History of the Kennebunkport Playhouse

Memories of the Citronella Set in Kennebunkport will not soon fade.  Bob Currier's theatrics, onstage and off, expressed his wholehearted dedication to excellence.  Make no mistake.  The Kennebunkport Playhouse was no cash cow.  Nearly every year, Currier struggled to keep the theatre afloat.  His efforts made a lasting impression.

 The Currier family first came to Kennebunkport as summer visitors in 1930.  Eldest son Charles Bertram, Harvard '32, was employed as a swimming instructor at the River Club. Robert, just eighteen, was studying at the New England Conservatory of music.  In 1933, when Bob’s Garrick Players from Newton, Massachusetts premiered at the Olympian Club, he was already a seasoned actor and an educator.

 Performances that first summer met with mixed reviews.  One of the more successful shows was a play by Kennebunkport authors Booth Tarkington and Harry Leon Wilson. Tweedles, is a gently satirical examination of flip sides of the same snobbery. The play is set in a Tea Room/Antique shop in a "fictional" Maine coastal resort.  Young lovers are impeded by strained relations between their families; hers, local and proud of their Old New England heritage and his, seasonal residents of considerable means and social stature.  Premiering at Broadway's Frazee Theatre in 1923, starring Ruth Gordon, the theme of the play resonated in Kennebunkport. That winter the Garrick Players returned to Newton quoting meaningful praise from their mentor Booth Tarkington.  "I consider the Garrick Players' performance of my play, "Tweedles" superior to the production which I directed on Broadway several season's ago."  The man from Indiana would encourage and support the ensemble until his death in 1946.  Annual Tarkington festivals drew crowds to see the Garrick Players and offered Tarkington an opportunity to see his work performed they way he had intended.

 Murder in the Red Barn, a melodrama performed during the summer of 1935 featured Bob's much younger sister, Florence Currier, in 2 roles; Jenny Bump and a gypsy child.  Flossie grew up in the Kennebunkport Playhouse working in the box office, helping with finances and often making appearances on stage. She studied at Julliard, traveled to Paris and became an international singing sensation.  In 1955, Jane Morgan returned to the Kennebunkport stage with a new name and a hit song, "Fascination". Nearly every season, she returned to appear at least once in glamorous Paris Couture gowns that became her trademark. Jane’s association with the Playhouse was crucial to its longevity.

 The Ogunquit Playhouse purchased a farm on route one for a new theatre in in 1937.  The Boothbay Playhouse was established in 1937. That same year, Bob Currier bought the Gideon Merrill farm on River Road, from the estate of Harrison Augustus Wells. It took him three years to finish the renovations of the barn.  The new Kennebunkport Playhouse opened July 2, 1940 Boasting 300 comfortable seats all with excellent views of the stage.  "The pine-paneled lobby is one of the finest and most picturesque in New England".  He claimed. 

The Playhouse was dark from 1942-1945.  Currier, having enlisted to do his part in World War II, procured entertainment for troops at Victorville Air Force Base in California. Playhouse patron, Booth Tarkington died on May 19, 1946, missing the re-opening of his beloved Kennebunkport Playhouse by only six weeks.

The 1949 season opened with Glass Menagerie.  After the cast party, long time Playhouse business manager, Dorothy Kent Manners passed away. Claudia closed the season.  Less than 4 hours after the curtain fell, the playhouse was engulfed in flames as the cast celebrated at Bob Currier's house just 25 yards away.  There was no one in the barn when the fire broke out but a few of the revelers were leaving the party at 3:30 am and saw what looked like a huge cloud of fog.  Suddenly it burst into flames.  The fire started in the rear of the barn.  Losses were reported to be $65,000.  Paintings and antiques loaned by community members were also lost.  State arson inspector, Lawrence Dolby of Saco, investigated but no cause was for the blaze was determined.

A new, old barn was moved from the Alfred E. Burnham farm in North Kennebunkport.  It was carefully dismantled and reassembled on the Currier property by local contractor, Arthur Hendrick.  The new theatre offered seating for 456 and opened, on time, July 5, 1950. 

The Playhouse was leased to Chester Doherty of New York and then to Richard Stride of Saco in 1953.  Currier was in an automobile accident at Cape Arundel that summer. His new station wagon was flipped on its roof and the Producer sustained injuries to his wrist.  Bob resumed control of the theatre in 1954.  The following year was a banner year at the box office, thanks to Jane Morgan’s two engagements in “Paris”, a play with musical score by Cole Porter.  The stage was enlarged to accommodate choreography common in big musical production numbers.  The theatre was also enlarged to provide room for more seats and a lobby was added to the theatre.

