The venerable Priscilla Beach Theatre was in danger of crumbling away — but it has been fully restored and is swinging into a summertime season of musicals.
By Mary Ann Nichols
In the mid-1970s, I had the life-altering pleasure of acting at Priscilla Beach Theatre in Manomet, MA, just south of Plymouth. Our offerings were ambitious, high-energy, mostly musical non-Equity summer stock. The company was quite young, mostly students and recent graduates from Tufts University. But in its heyday (it was founded in 1937), PBT’s historic barn theatre hosted decades of summer productions featuring household names such as Paul Newman, Gloria Swanson, Pat Carroll, Rob Reiner, and Albert Brooks.
My PBT experience was “character building” in many ways. We put on five shows each summer, each with two weeks’ rehearsal. While performing Show 1, Show 2 would be in rehearsal. It was exhilarating and exhausting. I have vivid memories of “rustic” housing next to the barn where raccoons would wander into the buildings – and sometimes into our bedrooms! There were earwigs in the dressing rooms and primitive bathrooms. Most unforgettable: a production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown in which Snoopy’s song about little birds flying to greet him was inadvertently accompanied by bats flying around the stage. We had to really focus to stay in character.
Not many years after our company disbanded in 1976, PBT’s old theatre barn (built in 1875, first used as a theatre in 1937) was condemned. Though PBT was still being used for children’s theatre, its glory days were long gone. From time to time, I would drive by the campus – which had spacious dorms and workspaces we had fully utilized – and feel disheartened at its appearance. No doubt, PBT would crumble soon, or be torn down. Developers would be delighted to have such a choice piece of property near the beaches of Massachusetts Bay.
Enter Bob and Sandy Malone [cue: heroic music]. In 1976, Bob was a 13-year-old neighbor kid who had helped out our company by doing various odd jobs. He had even appeared onstage in Fiddler on the Roof. Now, as a local resident and President of Leapfrog Software Consulting, he and his wife, Sandy, were in a position to save PBT.
“Just two years ago, our community was in danger of losing this precious piece of our cultural history,” says Malone. “We couldn’t let that happen, so we gathered some great minds, looked at all the options, found highly skilled workers and made it happen.” Now, fully restored, with nods to modernity (including a full LED stage lighting system, ADA updates, a completely rebuilt 14-row fly system, new seating, and new dressing rooms with video monitors) PBT is “ready for its closeup,” as PBT alum Gloria Swanson famously insisted in Sunset Boulevard. Malone says, “We invite everyone to come out this summer and see all the great work on stage.”
PBT’s renewed summer stock season opens July 10th with Fiddler on the Roof, directed by PBT alum, Ron Fassler. Fassler had been an actor in the mid-70s shows, usually playing character parts. Now based in LA, he’s delighted to return to his theatrical roots, bringing his son Jeremy with him to play Perchik. The lead roles in PBT’s Fiddler feature Michael Bernardi, son of famous Tevye, Herschel, and Allyn Morse (daughter of actor Robert Morse) as Golde. The final production of the summer, Chicago, opens in August.
Last year, I organized a 40th reunion of our PBT group. Bob Malone gave us a tour of the facilities, where renovations were well underway. We all felt – and feel – like our old stomping grounds is in the best of hands. This summer, a larger group will be joining us for the grand re-opening of Fiddler at PBT, directed by our old friend, Ron. I, for one, feel like Motel the Tailor – this is truly a “wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles.”
Mary Ann Nichols is Copy Editor / Announcer for Underwriting at 90.9 WBUR, Boston’s NPR News Station