Above: The Hampton Players cast of “Harvey,” 1957.
Courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society.
If the early history of amateur dramatics on the Seacoast proves anything, it’s that Shakespeare was right: all the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Literally. It’s hard to imagine that the region in the early 20th century could have accommodated one more amateur theatrical company without bursting its dramatic seams. Granges, fraternal organizations, and women’s church societies—all in plentiful supply—were the primary providers of plays, held at the town and grange halls and often paired with oyster suppers and dancing. These entertainments grew in popularity as, beginning in 1897, the street railway’s daisy chain of horseless transportation made them easily available to a wider audience. In Hampton, the stage in the old town hall was ground zero for theatricals put on by local residents, while at Hampton Beach hundreds of amateur citizen-thespians treaded the sand instead of the boards by participating in the elaborate historical pageants held there.
This was also the era of the “by-gosh drama,” an immensely popular subspecies of theatre notorious for its caricatures of country people as bumpkins and rubes. Fast forward a couple of decades, and the tables were turned as rural but educated people, like a young Dartmouth graduate named Henry Bailey Stevens, began to take offense. For his part, Stevens wrote plays lampooning the “city rubes” who ventured into the country. He also nurtured the idea of encouraging the “self-entertainment potentialities” of rural communities, and in 1929, as the executive secretary of the University of New Hampshire Extension Service, he introduced a state-wide one-act play competition for amateur groups in towns of less than 5,000 population. The farm bureaus in each county sponsored preliminary contests, whose winners went on to compete for the state title during Farmers’ and Homemakers’ Week, a farm life extravaganza held every August in Durham. Over the life of the contest, which ended in the latter years of the Depression, Rockingham County averaged 10 entries per year, mainly from the local granges. The town of Hampton, although qualified under the rules, never fielded an entry, but the lack of a locally-organized amateur group, dedicated solely to theatre, was nearing an end.
Helen LaRoux and Paul Harris in the Hampton Players production of “Another Language,” Hampton High School auditorium, November 4, 1949. Courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society.
During World War II, the massive mobilization of men and resources, and gas and food rationing, had put a halt to most “am-dram” productions. Then in 1946, a group of amateur players performed Ayn Rand’s three-act comedy-drama, The Night of January 16th, in the auditorium of the Hampton Academy and High School. Presented under the auspices of The Men’s Club of the First Congregational Church and directed by newcomer Foster L. Greene, the play was deemed a great success, literally “fostering” the idea of putting together a group to perform on a regular basis.
Foster and his wife Betsy, transplants from Vermont, where they had been active in a theatre group known as the Fletcher Farm Players, are credited with organizing the first meeting of the Hampton Players in 1947. With eleven members in attendance, Foster was named chairman, John Creighton treasurer, and Ruth Nelson secretary. Betsy Greene, Chester “Chet” Grady (a former professional stage actor and singer), Eva and Wiear Rowell, John Brooks, Ada Perkins, Priscilla MacCallum, and Dr. Harold Pierson filled out the roster of original members. In time, familiar names like Lawrence Hackett, Clara and Floyd Gale, Russ and Ada Merrill, and many others, would be added to the list. The Players were a diverse group, with business owners, homemakers, writers, servicemen, a lawyer, a dentist, a psychic, a selectman, Harvard grads, married couples and families, all drawn together by their shared passion for playacting. With a formal structure now in place, the Players held monthly meetings and, in 1951, legally incorporated.
Their first play under the Hampton Players name was Ghost Train, directed by Foster Greene, sponsored by the Hampton Kiwanis, and presented at the high school auditorium in March 1948. While the auditorium was their home stage, over the years they also gave performances at the Hotel Wentworth, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Portsmouth Air Force Base, and the Hampton Playhouse. During the height of their activities in the 1950s and 1960s, the Players staged from two to four plays each season, mainly as benefit shows for the Kiwanis and other local organizations like the Lions Club, PTA, and Hampton Monday Club. To further their internal interests, monthly meetings included stagecraft seminars, skits, and readings, and, at an annual picnic, they awarded “Oscars” to their most talented members. Lamie’s Tavern on Lafayette Road and Chet Grady’s home on High Street became their favorite group hangouts.
