The October 18, 1935 release of the The March of Time newsreel serial contains a segment on “Summer Theatres.” The outtakes from this segment shine a light on a time when summer stock theater was an important way for emerging actors and other artists to be seen by film studio representatives. Often taking place outdoors, sometimes in a mere tent, the stock theaters presented new and classic plays and musicals at affordable prices. It especially thrived in the northeast, drawing talent from Broadway and, later, television, and a surprising number of familiar faces are featured in the outtakes
The National Archives online catalog contains recent, high-quality digital files of three of the “Summer Theatres” outtake reels. While the content is historically significant and represents a broad range of topics, it can be confusing to watch, containing a mixture of performances, behind-the-scenes footage, and staged events. The outtakes can be viewed in their entirety in the National Archives catalog (MT-MTT-175B, MT-MTT-175H, MT-MTT-175N), while highlights and stills appear below.
The outtakes take place in a variety of venues in New England. The most striking may be the Wharf Theatre in Provincetown, Massachusetts. This theater, which indeed stood on a large pier, collapsed into the ocean during a storm in 1941 and was never rebuilt.
A number of stars appear in the newsreels.
Here, Helen Hayes gets rolled into a carpet as Cleopatra to be smuggled in to Caesar
In this unidentified play, Jack Benny tells Gracie Allen a funny story. The original has sound, although the anecdote doesn’t have much of a comedic impact out of context. Many of the sound clips from unknown plays in MT-MTT-175N are amusing.
And then there’s a silent bit from MT-MTT-175N that needs no explanation.
One of the re-enacted events for the newsreel which didn’t make the cut was Burgess Meredith negotiating and signing a contract. Meredith went on to sign a contract with Uncle Sam during World War II when he worked for the Office of War Information making training films. The National Archives holds several of these, including “The Rear Gunner.”
Summer theater isn’t gone, of course, though there will be fewer performances than usual in this summer of COVID-19. Central Park’s Shakespeare performances still draw major talent, and you can catch musicals outside at venues such as Wolf Trap near Washington, D.C. But changes in the entertainment and vacation industries left most of the New England summer playhouses behind.
For more March of Time outtakes featured in The Unwritten Record, see this post from 2016.