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Lockwood Reflects on McCarter's 75 Years in the Princeton Community

Candace Braun

Bill Lockwood, director of special programming at McCarter Theatre, has marked the theatre's anniversary with the publication of his book, McCarter Theatre Center: Celebrating 75 Years.

Today McCarter draws more than 200,000 people each year for more than 300 performances. However, it took the work of many directors, actors, and staff, along with the help of several financial contributors to help it become the performing arts center that it is today, said Mr. Lockwood.

The highlights of McCarter's history documented in the book begin in 1897 with the introduction of The Casino, the first established building for The Triangle Club, and conclude with the opening of the Roger S. Berlind Theatre in 2003.

On writing the 45-page book, which is filled with odd and interesting facts and black and white photos of actors, musicians, and dancers who have performed there, Mr. Lockwood said: "This role has fallen to me because I'm almost as old as McCarter is."

In fact, he began coming to McCarter as a child. The theatre has been a part of his life for more than 60 years.

The vision for McCarter grew out of a fire at The Casino that left the Triangle Club homeless in 1924. Over the next few years the club would raise funds for another venue, which culminated in the completion of the new McCarter Theatre in 1929. Many parts of the proposed building plans had to be eliminated, including the dressing room, which, rumor has it, had to be added on at the end. Known at the time as the "dressing room tower," it is now only used for storage, said Mr. Lockwood.

The theatre was originally intended to be the first unit of a larger student union complex at the corner of Washington Road and Prospect Avenue, where Robertson Hall now stands. However, in the end students had to wait another 70 years to get this complex, the Frist Campus Center, which opened in 2000.

McCarter's first show, The Golden Dog, which went on stage in 1930, was not only a memorable one for Princeton, but also for the play's author. Joshua Logan went on to write, produce, and direct such Broadway shows as South Pacific and Mister Roberts.

The opening of the new theatre coincided with the first of the Triangle Club's annual shows, a 75-year-old Princeton tradition. While many of the students' original songs have gone unnoticed, it was one of their first productions, in 1935, which attracted national attention. The club's song, East of the Sun, has been performed by many well-known singers over the years, from Frank Sinatra to Norah Jones. Today, the club still receives royalties from it, said Mr. Lockwood.

First Years

Between 1930 and 1960, the theatre was only open to the public approximately 30 nights per year, said Mr. Lockwood, with some performances limited to one or two nights. Among the notable performers who came to Princeton at the time was Martha Graham, who performed in Electra in 1931, and Princeton native Paul Robeson, who gave a memorable performance as Othello in the 1940 production of Shakespeare's tragedy.

In 1938, McCarter presented the world premiere of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. While it received mixed reviews at the time, the show eventually won a Pulitzer Prize and "has become the American theatre's most frequently performed and best loved play of the past century," according to Mr. Lockwood's book.

From 1947 to 1952, summer theatre performances were given at McCarter by "straw hat productions." Many stars of the time, including Gloria Swanson, Cesar Romero, and Helen Hayes, would travel around the country for up to three months, using local actors for small roles in their plays and a set provided by each theatre they visited.

Lucille Ball gave a memorable performance at McCarter in 1947, with Dream Girl. Her debut performance, however, was in Hey Diddle Diddle, which, according to Mr. Lockwood, "opened and closed at McCarter in one night."

In the 1950s, McCarter advertised its concept of a "comfortably cooled" theatre during the summer months. The "air conditioning" was achieved by placing metal tubs with blocks of ice on top of wooden platforms, which were situated in the doorways of the theatre. Tall industrial fans would blow over the ice, to create cool air inside.

"No one complained [about the heat]," said Mr. Lockwood. "Back then they didn't know any different."

It wasn't until 1986 that McCarter actually installed real air conditioning.

Reinventing McCarter

By 1960 those in charge of McCarter decided that it needed to be transformed from a theatre to a performing arts center. It was at this time that Milton Lyon was made the theatre's first executive producer, and began bringing in professional theatre groups to perform on seasonal schedules.

Mr. Lyon hired the Association of Producing Artists (APA), a collective group of actors head by Ellis Rabb and his wife, Rosemary Harris. The group had two seasons at McCarter, which proved popular among audiences. The total attendance for the season was 60,000, which more than doubled two years later. McCarter was off to a new start.

The 60s and 70s saw several actors who were unknown at the time grace McCarter's stage and go onto very successful careers, including Dustin Hoffman, Richard Gere, and Princeton's Christopher Reeve, who made his debut in 1969, in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

"McCarter really established itself as a producing theatre during that time," said Mr. Lockwood.

Some memorable performances at McCarter included Glenn Close as Stella in the 1976 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and Harry Hamlin in Hamlet, in 1982. Hamlet has been the most performed play at the theatre, with the first show in 1931, and the most recent being the current Berlind production.

A Christmas Carol has also been a mainstay for many years, and will celebrate its 25th consecutive season this year, said Mr. Lockwood.

Over the years several McCarter productions have gone directly to Broadway, said the programming director, including the 1995 show, Having Our Say: "There were times when you couldn't get a ticket to the show no matter who you were."

Music and dance have also become a growing part of McCarter's special programming, with performers over the years such as Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, The Beach Boys, Bette Midler, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Jazz performers at McCarter have included Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Ella Fitzgerald, and Wynton Marsalis.

"Now everyone wants to play jazz here," said Mr. Lockwood. "In fact, now they call me wanting to know why they can't play here."

But while McCarter can boast of many actors, many shows, and many successful years as a performing arts venue, "what has been left unsaid and unrecognized is the dedication and devotion of the staff which has made these thousands of performances possible," said Mr. Lockwood in his book.

McCarter Theatre Center: Celebrating 75 Years is available through the McCarter Development Office to individuals who increase their annual contribution over $100. More information can be found by visiting the theatre's Web site, at http://www.mccarter.org, or by calling (609) 258-ARTS.

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