Cape Playhouse & Cinema - Dennis


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In 1926, artist Raymond Moore and director Harold Winston leased the Barnstormers Theatre in Provincetown for ten weeks. Here they premiered the Winston-Moore Players, a group of stage actors from New York City. The company included William Collier, Doris Rankin, and May Collins.


Following their success in Provincetown, Moore and Winston set out to create their own theater in a more central location, where New York City actors and theater professionals could escape the city’s heat and gain experience before returning to Broadway and beyond. In 1927, The Hyannis Patriot wrote: “It is hoped to put on at least five new plays during the season, some of these to be tried out before a Cape audience, using these audiences for criticism and revision.”


The pair began working on building “The Little Cape Cod Theatre” as it was then known and purchased more than three acres of land from Barnabus C. Hall on Route 6A near Hope Lane in Dennis. 


In anticipation of the new theater, Raymond Moore opened his own one-act play titled “Great Moments” at the Idlehour Theatre on Main Street, in Hyannis, in March 1927. The play was about adolescent love and focused on a young man who “had read a great deal, thought a great deal, and felt a great deal, and for the first time in his life has slipped out from under his mother’s thumb.” The two stars were high school students, Henry Bearse of East Dennis and Matilda “Tilly” Carew of Chatham. Both had no prior professional acting experience. Moore stated that he was enthusiastic about the participation of young Cape Codders in his play and that he was eager to work with them more as “Junior Players” once his theater in Dennis opened, which he then announced would be named “The Cape Playhouse.” 


That same month, architect Cleon Throckmorton was hired to assist with construction of the new theater. Throckmorton had previously designed the Wharf Players’ Theatre in Provincetown. Funding the new theater was almost entirely reliant on the advance purchase of season tickets by Cape Codders and summer residents. Season passes were good for up-to nine performances and were sold for $8, $15, and $20. Equivalent to $126, $236, and $315 in today’s money. Moore and Winston regularly published articles in local newspapers, calling on residents to support the theater and embrace it as a community hub. 


When constructing the theater, the pair ultimately decided it would be cost and time effective to repurpose an extant building. They purchased a nearby vacant former Unitarian Meeting House, which they moved to their newly purchased plot of land. The c. 1810 Nobscusset Meeting House was taken down board-by-board and then rebuilt. The antique building formed the foyer, offices, and part of the 450-seat auditorium of the new theater.

Playbill for The Guardsman, 1927

The Playhouse’ first show, Franz Molnar’s “The Guardsman,” opened on July 4, 1927, to great success. Basil Rathbone and Violet Kemble Cooper starred in the first production. At the end of the season, theater manager Raymond Moore expanded his business, setting up headquarters in Hyannis. Moore intended to offer “first-class” performances during the winter months throughout the Cape to attract and maintain the interest of year-round residents. The Winter Company toured with performances of “Her Temporary Husband” staring Jane Burby, Evelyn Wade, and Ford Carter. The group was met with enthusiastic audiences as they visited five villages during November and December. 



Cape Playhouse, 1949

Ahead of the Playhouses’ second season, 98% of the inaugural year’s subscribers had renewed their season tickets. Harold Winston and Raymond Moore focused their attention on growing their Junior Players group, which presented their first play, “The Charm School” at Sears Memorial Hall in East Dennis on a late July Saturday evening. The hall was sold out to benefit the local Wesleyan Methodist Church. The crowd was delighted by the performance of the local young actors. The Yarmouth Register wrote: “…the large audience was greatly delighted by a performance representing a degree of perfection seldom attained by an amateur theatrical group. The young people taking part were adorable in talent and appearance…” Following a successful second season, which debuted stars such as Henry Fonda and Robert Montgomery, the theater incorporated as The Cape Playhouse, Inc. with Raymond Moore serving as president and temporarily as treasurer. 


John Barrymore and Bette Davis, 1930 - Yarmouth Register, Saturday, July 11, 1931; Page: 3

The Cape Playhouse quickly became known for its summer theater and introduced audiences to rising and established celebrities including: Janet Beecher, Peggy Wood, Laura Hope Crews, Bette Davis and Tom Powers. The list would later grow to include: Ginger Rogers, Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Olivia de Havilland, Butterfly McQueen, Ethel Barrymore, Kitty Carlisle, Gloria Vanderbilt, and even Betty White. The Playhouse is now the longest-running professional summer theater in the United States.  


