come to Hampton that summer as a technician because of some good 'chicken house' carpentry I did for the Richmond Hill High School Stage Crew (where Alfred was a teacher). I took it as an opportunity for my first summer not working on a farm in upstate NY. In those early days Al and John had to do much of the local contact business, like delivering flyers, themselves. This didn't leave a lot of time to service their staff. My instructions, on taking the Boston and Maine Railroad into Hampton, were to take a cab to the Playhouse if someone wasn't at the railroad station to meet me. I did. When I arrived at the Playhouse, no one was around (this was before the house was built behind the Playhouse.) The staff lived at 'Pinky Villa' {now Emerald Isle) at the time. I stepped in the east side backstage door (which was 3' from being on stage) and must have just stood there for a half hour. I was appalled. I thought of calling the cab back. It was so small, so primitive. Even Richmond Hill High School seemed professional compared to this. I was in shock. I don't think I even walked around in the half hour before someone came -- but as I stood there and looked, my shock turned to intrigue. I started to feel the potential of appreciative audiences and started to hear, in my mind, the mirth and joy of actor's spirits filling the air. Little did I suspect that parts or all of the next eight of eleven summers were to be lived here. Nor that Al Christie's view of some potential within me would move me from a life of semi-juvenile delinquency and potential crime, to a vital and fulfilled life in theater, opera, film and television. I can't articulate how deeply Al's generosity, caring and astute cultivation filled my unformed spirit. His eye and kind heart opened my own eyes to find my path.'

Little by little changes took place; larger box office facilities and inside dressing rooms were first. When Alfred and John purchased the theatre from the Bocks, a major enlargement produced a new stage, cement floor in the audience, different seats, the entrance moved from the east side of the building to the west, increased parking area, and most recently, new and luxurious bathroom facilities ... Hampton has arrived! Good Housekeeping magazine recently labeled it "the ideal summer theatre", and Good Morning America featured it a few summers ago on morning TV nationwide.

The Care, Housing, and Feeding Of Everyone

Maddy Meredith

During the late 50's and early 60's, Maddy Meredith's big white house at 38 Mill Road was home to most members of the company. Maddy was the most easy going, best natured individual she would have to be to deal with actors and their demands who literally turned her complete house over to the acting company each and every summer ... sleeping on a couch on the front porch ... doing all of the cooking for her tenants. Rooms in the house were for the actors ... her large barn she converted into a dorm of sorts to house the apprentices ... blankets strung on clothes lines (a la "It Happened One Night") serving as dividing walls ... one side of the barn for girls, one side for boys. This arrangement continued until Maddy's untimely death, leaving a huge void in the housing and feeding of the company ... a very necessary need for such a large group of people. In addition to these duties, Maddy always found time to play the piano for productions if the need arose and on occasion even appeared on stage in an acting role.

Housing for the company 1981
The Merrimac - Seaside

Housing for the company has proven a real problem since. Although apprentices and/or EMCs can be housed two or three to a room, Actors Equity demands that Equity actors have a room of their own (except in certain circumstances with a husband/wife team or by mutual agreement with another person) as well as kitchen privileges not always an easy feat in a summer resort. Motels in the area have been pressed into service but as the years have gone on these have become scarce due to many being turned into apartment condos. One such motel having closed at the beach (known as THE REEF) was home to actors for a couple of season before it was torn down to make room for a condo. The next was a motel called SLEEPY HOLLOW that was large enough to house everyone, but it was located several miles away in North Hampton, so that constant shuttling of people back and forth to rehearsals and the theatre was necessary and inconvenient. As luck would have it, an old hotel at the beach became available and for a season or two the CAVALIER was 'home' to the company ... then that owner decided she wanted to open a restaurant so further searching found yet another hotel of sorts in the center of the beach called the MERMAID and casually dubbed the Bates Motel by the members of the company. When this was sold to be turned into apartment condos the next season, the company was moved to the NEW YORK HOTEL. People who couldn't be accommodated there had to be farmed out to individual homes. Ann has opened her large house for several years to a variety of actors and musicians ... others in the community have also been pressed into service and their support has been greatly appreciated.

After Hours ...

Deb Girdler hosts
her Cincinnati
Chilli party.

Theatre people have to have a release (usually in the form of food and drink) once the curtain has come down on a performance. In the early Hampton years this posed a bit of a problem as restaurants didn't stay open very late and the general area was dry. Someone in the company befriended two nurses from Phillips Exeter Academy Infirmary who loved to party, and this broke the ice. This eventually led to the home of an Exeter grand-dame named Olive Otis who hosted parties at her home.

The company celebrates
Alfred's birthday at
Ann's house 1994.

