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

Lakewood Theatre

Lakewood Theatre

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 second half of the Introduction to my bookImages 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!) If you missed Part I, you can read it here.

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

Part II - World War II to Present Day

The announcement of Lakewood's opening for a summer theater season - the first since WWII rationing shut down the theater in 1942.

The years during World War II were, perhaps, the beginning of the end of the theater’s heyday. There were limited offerings in the 1941 and 1942 seasons, with no plays being performed in 1943 and 1944 due to the limitations imposed by gas rationing and other shortages. Ever the shrewd businessman, Lakewood owner/manager Herbert Swett kept the bungalows and country club open during these years, realizing that, once the war was over, he would have a base upon which to rebuild the resort — with the theater once again at the center of activities.  

And that is exactly what he did. Just after Victory in Europe Day in May of 1945, Swett announced a six-play season for that year. Theater-starved audiences responded with delight.  

Herbert Swett, the man who came to Lakewood in 1901 and, until he died in 1945, worked tirelessly to build it into "Broadway in Maine"

But Swett would be denied seeing the fulfillment of his plans for the 1946 season: In October of 1945, Herbert Lindsey Swett passed away unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was just 67 years old.

It seems in retrospect a poetic happenstance that his passing coincides with what history has revealed to be the ‘end of an era’ at Lakewood. For the next phase that Lakewood would enter would be the demise of the “resident stock” system that Swett had built at Lakewood (in which actors would live and work at the theater all summer long), in favor of the “star” or “package” system, in which big-name stars would arrive with their own director and supporting actors for a week, and then move on to the next theater.

Melville Burke (left), who guided Lakewood through the 1940s & '50s and who for 20 years kept the theater alive (despite the pressure to convert to the costly "package" system). He is shown here with actors Vincent Price (center) and Don Dillaway (right).

As the package system gained popularity after WWII, Lakewood Director Melville Burke resisted it, fearing that it would eventually put resident summer stock theatres out of business. (Sadly, his predictions were correct, as countless summer stock theatres closed under the staggering cost of bringing stars each week who would command up to $5000 a week, plus a percentage of box office.) After Burke’s tenure at Lakewood ended in 1950, Swett’s sons-in-law, Henry Richards and Grant Mills, along with their wives (Swett’s daughters), managed Lakewood. Richards functioned as the creative director, while Mills managed most of the business. By 1961, the decision had been made to fully transition to the package system, which they had been using for about half of their productions in the 1950s.

Shown on the occasion of Lakewood's becoming the official "State of Maine Theater" are Grant Mills, Henry Richards, Elizabeth “Libby” (Swett) Mills, and Eleanor “Twinney” (Swett) Richards. 

In 1967, Lakewood Theatre was accorded a very special honor: The Maine State Legislature, in its 1967 session, designated Lakewood the official “State of Maine Theater.” The legislature’s joint resolution read, in part: “Whereas, the Lakewood Summer Theater is the oldest summer theater in the United States; and Whereas, after two-thirds of a century of uninterrupted operation it is still offering Maine people and out-of-state guests the finest of entertainment; and Whereas, through this two-thirds of a century, Lakewood, its management and staff have consistently projected a feeling of warmth and hospitality that has made thousands of friends for our State and created an image of professionalism known and respected all over the United States; now, therefore, be it. . .RESOLVED: That in consideration of the unparalleled success Lakewood has had in adding to the enjoyment of our summer visitors and in enhancing Maine's reputation as a vacationland for 67 years, that the Lakewood Summer Theater be designated by the honorary title of "State of Maine Theater. . .”  

In 1970, Herbert Swett’s widow, Fancher, sold the resort to actor and producer Eddie Bracken, who had formed “Eddie Bracken Ventures,” which owned several other playhouses across the country. Bracken had an ambitious plan to create a circuit of summer playhouses — perhaps in an attempt to recreate the old summer stock “straw hat” circuits of the the past. Sadly, Bracken’s aggressive acquisition of multiple theaters quickly bankrupted his company, and after just one season, Lakewood was repossessed by the Swett family in 1971. That summer, Richards, Mills, and their wives found themselves once again owning and operating the Lakewood resort.  

