The Millpond Playhouse
Christopher Morley’s intersection with the history of the Roslyn War Memorial Building, the structure which currently houses The Bryant Library, is most marked by his involvement when it was known as The Millpond Playhouse. Though it had previously been known as the Theatre of the Four Seasons, the building’s most well-known era as a performance space began in 1940 under the direction of David Lowe. In her Morley biography Three Hours for Lunch, Helen Oakley describes his involvement in his “second theatrical venture”, the first being the Rialto Theatre in Hoboken:
"Among the many uses Morley had for the funds amassed by having a novel on the bestseller list [Kitty Foyle] was the backing of a second theatrical venture in Roslyn, located as Chris was pleased to notice, on East Broadway which gave him a chance to gloat he would have plays now on Broadway."
"The theater of the Four Seasons transformed the old War Memorial (World War I) building into a workable house, with seats for about two hundred in the large auditorium. The stage was adequate, with some room behind for scenery and a passage for the performers, but the dressing rooms were on the lower level reached by way of a trap door. In the late Thirties, it attracted the attention of the New York theatrical world, especially producer David Lowe."
"With Morley already interested and Cleon Throckmorton again available, it wasn't long before the project was given a complete face-lifting. Taken over by this experienced trio, Lowe, Morley and Throckmorton, it was renamed The Millpond Playhouse and turned into a training and tryout showcase, soon to become a repertory theater, with a live-in group of permanent players. For it, Christopher Morley made a lengthy three-act dramatization of Trojan Horse. This was the book of which he was most proud and he enjoyed redoing it for the stage. He also enjoyed acting in it, and frequently played that part of Uncle Pan -- Pandarus, who arranged the assignations for the lovers Troilus and Cressida. On June 30th, 1940, Chris Morley had taken part in a benefit performance of Thornton Wilder's Our Town in Roslyn, to great applause. The applause rang sweet and he seized the chance to embark on a now-and-then theatrical career. "
"The young people who formed the permanent company took their cue from Chris, and plunged into the project with total enjoyment. Emanuel Shipow, an aspiring actor from Indiana, called his engagement at the Millpond “the happiest time of my life.” On a return visit in 1972, he relived his and his companions’ experience starting with his interview in New York with David Lowe."
"At that time Lowe was the producer-director and “Christopher Morley of course the backer of the theatre, actor, and all around interested person.” During the interview, Shipow let slip that he played the violin. Instantly all ears were pricked and he had his foot in the door: “I was asked to come out to the theater because I played the violin, and Christopher Morley played the violin. and David Lowe played the violin. He was invited out to see The Trojan Horse, after which he met Chris who, as always with young people, was “very gracious, very kindly -- a wonderful man.”
"The so-called “nucleus” company which Manny (now Dr.) Shipow joined, lived at Valentine House, a big building with room for the twenty or thirty members, but not always adequately heated. The endured in happy squalor, dormitory-style, and sometimes robbed the theatre itself of coal to heat their quarters. Their “crew boss: at that time was Jeff Chandler, who cared not for being cold. “The heck with it,” he said, “We’re going to get warm one night and have hot water!” Let the audience shiver, he decided, as there were evenings when the cast outnumbered the viewers. But David Lowe saw it differently -- the paying customer was his principal concern. (Customer, in the singular!)"
"On one historic night curtain went up for a solitary spectator; the play was “Ghost Train,” and the whole audience, terrifyingly, was David Lowe. On Another wild night of crisis, Chris Morley learned that Broadway theatrical magnate, Lee Schubert himself, was planning to attend. Chris went round to check the box office where Edith Hay was supposed to sell tickets and write publicity. Miss Hay reported that so far there had been no tickets sold. “Get on the phone, ordered Chris, “and fill the house!” This, she said, was not easy to do as by that time the local people had either seen the show, or didn't like the Morley plays. Morley’s local popularity, in the forties, fluctuated all the way up and down the scale from total scorn, through apathetic indifference, to wide-eyed adulation. Miss Hay was among those who saw his lesser side, and considered him “a great phony”. But she went to work that day and rounded up a respectable audience so that Mr. Schubert would be duly impressed by the production’s success. Next day, the box office records showed” about 150 seats filled free, one ticket sold for cash -- to Mr. Schubert."
"People all over Roslyn Village were aware of the theater in their midst whether they attended the plays or not. It was impossible to overlook. “I remember once,” said Roy Moger in his history of Roslyn, “during those years being startled to find a number of men and women clad in Grecian robes strolling through Roslyn Park. I suppose they were enjoying an intermission during a dress rehearsal of a Greek play.” The park in Roslyn
centers on a good-sized pond known variously as the Millpond from which the theater took its name, or the Duck Pond from the enormous number of wild ducks that found it an inviting feeding station. Apprentice actors living beside the pond found life a perpetual picnic in spite of poverty and the trailing end of the Depression. Their housekeeper was a German woman who taught tennis and cooked; she saw to it that they ate well. Also when they had the price (35 or 50 cents) they would go down to the hotel for a hearty meal of roast beef and cheese and pie. There were all kinds of larks, including midnight forays into the countryside and clandestine exploration of the North Shore's millionaire estates."
"Christopher watched with some friendly envy. He was of another generation, the ginger in his hair liberally sprinkled with salt. He was the patron now, distributing largess, and giving the youngsters a treat. He might send the entire cast out for dinner at Carl Werner's Blue Spruce Inn, footing the bill though he himself was not in the merry company. Once he and Helen took Manny Shipow and Andrea Duncan -- Isadora Duncan’s niece -- for a day’s outing, driving them all around Long Island ending at one of the North Shore seafood restaurants. The younger man was naïve -- “I remember. I didn't know what to order in the restaurant and he ordered for me -- I had scallops for the first time in my life.” In recalling it, Dr. Shipow added, “This was so long ago, but I remember it vividly because of his warmth. It was wonderful being with him and his wife, too, the four of us.” Helen liked the theatre and its people, it was nice to have Chris involved in something so near his home."
Though the reasons for the Millpond Playhouse's short run of four seasons was not easily found in our research, the reason is most likely the lack of profitability. We do know that the theatre's stage and audience area is now occupied by the Bryant Room, which houses Bryant Library Local History Collection, and the Glannon Room, which is now the library's primary meeting space.
The recent launch of our Christopher Morley Portal brings four new digital exhibits to our site, including a multi-gallery collection of photos and ephemera related to The Millpond Playhouse.
We are also in the process of installing a real-life exhibit in the library’s main display cabinet so that patrons can enjoy this unique piece of local history as they return to the library for in-person visits.
Have you seen our past exhibits onsite at The Bryant Library? Tell us what you think by dropping us a line through our contact page, or emailing email@example.com!