Shannon's in Salisbury, the nearest 'watering hole' in those days, also saw a lot of the Hampton group. Once the curtain went down, they piled into cars and headed for the road house. Eventually liquor came to New Hampshire and to Hampton, resulting in shorter forees to the lounge at Lamie's, occasionally the Ashworth at the beach, and eventually to the Galley Hatch. The 'Hatch' has become the favorite spot for both actors and audience members to gather after the shows in recent years. The Tinios family have made everyone feel very much at home.

Even Alfred & John
take time for lobster

Parties have been infrequent for the most part -- the unrelenting schedule does not permit excessive partying, but we did have fun at Hazel Baker's in Amesbury in the early years. Phil Wayslean hosted weekly get-togethers at his home down the road from the theatre for a while. Vickie Fish, one of our season subscribers has offered a yearly party for the group in recent years, and Alfred usually plans opening night parties for the cast and crew at Ann's house. All of this through the years has made being a member of the Hampton company really wonderful.

I can't be sure just when the opening night of the season champagne parties got under way, but it has turned out to be a wonderful popular tradition with the audiences. It breaks the ice and lets cast, crew and audience mingle and meet each other. In the early years it was just a glass or two of champagne, then various restaurants in the area would offer to provide food as well, as a way of introducing their wares to the audience members. There have been elegant spreads from the Famous Door Restaurant at the beach, Widow Fletcher's and Brandano's in Hampton, and more recently from Alfred himself. All of this helps to get a season off to a wonderful start.

Hampton Luminaries

Cast members through the years who have gone on to become TV and movie luminaries include Rue McClanahan (MAUDE and THE GOLDEN GIRLS, not to mention countless TV movies); Katherine Helmond (SOAP and WHO'S THE BOSS as well as countless TV movies); David Doyle (CHARLIE'S ANGELS); David Canary (BONANZA and ALL MY CHILDREN); Ken Olin (HILL STREET BLUES, FALCON CREST ,THIRTY SOMETHING and EZ STREETS); Helen Slater (RUTHLESS PEOPLE); Blythe Danner (BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE on B'way and many productions at The Williamstown Festival); Tony LoBianca, Vince Gardenia, Renee Taylor. Steve Witting, Kara Sedgwick, Marcia Wallace, Brett Somers, Georgia Engel, Joyce Bulifant, Kevin Tighe, JoBeth Williams, Sylvia Miles. Rochelle Oliver, Larry Starch, and MGM's fairhaired boy, Van Johnson.

And The Most Luminous ... Sarah Christie

Jay Kane remembers ...
"Sarah was an institution. No one charmed the public more than Alfred's mother at the concession window. I didn't know her in the early days but John and Al's stories of her dedication and labor were endless. She was nicknamed 'moneybags' back then because she apparently carried the theatre's full assets (usually the last night's box-office take) with her everywhere. She acted onstage, she cooked all the meals, she did all the shopping and cleaning, she ran the box office, she dressed in sack cloth and ashes ... In the later years, her interest in the minutest details of the theatre's workings was inexhaustible, and she took it all to heart, even though limited eyesight and mobility prevented her from really doing anything directly. Once when she anxiously enumerated all of the day's problems as they had been reported to her, Janet Storck (set designer) tried to assure her that this one or that one would take care of each and every item. 'why don't you calm down Sarah and enjoy life?' She very seriously responded 'someone's got to worry.'

Sarah Christie
Sarah Christie

Truth be told, although Sarah and I appreciated each other, we were rather antagonistic in our everyday dealings (if she were alive, she'd be much more blunt in stating her feelings about me.) Early each season, Alfred, Bobby and I would work on subscriptions, publicity, etc. from the house where Sarah would spend most of the day tapping her foot. Between that and the ticking clock, it was like Chinese water-torture. In the afternoons, she would go to her bedroom for a short nap, calling out 'What time is it?' periodically in order to wake for dinner. I loved this relief from the tapping foot and gained a reputation as a sadist when I was once overheard to answer 'It's three AM, go back to sleep!'"

Sarah Christie
Sarah Christie

Others who are no longer with us include Albert Ackel, Rowena Burack, Dennis Drew, Vince Gardenia, Harry Millard, Carvel Carter, Mary Doyle, Madge West, Joel Thomas, Louis Beachner, Freddie Hoskins, Betty Bright, Nina Vorela, Margaret Linn, Alan Fleisig, Jean Mattox, Tom Offt, Nick Halt, Mark Murphy, Ed Hall, Howard Crabtree, Robert Soule, John Lowney, Jr., Richard Kneeland, J. Frank Lucas, Olga Morosoff, David Doyle, as well as local personages Robert Russell, Roger Heaslip, Canton Eldredge, and Sarah Christie who was 'the theatre' from the beginning until her untimely passing some five or six years ago. Most recently we lost David Doyle, Hampton summer of 1958, who then went on to achieve major roles in film, on Broadway, and on television. He was well known for his role as Bosley on Charlie's Angels, and was in such series as 'Murder She Wrote', 'Love Boat', 'Fantasy Island', and 'Hart to Hart'. All of these people are fondly remembered.