Early in 1972, Grant Mills’s wife Libby called Joe and Katie Denis, local residents who had both worked at Lakewood in their younger years prior to being married. Katie (now Katie Ouilette) had always dreamed of owning Lakewood, and since she and Joe (her husband at the time) had recently become very successful in business and the Swett family agreed to hold the note, Katie and Joe signed on the dotted line. They very successfully owned and operated Lakewood from 1972-1975, at which time personal reasons required them to sell. During their time as owners, they achieved the important step of getting Lakewood on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1976, a Maine native named Lance Crocker purchased the theatre. He tried valiantly to revert back to the old “resident stock” model that had been so successful in the years before WWII. His first seasons were moderately successful, but the cost of running the resort was draining. In a last-ditch effort to increase ticket sales, he polled the public regarding what plays he should do for 1979 (and was surprised to receive more than 1,000 responses). However, even this creative move was not enough. Despite his best efforts, Crocker was forced to file for bankruptcy, and in 1980, the entire resort (including the theater) went to the auction block.  

On a dreary day in November, 1980, the Lakewood Theatre resort as it had been known ceased to exist. The Shanty, Inn, Colony House, bungalows, and outbuildings were auctioned off to separate owners. The collection of hundreds of autographed photos that had hung in the theater lobby and adorned the walls were sold for just one thousand dollars. The theater itself was purchased by a man named Paul DeGross, who in turn sold it to a small non-profit calling themselves the Friends of Lakewood.  

From 1981-1983, the Friends of Lakewood tried to make a go of it. However, in the spring of 1984, they announced that, due to lackluster pre-season ticket sales, they would be calling off the 1984 season, only keeping the lights on for a couple of fundraising concerts. That year, the theater was repossessed by DeGross, who had held the note.

Marti Stevens, founder (along with Bruce Hertz and Jeffrey Quinn) of Curtain Up Enterprises (CUE)

In 1985, local actor and educator Marti Stevens rented the theatre from Paul DeGross for the Cornville Players’ summer season. In 1986, Stevens and fellow actors Bruce Hertz (a local newspaper reporter) and Jeffrey Quinn (a local musician) formed Curtain Up Enterprises (CUE), a non-profit organization that purchased the theater in 1990. Tragically, Ms. Stevens passed away in 1993. Mr. Hertz is no longer involved with Lakewood, and so it is left to the Quinn family, who have been operating it continuously ever since.

Today, the Quinns operate Lakewood as a non-profit community theater, presenting several outstanding productions each summer. Under their careful stewardship, the theater has been restored and improved: The old side balconies are now Cabaret seating, the long-forgotten orchestra pit is functioning again, gas heaters allow for a longer season, the main floor seating has been reconditioned, a new lighting board and stage curtain installed, and the Green Room and dressing rooms refurbished (including sealing the dressing room walls to preserve the dozens of famous autographs contained thereon). In 2001, the newly-restored Lakewood Inn reopened under their management, and in 2007, the Quinns added the Shanty to CUE’s holdings.  

Once again, as in the days of the Swett family’s stewardship, Lakewood is family-owned and -operated. Jeffrey Quinn serves as general manager and director, while his wife Susan takes care of costuming, fund raising, and directing the myriad of volunteers needed to sustain the operation. Son Matthew Quinn is the technical director for the productions, building most of the sets for the plays, and daughter Katie Quinn manages the historically-restored Lakewood Inn, a seasonal restaurant that is extremely popular.

The vision of one man, Herbert Lindsey Swett, provided Skowhegan and the state of Maine with a legacy of which to be proud. As the oldest continuously-running summer theater in the country, Lakewood is a local, state, and national treasure. Thanks to the firm foundation laid by the Swett family, and the current stewardship of the Quinn family, we can look with hope toward the future for this beloved institution.