Hyannis Patriot, Thursday, July 10, 1930; Page: 11

In November 1929, Raymond Moore purchased additional land adjoining the Playhouse from Annie F. Denninston, Benjamin F. Hall, and Francis T. Hall - expanding his plot to 27 acres. A cottage was built on site for the actors and one nearby was purchased for Moore. The new "Cape Playground" complex also contained a restaurant, office building, and machine shop. 


Exhibitors Herald-World, 1930

In March 1930, it was announced that Raymond Moore was constructing a 317-seat, one-screen moving picture theater adjacent to the Playhouse at an investment of $75,000. When the Cape Cinema opened in July 1930, the total cost was closer to $150,000. The new movie theater featured a more than 5,000 square foot hand-painted mural by Rockwell Kent and Jo Mielziner, said to be “the largest single canvas ever commissioned” at the cost of $22,000. It was designed by architects Alfred Easton Poor and Robert P. Rogers of New York and was modeled after a Centerville church. (Likely Our Lady of Victory) The new cinema opened just one day after the Cape Playhouse’s fourth season began. The first film shown was the documentary “With Byrd at the South Pole,” which chronicled Richard Byrd’s year-long journey to Antarctica from New York. Most notably, the Cape Cinema was first to premiere the Wizard of Oz on August 11, 1939, one day prior to the film’s world premiere. This was made possible by the Wicked Witch of the West herself, Margaret Hamilton, who was performing at the Cape Playhouse that summer and arranged for the location to be one of the test screen locations. The Cape Cinema still plays the Wizard of Oz in 35mm annually to commemorate the anniversary. 


Hyannis Patriot, Thursday, August 10, 1939; Page: 10

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Sources

  • “The Winston-Moore Players Provincetown,” Yarmouth Register, Saturday, July 03, 1926; Page: 7
  • “The Little Cape Cod Theatre,” Hyannis Patriot, Thursday, February 17, 1927; Page: 5
  • “An Open Letter From The Winston-Moore Players to Cape Residents,” Yarmouth Register, Saturday, February 26, 1927; Page: 2
  • “The Cape Playhouse at Dennis,” Hyannis Patriot, Thursday, March 03, 1927; Page: 14
  • “The Cape Playhouse at Dennis: Land Purchased and Architect’s Plans Now Ready,” Hyannis Patriot, Thursday, March 10, 1927; Page: 9
  • “The Cape Playhouse at Dennis,” Yarmouth Register, Saturday, April 09, 1927; Page: 3
  • “Opening of Cape Playhouse,” Yarmouth Register, Saturday, July 09, 1927; Page 1
  • “Cape Playhouse Winter Company” Advertisement, Yarmouth Register, Saturday, November 26, 1927; Page: 5
  • “Glenn Hunter and Peggy Wood Headliners, with Cape Players,” Hyannis Patriot, Thursday, May 03, 1928; Page: 10
  • “Junior Players Give ‘The Charm School,’” Yarmouth Register, Saturday, July 28, 1928; Page: 3
  • “The Cape Playhouse Incorporated: Raymond Moore is President,” Hyannis Patriot, Thursday, September 27, 1928; Page: 1
  • “Cape Playhouse Bulletin,” Yarmouth Register, Saturday, December 22, 1928; Page: 7
  • “Real Estate Transfers,” Hyannis Patriot, Thursday, November 21, 1929; Page: 11
  • “New Theatre at Dennis,” Yarmouth Register, Saturday, March 08, 1930; Page: 5
  • “Mural in Theatre is Largest of Kind,” Yarmouth Register, Saturday, June 21, 1930; Page: 7
  • “The Cape Playhouse and The Cape Cinema,” Yarmouth Register, Saturday, June 28, 1930; Page: 8
  • "The Cape Playground; the Story of the Cape Playhouse and the Cape Cinema," 1930
  • Get to Know the Cape Cinema (https://www.capecinema.com/our-history)
  • America’s Most Famous Summer Theater (https://www.capeplayhouse.com/about-us)