This Is Burlesque!

By Stephanie L. Patrick-Chalfont

(The art form that became an institution on the Hampton Playhouse stage.)

Frank Vohs
The comic genius of
Frank Vohs

Alfred: "Say the line and get off."
John: "Don't gild the lilly. There's no aaacccckling here -- this is Burlesque!"
"But what's my motivation?"
John: "Scrambled eggs!"
Alfred: "Your pay check>"
Seven seasons and three burlesque shows later the skits were different but the direction the same.
Burlesque is truly an American theatrical tradition which evolved out of English Music Hall and Vaudeville. Unlike its predecessors, the skits, jokes, and crossovers were often not written down. In the tradition of the storyteller, the material was passed down performance after performance. It was a style of performance that survived in a time when the world was at war and the country was often in a depressed state of mind.

Put together a Top Banana, Second Banana, Straight Man, Juvenile, Diva, Soubrette, a couple of strippers, a juggler or animal act, and a chorus of Burlie-cuties, and you're ready to go. And always, three-quarters of the way through the crazy antics, the show would turn and the elegant Ten O'Clock Hour would come into view, showcasing the many and varied singing talent within the cast. This segment would then lead into the starturn when the Diva and the Top Banana would get their last chance at the audience and then prepare the audience for the always patriotic finale.

Many of these performers spent their lives together perfecting fifteen minutes of material with a delivery and a comic genius that rivals main stream comedy today. Unlike the bawdy material of today, Burlesque comedy always left something to the imagination and always left the audience wanting more!

Jerry Herman wrote a wonderful song called Two-A-Day.
"I get no thrill from this atomic age
My home is still upon the stage
where life's a ball as long
as I can say I belong
to the wonderful world of the two-a-day.
Where I can tell my joke,
Sing my song,
Show the folks that I belong
To the wonderful world of the two-a-day!"

Marie Wallace
Marie Wallace

Marie Wallace remembers ...
"Each production had its moments and memories and I loved doing them all, and one that stands out is the infamous and often-repeated-at-Hampton, BURLESQUE, a play-turned- musical-revue. We had such fun doing that and Al said I kept falling out of my costume but I never believed it. One of the lines Al gave me, as I did tasteful bumps and grinds was, 'This is good for what ails you, and if nothing ails you, it's good for your friends.' Didn't seem to make much sense, but audiences loved it."

Jay Kane remembers ...
"The first year I stage-managed, the season included one of the theatre's fabulous Burlesque shows. These were always trying if highly successful productions. Trying mostly during the rehearsal process as most of the cast was unfamiliar with the form and turned their noses up at it, not believing that it would work, thereby doubling the usual nerves that attends any show put up in a week. These feelings always reversed after opening when we experienced the most unbridled of audience reactions (the company would suddenly be lining up every night in the wings to watch and hear the laughs ... in their outlandish costumes it looked like a Degas painting gone mad), and a certain extra pride took hold as we all felt as if we'd created this from scratch together since it wasn't some proven book show (even though John and Al spent all year culling and rewriting sketches older than Show Boat). Well, my first one was being directed by Emil Sanzari, a flamboyant and irrepressible presence that this story does only half-justice in evoking. It was Tuesday afternoon and we were to open that night and having our last tech/dress rehearsal. Nothing was going right. What costumes there were were safety-pinned to the actors, the drops weren't flying completely out, set-changes weren't happening quickly enough. By Equity rules, I had to break the cast at 6:10 PM at the latest for an 8:40 curtain. At 6:10, we were only in the middle of the patriotic finale. I motioned the cast on stage to please give me an extra five minutes and they were too devastated to refuse. I sent word out to Emil in the house that he would only have time for a short inspirational speech, not detailed notes. We finished. I held the cast onstage, thanked them for staying late and asked them to remain for only a quick and urgent note or two from our director. All eyes turned from the stage to Emil in the house. If ever a director faced a more nervous, exhausted, humiliated cast, he didn't live to tell the story. 'Ladies, don't forget your fingernail polish' Emil boomed up to the stage. When he heard the cast audibly growl, he tried to continue in a more helpful vein, 'Many of you are unsure of many things, but ... it's a new genre,' to which unfortunately I couldn't resist responding under my breath 'Yeah, complete and total failure.' Emil forged on, 'many of you don't have costumes and if you're one of them, you just grab something red and get on out there.' I remember going back to our rooms in absolute disbelief that we were going to try this. Mary Fraser (actress/prop mistress) lived too far away so came to use my shower. While we dressed to return, we seriously considered not going back but making a run for it. We drew this fantasy out to realize that we'd actually prefer going to the theatre incognito as customers and just watching what would transpire. When we did return, John wisely was going from dressing room to dressing room to buck all up saying 'I don't know what you're all worried about. The audience is going to love it: they're out in the lobby now, playing cards.' Guess what? that year like any other, Burlesque was the biggest hit of the summer and the problems got ironed out and well ... you're of the theatre, you know."

