Once upon a time, at this time of year, Norwich had the most wonderful summer theater in Connecticut. It was in the old Masonic Temple that is no more.
There were 900 seats, and on that stage, for some five or six years, a fellow named Herb Kneeter put together some of the greatest Broadway shows with Hollywood’s biggest actors and actresses.
They needed a press photographer, and I was hired. Looking back, it was one of the most wonderful jobs I ever had. I met so many celebrities at a time when movies were much more popular than they are today. Of course, they were black and white movies, except for the occasional movie, such as “Gone with the Wind,” that was done in color. But, each week there would be a different star and sometimes two or three hired theater people from New York. But other than that, was the summer theater staff.
Behind the Masonic Temple was a big, red barn where they built the sets for the plays. It was no easy job. Every week, the local cast had to learn their parts in a new play, but more than that, they had to construct the sets, and some of those plays had four or five different sets.
Herb Kneeter was a brilliant theater man, and he had one set designer who really knew what he was doing. He had one very demanding director who managed the local cast. Then, of course, there was publicity and ticket sales. All in all, he made it work.
What I liked most about it was I got to meet and visit with so many great stars. Veronica Lake was perhaps the prettiest blonde in Hollywood, and I had dinner with her at Mrs. Leary’s Cottage Dairy. Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion from “The Wizard of Oz,” was not at all what I thought he would be. The week he was in Norwich, he was grumpy and profane. I remember that was the week they opened the Loew’s Poli Theater, and Frank Sinatra came by train all the way from Hollywood to open that theater, which no longer exists.
When we arrived in Norwich with Frank Sinatra, Bert Lahr was staying at the Norwich Inn, and I took pictures of the two giants, Bert Lahr and Frank Sinatra, talking in the garden at the Norwich Inn.
Some of the big stars were better than others. There was a man named Buster Keaton. He was a great pantomime actor from the days of silent films. He was so wonderful. He spent literally hours talking and working with the amateur local cast. He was as funny as Charlie Chaplin, who, like Keaton, was a big star of silent movies.
Buster Keaton had a trick that he performed on stage that baffled everybody. When the show was over, the cast always came back on stage. First the full cast bowed to the audience, and the curtain came down. The next time the curtain went up, the featured actors were on stage and the curtain dropped one more time. When it was raised for the third time, the star of the show was on stage alone.
Well, Buster Keaton had them rig a trapeze behind the curtain, and when he, the star, was on stage alone, the curtain would go up, and he would bow to the crowd who applauded and cheered. Then they would drop the curtain. He would grab the trapeze with both arms, and they would pull the curtain up immediately, and he would be gone. He would ride up the back of the curtain, and so he took four or five curtain calls and had the whole house roaring with laughter when the curtain came down for the last time.
There was a movie star who played in all the horror films of days gone by. His name was Peter Lorre. Very often, after the show, which usually broke around 11 at night , the star would have no transportation, and I would drive him down to the Cottage Dairy, which later became Dick’s Brax’s Prime Steer.
So, Peter Lorre and I one night sat in a booth at the Cottage Dairy. We each had a hamburger and a milk shake. The one thing I noticed about Peter, nobody asked for his autograph. When I had dinner with Veronica Lake, Nina Foch, Angela Lansbury and Gypsy Rose Lee, we couldn’t eat supper. So many people would crowd the table for autographs.
I said to Peter Lorre, “Nobody bothers you for an autograph.”
In that very sinister voice of his, with a half smile, he said, “They are afraid of me.” And I am sure he was right.
I got to meet Charles Laughton, John Garfield, and my favorite of all favorites was Burl Ives. He was such a gentleman and such a great actor. I do believe that his role in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, was the most outstanding. He played the part of Big Daddy, but he was a sensitive man, a wonderful actor, talented singer, and as kind and generous as any of the theater stars that ever played Norwich.
There was another good feature about the Norwich Summer Theater. It attracted celebrities from all over New England. This morning’s picture is of two very different women. Left is Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque stripper whose life was featured in the movie “Gypsy.” In the right of the picture is the wife of the publisher of “Life” and “Time” magazines, an American diplomat, Clare Booth Luce. In the center, that giant who make the Norwich Summer Theater work, Herb Kneeter.
It was not unusual to have senators, governors and occasionally movie stars come up from New York City just to see a show.
As I look back, I think of what lasting memories I have of stars that most people only saw on the black and white screen, and I got to meet and know in person. I tried every week to have someone take a picture of me with the stars, and so I do have quite a collection. Regrettably, looking at that collection today, most of those stars are now gone, but I still see them occasionally on television on Turner Classic Movies.
The history of the Masonic Temple in Norwich is quite colorful. The Barbershoppers would sing there every year, and the Norwich Players would have an annual show. Helena Crandall would have her dance recitals, and occasionally NFA would have some major concert, musician or lecturer speak at the temple, and the 900 seats would be filled with NFA students.
But the history of the temple was flawed, because it was built in the center of Mohegan Royal Burial Ground. In fact, the land the temple sat on held the remains of many Mohegan chiefs, including the famous Uncas. So, perhaps removing the temple, which today would not qualify for the fire codes that are enforced, made things right with the world. The sacred ground is now what it was intended to be, the Royal Mohegan Burial Ground.
The Masonic Temple, after years of service to Norwich, lived a rich, full life but could never have been used again, because it violated just about every fire law on the books.
The Norwich Summer Theater, when downtown Norwich was more alive, when there was no television, and live theater was performed in auditoriums without air-conditioning, was once so popular.
Bill Stanley’s prize-winning, latest book, “The 9-Mile Square,” is available at Lawrence & Memorial and Backus Hospital gift shops, all branches of the Dime Bank, Chelsea Groton, Eastern Federal, People’s bank, Johnson’s Flowers & Gift shop in Norwich, Wonderland Books in Putnam, or credit card by calling 1-800-950-0331 .