Behind-the-scenes crew on the set of the Hampton Players production of “Champagne Complex,” Portsmouth Air Force Base, 1957. (L-r) Earl Anthony (director), Betsy Greene (set designer), Foster Greene (stage manager), George Leoutsakos (lighting), Marge Pierson (props). Courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society.
Seacoast one-act play competition
In 1950, the amateur theatre group from Rye spearheaded the creation of the Seacoast One-Act Play Competition, which for years was held in the Rye Town Hall—since the 1880s, the grand dame of the local theatrical venues—with later competitions held at the Hampton Playhouse and Exeter Town Hall. Along with Rye and Hampton, groups from Hampton Falls, Exeter, Portsmouth, Amesbury, Dover, and Berwick, Maine participated.
In 1955 the Hampton Players won Best Play with their production of Beams of Our House. Members garnered the Best Actor award six times: Foster Greene (1951), Ken Ryan (1954), Chester Grady (1955 and 1956), Alex Finan (1957 and 1958); and Best Actress three times: Aloyse Doyle in 1952 and Betsy Greene and Ada Simmons in 1955.
Players in the big time
A native of Newburyport, Massachusetts, Robert Duggan appeared in the Players’ 1955-1956 productions of My Three Angels and The Youngest Shall Ask, and he directed their 1956 production of the hit Broadway play Male Animal. The following year he was in Hollywood, with a small role on the Jack Benny Show. He went on to work in other tv series, such as The Twilight Zone, The Fugitive, All In The Family, and The Jeffersons, and in a number of films, including The Invaders (1967), Cruising (1980), and The Dogs of Hell (1983).
(L-r) Russell Merrill, Chester Grady, and Mary Fogarty of the Hampton Players rehearse at Grady’s High St. home, c. 1950. Courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society.
In 1946, twenty-four-year-old Mary Fogarty, formerly of Manchester, New Hampshire, began writing community interest articles and theatre reviews for the Beachcomber and Hampton Union newspapers. In 1949 she made her acting and directing debut with the Hampton Players in A Murder Has Been Arranged and Another Language. In 1950 she played the lead in the Players’ production of Kind Lady, directed their production of Fumed Oak, and moved into the professional ranks with a supporting role in the Hampton Playhouse production of Rain. By 1952 she had moved to New York City to pursue a fulltime acting career.
During her 60 years as an actor, Fogarty worked on Broadway and off, in films, and on television. She played regional and summer theatres, returning to the Hampton Playhouse for the 1981 and 1983 seasons. She is remembered for originating the role of the cantankerous Ouiser Boudreaux in the 1987 off-Broadway production of Steel Magnolias. Her last role was in the 2009 thriller Sordid Things, two years before her death at age 90.
For decades, and always for a worthy cause, the Hampton Players had entertained Seacoast audiences with performances of some of the most popular contemporary plays—Anastasia, Harvey, Sabrina Fair, The Curious Savage, and Bell, Book and Candle—as well as children’s plays like Winnie the Pooh, Cinderella, and The Elves and the Shoemaker. But with the sparkly new medium of television drawing audiences, the lack of a dedicated, funded performance space, and the looming certainty of retirements, old age, and death to chip away their numbers, the organization didn’t last much past the mid-1970s. Yet none of those factors can diminish the short but sweet life of Hampton’s only amateur dramatic corporation. The Hampton Players had provided an artistic, creative outlet and training ground for a hundred or so stage-happy grownups and a few aspiring young actors, and had bonded the community together as only live amateur theatre can do.
Originally published in the Hampton Union on September 13, 2019.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. “Hampton History Matters,” a collection of new and previously published essays, is available at amazon.com and Marelli’s Market. Contact Cheryl at email@example.com or lassitergang.com.