History of the Lakewood Theatre Colony
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.
Originally a [long-read] blog post, this page contains the excerpted 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. Included in the piece are a number of vintage images, many of which do not appear in my book.
Excerpt from Images of America: Lakewood Theatre (Arcadia, 2017)
(All rights reserved by the author.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 continually 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 continually-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.