[Part I of II] The History of Maine's Lakewood Theatre - Part I

Lakewood Theatre as it appeared in the early 1910s. Note the "Camp Meeting" sign, which advertised the Madison Spiritualist Association's annual camp meeting.

Nestled on the southern shore of Lake Wesserunsett in Madison, Maine, Lakewood Theatre is the oldest continuously-running summer theatre in the country.  It began as a vaudeville playhouse in a rather ramshackle 'trolley park' at the end of the Skowhegan-Madison-Lakewood trolley line in the late 1890s, and evolved into what was known as "Broadway in Maine" by the mid-1920s.  

For this [long-read] blog post, I've excerpted the first half of the Introduction to my book, Images of America: Lakewood Theatre (Arcadia, 2017), which gives the overview of the entire history of the Lakewood Theatre Colony, from the late 1800s to the present day. (I've also included a "sneak peek" at some of the vintage images in the book!) Click here to go directly to Part II.

Excerpt from Images of America: Lakewood Theatre (Arcadia, 2017).
(All rights reserved by the author.)

Part I - The Beginning (1882) to World War II

While most Maine residents know that Lakewood Theater is the official “State Theater of Maine,” many do not realize that, long before the Maine State Legislature conferred that laudable title in 1967, Lakewood had been known as “Broadway in Maine.” Even fewer Maine folk realize that, in the very early years of the twentieth century, Lakewood Theater had its humble beginnings as a vaudeville playhouse in a rather ramshackle trolley park in central Maine. And it is likely that only the most ardent local history buffs would realize that the playhouse was originally built as a hall for Spiritualist camp meetings.

The history of Lakewood is a long and winding one, rich in detail, intriguing characters, and the stories and memories of the thousands of people who have known and loved it through the years.  It is impossible to distill all of its complexity into a few thousand words’ introduction to this pictorial history.  So perhaps this short narrative is best regarded as simply an ‘overview’ of Lakewood’s history.  

Pathways and picnic spots in what was then known as "Lakewood Grove" on Hayden's Lake (Lake Wesserunsett)

Let us begin at the beginning: Early historical accounts of the area we know as Lakewood describe the birch grove on the western shore of Lake Wesserunsett as having been a Native American settlement (and later a Native American camping area) in the early seventeenth century.  Much later, in 1800, a certain Jedediah Hayden settled there, and it was Jedediah’s son, William D. Hayden, who first began to develop the area.

William Hayden was a devout Spiritualist, and he had allowed a local group of Spiritualists (of which he was a member) to build a large meeting hall on his property in 1882.  In 1884, he purchased this building from them and converted it into a rollerskating rink; it was this original building that would go through numerous renovations to become the Lakewood Theatre that we know today.  In addition to the rollerskating rink, Hayden built a refreshment saloon with an open air lunch counter.  He created pathways and picnic areas for his guests, and he built a boathouse out of which he rented watercraft.  

The old Lakewood store and "refreshment saloon" (long before The Shanty was built at Lakewood)

In addition to the rollerskating rink, Hayden built a refreshment saloon with an open air lunch counter.  He created pathways and picnic areas for his guests, and he built a boathouse out of which he rented watercraft.

In 1895, two Skowhegan businessmen, General R. B. Shepherd and Lewis H. Anderson, formed the Somerset Traction Company, and, recognizing the potential of Hayden’s birch grove as a popular resort area, bought it from him.  They converted Hayden’s boat house into the Lakewood Hotel (sometimes referred to as the “Lakewood Inn” — not to be confused with the latter/present day Lakewood Inn restaurant) -- which opened in July of that year and was a popular place for dinners and dances.  

The old Lakewood Hotel, built by the Somerset Traction Company in 1895.  It was razed in 1922 to make way for the "bungalows" that Herbert Swett was building around the grove.

The old bandstand and playground at Lakewood Park

In the summer of 1896, the Somerset Traction Company began transporting passengers on its trolley line, which eventually ran from Skowhegan to Lakewood, Lakewood to Madison, and back again. Simultaneously, the traction company owners began developing Lakewood Grove (as it was sometimes known) into “Lakewood Park” — an amusement park meant to stimulate business for the electric car line. By 1896, they had built a bandstand, a large building containing two bowling alleys and a café, and a playground in the grove.  

Such trolley parks were materializing all over the country at the turn of the century, and most, like Lakewood, included a theater, usually featuring vaudeville performances that would draw eager audiences — who, of course, would have to ride the trolley to see the show. Lakewood Park was no exception. In the spring of 1898, the local paper noted that the Somerset Traction Company had converted William Hayden’s old rollerskating rink into a theater with removable seating.

The summer seasons of 1898, 1899, and 1900 did, indeed, feature vaudeville shows, in which weekly traveling troupes were engaged to perform vaudeville several nights of the week. After the shows, patrons would help move the seating, and dances would commence.  Fireworks were a common feature at the grove, as well.   

James Durkin, the first director of "Lakewood Stock Company" (later the Lakewood Players). Here he is standing on the steps of the old Lakewood Hotel, built in 1895 and razed in 1922.

