Discovering Lakewood

Lakewood Theatre (Maine) in 1930

Lakewood Theatre (Maine) in 1930

Or, How I Came to Be Writing a Book on Lakewood's Fascinating, Elusive History. . .

Growing up in Skowhegan, Maine, I suppose I took for granted what everyone seemed to know: that “a lot of famous actors used to play at Lakewood."  Names were casually thrown about: Vincent Price, Betty White, John Travolta – even "Bogie." 

I wasn’t the only one who took Lakewood for granted; many of my fellow townsfolk also seemed generally unfazed at what I now realize is an extraordinary cultural heritage – not just for the Skowhegan/Madison area, but for all of Maine.  After high school in Skowhegan, I went off to college and was promptly swept into college life, leaving Lakewood behind.

Years later, after I had moved to Arizona, I was home visiting one summer, and some distant memory that had surfaced (I don’t remember what or why) compelled me to explore the Lakewood colony.  I booked a room at the Colony House Inn, attended a delightful play at the theater, and had a lovely brunch at the then-newly restored Lakewood Inn Restaurant.  It was that summer that I became enchanted with the Lakewood colony.  Returning each subsequent summer, I delighted in the solitude of the Colony House Inn at Lake Wesserunsett, which, despite the bustle of the theater next door, provides a contemplative sanctuary from the ‘busy-ness’ of every day life.  But I never actually became curious about Lakewood’s history until just two years ago. . .and then it was quite by chance that I did. . .

Over the years that I’ve stayed at the Colony House, I have forged a friendship with owner Bob Thompson.   One evening when we were chatting, I idly asked Bob what he knew of Lakewood history.  He pulled out a few old playbills from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and I was stunned.  Not only were the names ‘Vincent Price’ and ‘Humphrey Bogart’ prominent in the playbills, but so were others: Fay Wray, Groucho Marx, Jessica Tandy and husband Hume Cronyn, Ed Wynn and son Keenan Wynn, several members of the Drew and Barrymore families. . .the names read like a “Who’s Who” of Broadway and Hollywood -- which, I found later, Lakewood really was, back in its heyday (1925-1941).

I was officially hooked.  I determined to do more research, figuring someone must have written a book about Lakewood in its 125+ year history.  I thought perhaps I would write an article for a Maine magazine, or for the local Skowhegan paper, highlighting interesting historical moments at Lakewood, and attempting to raise local awareness.  As I shared my Lakewood research schemes with one of my best friends, Dan, he casually replied, “Oh, yeah.  My Uncle John wrote a book about Lakewood.”

Needless to say, I was elated. . .and shocked. In the many years I’d known him, Dan had never mentioned this.  (Of course, I had never asked!) 

Dan's uncle, Dr. John B. Oblak, had written Bringing Broadway to Maine as his doctoral dissertation in 1971, and it is literally the only written history (aside from a few magazine articles) of Lakewood Theatre.  Copies are scarce (there was only one printing), but I finally managed to procure a copy, and it has proven invaluable in researching Lakewood.  Dr. Oblak’s book is an outstanding documentation of productions, theater expense records, and actor credits; however, there are no pictures. He tells several very interesting stories about some of the actors, but I still wanted to know more. . .

Reading it, I wanted to dig even deeper.  What play had Amelia Earhart watched when she visited in 1934?  (And did she enjoy it?)  Had Lakewood owner/manager Herbert Swett really told Humphrey Bogart he couldn’t stay in the same bungalow as his own wife (actress Mary Phillips)? Was it true that Betty White fell in love with her husband Alan Ludden while at Lakewood, and that Vincent Price used to greatly anticipate attending the Skowhegan Fair every year?  How had Will Rogers entertained himself at Lakewood while visiting his daughter Mary (a popular member of the resident actor company)?

I became fascinated (obsessed?) with discovering more about Lakewood and its people:  their lives, their loves, their stories – aspects of Lakewood that Dr. Oblak’s book just didn’t fully address.  So, I have set out to discover and document the stories of Lakewood – the actors, stagehands, inn waitresses, guests – essentially, anyone who touched or was touched by this captivating place. 

I am privileged to have a contract with Arcadia Publishing to create a pictorial history of Lakewood (Images of America: Lakewood Theatre), which will be released in June of 2017.

Until then, come explore with me. . .tag along as I blog here, recording my journey of discovering and documenting the history of the Lakewood Theatre Colony.  Be sure to share your own Lakewood stories, and, as always, feel free to contact me if you have old Lakewood photos or ephemera you would like to contribute. 

And if you're curious about any of the questions I posed above, be sure to subscribe to my blog for the answers in upcoming posts. . .