Competition for the summer theatergoers’ loyalty was vigorous.  The Ogunquit Playhouse presented traveling guest stars, well known from television or movies. The Kennebunkport Playhouse was primarily a resident ensemble company until the mid- fifties when stiff competition and Jane Morgan’s connections in the business precipitated a shift in Kennebunkport to featuring big name talent. Some of the stars made unreasonable demands for compensation and accommodations.  Currier was never entirely comfortable relinquishing artistic control of his productions.    He was also frustrated by what he perceived as anti-business sentiment in the town.  He became disillusioned with the struggle. In 1961 he placed a classified ad in Kennebunk Star that read, “FOR SALE – KENNEBUNKPORT PLAYHOUSE: Located in an insane Community”.  A writer from the Portland Press Herald noticed ad and interviewed Currier giving him an opportunity to vent his frustrations with characteristic candor.  The story was subsequently picked up by the United Press and Time/Life magazine sent a reporter and a photographer to further stir the pot.  Some townspeople were incensed.  Others felt that the publicity was healthy for the tourist town.  The story monopolized the editorial column in the local paper for months.   “75c gets you more than a billion readers in the Star”, the Editor boasted. Curriers final quote on the matter was, “This is an ideal town for neurotics. I’ll never leave here.” 

Another story that garnered a great deal of publicity for the Playhouse was a full page piece, in 1964, about two ghosts who were thought to reside in the old Merrill house. You can hear all the ghostly details at Barbara Barwise’s October 22nd program, Hauntings.

Finally, in 1965, Currier signed a lease with an option to purchase with Miriam (Mye) Eolis and Ken Gaston of New York.  The Playhouse ran the visiting stars formula under Eolis’ direction through 1968.  The theatre was dark for the 1969 season as the option to purchase was never exercised.

Dr. Mike Rossi and Bob Carley bought the Playhouse in 1970 but Currier retained ownership of the house. The stock ensemble venture was not a financial success and once again, new owners were sought.    Rossi and Carley leased the Playhouse to CCB Productions in 1971 with an option to purchase after the first season. Dorothy Chernuck, Dennis Cooney and Saul Braverman favored the traveling star formula for the theatre.  It was a good year and it seemed that under their direction the theatre may again be viable.  The night before their scheduled appointment to exercise the option to buy the theatre, October 29, 1971, the Playhouse burned to the ground ending the long and creative run of The Kennebunkport Playhouse.  The fire was investigated by the same State Fire Inspector as in 1949, Lawrence Dolby.  This time there was little doubt that the fire had been set.  An empty 2 gallon motor oil can was found in the charred remains that could not be identified by Currier or Cooney.  Robberies of summer homes that same night have led some to believe that the fire was set as a diversion.  Some efforts were made to revive the theatre but the sacrifices and dedication required to make such a venture fly were prohibitive.  Robert Currier was one of a kind.

Periodically the Society is contacted by alumni of the Kennebunkport Playhouse.  Tom Barnes, the set designer in 1960 and 1961 sent us all his original designs as well as scrapbooks, programs and photographs of his Kennebunkport summers.  Robert Patrick, now a successful playwright and screenwriter, was a staff member and actor during the summer of 1961.  He shares his experiences with uncommon eloquence.  Others who remember a season or two at the theatre, spend hours at the Schoolhouse, pouring through our many Playbills and looking for themselves in old publicity photos.  The impact the Kennebunkport Playhouse clearly had on their lives and the lives of the lucky audiences, has inspired this year’s exhibit at the Pasco Center. 

Kennebunkport Playhouse Remembered will celebrate almost 40 years of theatrical personalities both onstage and off.  Jane Morgan has graciously allowed us to display some of her glamorous gowns.  You can also see photographs of stars that performed, Playbills, newspaper articles, and set designs from 1960 and 1961.   Vignettes of several popular productions bring the magic of the theatre back to life.   Opening night celebration is June 10, 4-6 pm for members only.  The exhibit will be open to the public June 11 through Prelude 2005.

Sharon Cummins

This article was originally published in The Log, Kennebunkport Historical Society's quarterly publication.  Copyright 2001-2006 Sharon Cummins