Hampton Playhouse Theatre Arts Workshop

I believe 1973 was the first year of operation of the Hampton Playhouse Theatre Arts Workshop, a program for young people age 13 thru 17. The workshop program offered classes in various aspects of theatre with trained people as instructors, presented children's shows on Saturday mornings, and in the early years, also offered two musical productions on Sundays, one in July and one in August. Alan Fleisig was the Workshop Coordinator and kept things moving at a strict but comfortable pace. The program ran for two consecutive four week periods. Students can come for either four or eight weeks. Through the years the program has become increasingly popular, drawing students from all over the world. It is a most delightful form of summer camp. The students are housed in motel units on the property, meals prepared by an on-the premises chef, and there is a swimming pool and other activities available for relaxation.

George Hosker Jr. remembers ... "I will never forget the day when I realized that I had turned into Alan Fleisig, the workshop director for so many years whose personality was as strong as his love for the theater. Alan would berate kids, trying to toughen them up for the long haul in the theater industry. I used to love to hate Alan Fleisig, as we all did. Years later, as an adult, I realized that everything Alan had told me was true. No one could hurt me unless I let them hurt me. I could control my own fate. I thank God that I was able to tell Alan how right he was. Of course he replied, 'I knew you would come round eventually.'"

Matt Halvorsen
Matt Halvorsen

Matt Halvorsen remembers ...
"The story about Hampton that I love to think about more than any other is about the first time I ever saw the Hampton Playhouse and the first time I met John and Alfred. I was a junior in high school in Lowell, MA when a former teacher of mine called me to say that he had learned of a theatre in Hampton that had a school for young actors; that it ran during the summer and that they had some openings for scholarships. 'Here's the number. Give them a call and tell them that I told you to call.' Little did I know that this call would change my life.
'Hampton Playhouse, may I help you?'

'Yes, I'm calling about the summer acting school. I'm calling from Lowell, MA, a teacher of mine told me to call. He said that he spoke to you.'

'Yes, Mr. Downing, right?'

'Yeah, that's him.'

'Well he told us about you but we would like to interview you. Can you come up to Hampton for an interview?'

After conferring with my Dad about transportation and times an interview was set up, my dad was going to take me up to Hampton one day after school for the interview. The interview was scheduled for late May. After I got out of school one day my dad picked me up and up to Hampton we shot. It was a beautiful spring day, the sun was shining without one cloud to block it.

The theatre was gorgeous, It was humming with activity. There were EMC's running everywhere with everything from scenery to costumes and all the stuff in between. The lawn was a bright green and was being cut for opening night which was soon to come. I walked up to the box office where I met Alfred Christie for the first time. He was so alive, you could see it in his eyes. We only spoke for a short while before John arrived. John Vari, who as everyone who knows John knows, created Hampton as his playground. This can be seen in the way he sometimes runs around like a schoolboy who just found a pet frog, giddy with a certain gleam in his eye.

After being introduced to John, Alfred continued about his business while John walked my dad and me around his playground, the gleam was in his eye that day. John does not perform your normal interview. He likes to talk to you, not ask questions. These interviews can sometimes go on for over two hours. I think my interview was of average length, about an hour. After the interview was over my dad and I drove back to Lowell discussing all that John had said, 'We're not sure we have an opening yet. We'll call you in the next two weeks and let you know. Thanks for coming up.'

About two weeks later I was sitting on my front porch with my friends talking about Hampton and the possibility of going up there for the summer when the phone rang. Shortly after the phone rang my dad interrupted our talking and called me into the house. With a dour look on his face he asked me to come into the kitchen where my Mom was. Once I got there he said 'Umm... that was Mr. Vari on the phone. I'm sorry Matt but you're going up to Hampton for the summer.' He was just playing with me. I started jumping up and down and hugging my parents. This was a very big thing for me, and for them. I was never the leader of the pack and now I was selected to attend a workshop for the whole summer on scholarship. It was a great feeling.

That was just the first at many great feelings I've had and will have because of Hampton, and more importantly, John Vari and Alfred Christie. These two men have changed my life so profoundly that I cannot even begin to explain it. What is even more amazing is that I am not the first person's life they affected this way. Sure, they built a theatre, and started an equity company all on their own. While these things have given people jobs, fond memories, and entertainment, they did one thing that gave more.

For the past twenty-five years they have run a theatre arts workshop. While the name of the place, Hampton Playhouse Theatre Arts Workshop, tells one it trains people in the arts of theatre, that is not its primary mission. It shows people who they are and who they can be. It teaches self-confidence, leadership, and responsibility."

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