Dear Mr. Claar,
It is a large order to tell you about Forestburgh in one little letter, but if you will bear with my horrendous typing I will try to give you a bit of background. Of course there are scrapbooks by the dozens of news clippings but unfortunately they are all here in Philadelphia.
Forestburgh was a farm once upon a time… I’ve always intended to look up the County Court records for dates but have never found the time. When we purchased it (with a down payment of very little money and an unbelievable amount of ambition and of dreams), there were four of us: John F. Grahame and his wife and my husband, Alexander Maissel. Mr. Grahame had just about every talent of a Renaissance man… actor, author, director, teacher, knew all about country living and wells and water systems, never recognized the impossible, and had no time for sleep. His wife had the patience to handle business, publicity, people, and could fill in when necessary with a lovely and powerful contralto voice. Alexander Maissel had been a concert pianist at twelve, and after four years decided that theatre was a far more challenging and exciting life. He was a remarkable performer as pianist and musical director, a beautiful composer, and another who never accepted defeat, or less than the ultimate from anyone, himself most of all. I was a painter, teacher, and one who always loved everything about the stage as long as the curtains were closed.
Since the early thirties the Grahames and Mr. Maissel had been producing at the Provincetown Playhouse, the Cherry Lane, and finally Broadway right smack into the Depression years. By 1939 we were all ready to take over the Provincetown on a 99-year handshake lease. And there we remained until my husband’s death in 1974.
Summers were hot on MacDougal Street [where the Provincetown Playhouse was located] and after a few attempts at establishing a summer season at Point Lookout [Long Island], we gathered a few of our winter performers, found a few paying apprentices, and made the first payment on Forestburgh in March of 1947. It was completely under snow at the time, fortunately. As the snow melted, worn out walls, all but empty wells, miles of broken down fences, patches here and there came to the surface…and it still looked like heaven to us. We tore down the back wall of the barn, built a small stage, repaired the two outhouses, installed some very second hand seats, opened at the end of June, did a new play or operetta every week and found a number of theatre starved people in the community who gave us all sorts of help and encouragement. We cooked our own meals on a coal stove, and though the curtain always rose on time, the meals were usually raw.
Add to this picture year by year a pipe line to the brook, a new wing here and there, a window where there was a door last year, and a door where the window was. The cow moved, and the chickens dispossessed from the lobby loft, the pigs slaughtered for bacon, etc., fences and porches removed, a coffee room building built with our own hands [now the Tavern at the Forestburgh Playhouse], a fly gallery even more miraculously achieved, walls relined, the proscenium raised, and another mortgage to dig a 400 foot well and install a good swimming pool [removed in 1989].
The death of the Grahames left an irreplaceable hole in our lives.
Joanne, our daughter, had by this time become a tower of strength and talent, building floors and roofs and playing beautiful leads in anything that came along. Our company usually numbered between twenty-five and thirty-five. Today Broadway and TV are dotted with names of people who learned what theatre was all about at Forestburgh… where it never was easy, and never dull!
We played almost all of Shakespeare, much of the Eighteenth Century, modern classics, all of Gilbert and Sullivan, Moliere, John Gay, and a dozen delightful children’s shows written by Mr. Grahame, or by me, or in collaboration, and all with wonderful scores by Mr. Maissel. Camps and bungalow colonies from miles around have been our happy audiences for twenty-eight years. Theatre parties have made yearly arrangements with us. And there have been extras that have helped to build our image… lectures by well known people in allied arts, showings of Miss Agnes De Mille’s beautiful films and meetings with her for our apprentice groups and actors. One memorable evening when Emlyn Williams did his first tryout of his second Dickens program on our stage. And a memorable two weeks when, in constant communication with Miss Pearl Buck, we produced her Flight into China with Miss Buck talking theatre to all of our group until four in the morning following opening night.
And a constant building of friendships within our community and an enlargement of theatre interests culminating in the Community College where for several years Forestburgh Summer Theatre was authorized to give regular college credits.
I’ve wandered and I hope that somewhere or other I’ve struck a few chords that will be useful to you. If not, please send me a list of your own questions.
I do hope we meet you soon… All the luck in the world,