In the spring of 1901, the major owner of the Somerset Traction Company, General R. B. Shepherd, died, leaving his son-in-law, Francis W. Briggs, in charge of the bustling trolley company and its amusement park and theater at Lakewood Grove.  Briggs invited a young Boston actor, James Durkin, to direct the 1901 Lakewood season, which was the first season of ‘legitimate’ (non-vaudeville) theater at Lakewood.  Durkin brought with him a resident group of actors who stayed and performed all summer.   Dubbed “The Lakewood Stock Company,” it was the first group of resident actors in the grove, and began the long tradition of legitimate summer stock theater at Lakewood.   The first play Durkin’s company performed was The Private Secretary by William Gillette.  Opening night was June 24, 1901, and that date marked the “new” opening date by which Lakewood measures its anniversaries as a summer stock theater.   

Also in the spring of 1901, a young Bangor, Maine, native named Herbert Lindsey Swett graduated from Bowdoin College with a degree in business management. Francis Briggs happened to attend Swett’s Bowdoin commencement (Briggs himself being a Bowdoin man). Recognizing Swett as a fellow Delta Kappa Epsilon brother and remembering Swett as a likable and talented fellow, Briggs offered him a job managing Briggs’s father-in-law’s traction company, which Swett accepted, beginning his duties in the fall of 1901.

Upon Herbert Swett’s arrival at Lakewood in the fall of 1901, he assumed management over a young trolley line and its accompanying amusement park and theater, which had just finished the very successful 1901 summer season under James Durkin. Swett wisely invited Durkin and his company back for the 1902 season. Throughout the next several years (and indeed his entire career), Swett continued hiring talented directors to manage the theater. Under the direction of James Durkin and others, the first 15 years of the theater proved a time in which Lakewood developed into a respected playhouse where legitimate theater thrived.

The pergola that Swett built to beautify the lakefront. Today, the pergola stands on the grounds of the Colony House Inn at Lakewood.

Meanwhile, Swett himself concentrated on the trolley company and the physical plant of the grove. By the late teens, the old Lakewood Hotel was becoming rundown. Swett proposed to raze the hotel and beautify the grounds by erecting a classical white pergola in its place. The traction company’s management was not keen on replacing the hotel — which was a source of revenue, however small — with a pergola, and the incident led to a parting of ways between Swett and the Somerset Traction Company. Swett subsequently procured the financial backing of local businessman and Skowhegan native Willard H. Cummings, who assisted him in purchasing the Somerset Traction Company and all of its holdings — including Lakewood.  

Swett had long recognized the effect the rise of the automobile would have on the theatre. He realized that, in order for the theater and resort to stay in business after the trolley was discontinued (which it was in 1928), he would have to create a theater and resort that would draw not only a local audience, but overnight guests from points afar.  Now owner and operator, Swett began slowly and systematically building Lakewood into an alluring theater colony resort, complete with pergolas, pleasant landscaping, and quaint bungalows for rent to replace the old hotel.  

As time progressed, Swett began to leverage the beauty and restful resort atmosphere of the grove to entice top Broadway actors to take a “working vacation” at Lakewood during the summer months when Broadway’s theaters were closed due to lack of central cooling. Other summer theaters were emerging all over the Northeast around the teens and ‘20s, as well. Dubbed the “straw hat circuit” (due to the straw hats that were popular summer attire in that period), dozens of playhouses vied for the best actors on Broadway to spend the summer as part of their resident companies. 

These were some of the first overnight camps Herbert Swett built in 1923 to replace the accommodations formerly provided by the Lakewood Hotel. Eventually, Swett insisted that the cottages be called "bungalows" to make them sound more quaint. He was a brilliant marketing man. . .

But Herbert Swett had given Lakewood the advantage: He had created a secluded resort in the lovely Maine woods, where the actors had not only a modest salary, but a charming setting in which to enjoy swimming, boating, picnicking, fishing, dining, golfing, and other leisure pursuits during their free time — which was generous — all while residing in a quaint lakeside cottage. By the late 1920s, Swett had established a true theater colony resort, in which both actors and guests alike clamored to secure a place. Swett’s directors could have their pick of the top actors, and guest bungalows were full every night. 

In addition to Swett’s efforts, the efforts of his directors of the late 1920s (Howard Lindsay) and 1930s/40s (Melville Burke) contributed to Lakewood’s reputation as “Broadway in Maine.” Both Lindsay and Burke had strong Broadway connections, and were able to establish Lakewood as the major summer “try-out” theater on the straw hat circuit.  Dozens of plays (including Life with Father in 1939) were “tried out” on the Lakewood stage before going on to Broadway — usually with members of the original Lakewood cast.  

These were the years of Lakewood’s heyday, and during this time period (1925-1941), the stage door witnessed a procession of actors that was a veritable “who’s who” of silent film, Broadway, “talkies,” and radio. . . 

[Next installment: Lakewood Theatre History Part II, which will be the second half of my Lakewood Theatre book introduction, overviewing the history of the theater from WWII to the present day. Stay tuned!]