John Whelan: This Time, Chatham Is The Loser

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love

It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of

What the world needs now is love, sweet love

No not just for some but for everyone”

 

Way back in 1965, Jackie DeShannon had her biggest hit with this Burt Bacharach-Hal David song. It reached number seven on the pop charts, further enhancing the Bacharach/David duo as popular songwriting greats. While I am sure that most everyone agrees with the title sentiment, that is not the reason I am leading my article with this song. It’s actually Hal David’s second verse that I’ve been thinking of as I consider the Monomoy Theatre situation. The song goes on:

 

“Lord, we don’t need another mountain,

There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb

There are oceans and rivers enough to cross,

Enough to last till the end of time.”

 

And so it is with Chatham. We don’t need another high-end development. There are mega-mansions enough to buy. And we don’t need another retail development. Each winter, we have more than enough closed storefronts. And we certainly don’t want a 40B development forced upon us. What we do need is what was there already, a wonderful summer theater.

The Monomoy Theatre had its origins in the 1930s. The artist Harold Dunbar had moved to Chatham in 1919. Dunbar was a fine artist and had a wonderful imagination. In his 1994 book, “A History of the Monomoy Theatre,” Robert Hannon Davis wrote that Dunbar, although very creative, was often impractical. He was nearly always broke, and offered painting lessons to help support himself and his wife. Davis goes on to note that Harold Dunbar drove a bright yellow car which was decorated with painted flowers. He named his small sailboat “Ivory Soap” and often commented that it floats. Dunbar would paint anyone or anything for a small fee.

He was one of the founders of a community theater company which later became the Chatham Drama Guild. The group was formed in 1931 with 15 members. Early productions were staged in both the Methodist and Congregation churches in Chatham as well as the American Legion Hall on School Street and the original Orpheum Theater.

The property at 776 Main St. was originally developed as a retail and residential site in 1859. The right-hand side of the double house was Washington Taylor’s Country Store. The bay window was the display area. By 1880, Taylor had also added a barn which is now the front part of the theater. That barn was built in the post and beam style and would appear to be over 200 years old. Washington Taylor left the store to his son, Washington Taylor, Jr., better known as “Washy.” Washy was a legendary character in Chatham and he owned the Wayside Inn at one point. Washy sold the property in 1922, and in 1925 it became a toy factory. Chatham resident Stella Gill carved and whittled small wooden windmills for the tourist trade.

Stella did sell a few of her creations on the premises, but her business was mostly wholesale. She produced hundreds of little windmills that supplied retailers all over the Cape and beyond.

Toy windmills proved to be a fad, and Stella was out of business in a couple of years. With a series of owners, the toy factory continued until 1930. The Great Depression was particularly hard on Chatham and the toy factory lay dormant. It was often said that Harold Dunbar had great ideas for other people’s money. In what Robert Hannon Davis describes as a “typically impulsive move,” Dunbar bought the toy factory in 1934 and refashioned it as a community arts center. Predictably, Dunbar did not have the resources to sustain the project and the property was back for sale in 1936. Various summer theater groups used the theater and, during the off-season, the local drama group put on its productions in the theater despite the lack of heat. Those performances went on for the next 40 years. Audiences wore heavy coats and gloves to bear the cold while the actors were shivering on stage.

Mary B. Winslow purchased the Guildhouse, as the theater was known, in 1938. She worked hard to improve the physical plant and to improve the quality of the productions. Mary Winslow was a hands-on owner and made many of the improvements herself. She renamed the Guildhouse the Monomoy Theatre. The theater got better and better. The Monomoy closed in 1942 because of World War II. It reopened for the season of 1948. Mary Winslow died in 1957 and the “For Sale” sign went up once more.

This time, Elizabeth Baker, whose husband, John C. Baker, was president of Ohio University, purchased the theater. Thus, the long association with Ohio University and its drama department. Christopher Lane had taught at Ohio University and he became the director at Monomoy in 1957. Alan Rust had been a student in the graduate program at Ohio University and succeeded Lane. He has been the artistic director for 38 years. Sadly, Ohio University is no longer connected to the Monomoy, nor is the Hartt School-University of Hartford. And now the property is under agreement to no one connected to the theater.

Oscar Hammerstein coined the phrase “cockeyed optimist” in “South Pacific,” and often I have been called just that. Yes, I am still optimistic that the Monomoy Theatre will survive. Perhaps my optimism stems from Debby Ecker’s Jan. 19 letter to The Chronicle. In it, Debby referred to the Huntington Theater in Boston which had also been for sale recently. In Boston, the developer purchased the property and has proposed a commercial development contiguous with the theater. It will hold the theater and a retail space and some one- and two-bedroom apartments. Chatham would be well served by just such an arrangement here. The Boston situation is too good to be true since that developer gave the the theater the deed to its property. I don’t expect our secret buyer to be as generous, but a plan to preserve the Monomoy Theatre as part of further development of the property would be wonderful. Use of the newly raised funds as compensation might help make that possible. I have often written of the town of Chatham being the beneficiary of good deeds and hard work by folks here in town. The Orpheum, the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center, the Atwood House, the Eldredge Public Library, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, the Caleb Nickerson Homestead and others come to mind. The secrecy surrounding the potential buyer makes me quite wary. In our case, loss of the Monomoy Theatre will be a genuine loss of a significant cultural asset of the town. And should that come to pass, this time, Chatham is the loser.