A look back at the Red Barn Theatre on the Turnpike
By Glenn Parker, Special Contributor
This is an article in an occasional series about important events or things from Westborough's past.
Westborough – For 20 years, starting with its opening day, July 2, 1938, the Red Barn Theatre, located at the intersection of Routes 9 and 30, offered a different play every week for a 26-week season. The Barn entertained summer stock followers, hired resident extras and service people. The actors and actresses stayed at Crossways, Waite's Twilight Cabins or Dumont's Cabins and ate at local restaurants. The theater was advertised in the New York Times theater section with 89 other summer theaters along the East Coast known as the Straw Hat Circuit. A new cast of stars traveled to each venue on a weekly basis throughout the summer season.
Louise Galloway Barrett, a well-known Broadway personality from Brookfield, Mass. opened the Red Barn as its first producer of repertory summer-theater. The Barn featured well-known plays as the “Boy Friend,” Rodgers & Hart's musical “Babes in Arms,” and “South Pacific,” with the lead role played by Christopher Lynn Calloway, the daughter of the iconic jazz vocalist and band leader Cab Calloway.
After Barrett died in 1939, Robert Daggett became manager in 1940 until 1957.
During the 40s and 50s there was an active resident company of summer stock players such as Wendell Corey, who was born in Dracut, Mass. He began his career in summer stock before moving onto Broadway, motion pictures and TV. John Forsyth started his career as a baseball announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers as well as acting at the Barn and in Broadway productions. He did movies from 1944 to 2000 and several long-running TV series from 1957 to 1991 including “Charlie's Angels” and “Dynasty.” Werner Klemperer, who later played Colonel Klink on the CBS hit “Hogan's Heroes” and won Emmys in 1967-68 for his portrayal of a bumbling, inept commandant of “Stalag 13,” a German prison camp, was another performer. Todd Griffin, another Red Barn actor, became a resident of the house for an eight-week stay of summer stock. He later worked between 1952 and 1961 in New York City at NBC in “Operation Neptune,” a live science fiction program for kids.
In 1946 the property was sold to William and Eileen McCormick. Performing actors and actresses began staying at the tourist cottages along the Turnpike. McCormick also established a pedigree dog kennel as well as show dogs.
In 1947 as part of the summer theatre circuit the first staging of the musical revue of “Bye-Bye Brevoort” by Eudora Welty, was performed at the Red Barn Theatre.
The Red Barn gained such notoriety and popularity that in 1950 the McCormicks were forced to protect the name. They successfully obtained a writ to prevent Robert Daggett from using the name “Red Barn Theatre” for his summer-stock productions in other theaters in Worcester County.
In May of 1958 an early morning fire destroyed the Red Barn Theatre. Fire raced through the 1760s barn leveling it while firefighters could only save the house next door. The barn, being a three-season theater, was considered the third most popular summer stock theater on the East Coast with the longest running season. Fourteen cast members and 25 part-time employees became unemployed. All the stage props, costumes and antique theatre posters were destroyed. Owner J. Crystoff estimated the loss of the building and contents at $50,000. Director Robert Daggett would not return as theater manager for the coming season.
The fire was reported at about 2:15 a.m. and called in by Walter Katunas, owner of the Fox Lounge, while he and friends were at the Westboro Diner.
A fire investigator for the Massachusetts State Police conducted an investigation that revealed the cause of the fire to be a faulty refrigeration unit in the kitchen.
In an effort to continue summer-theater in Westborough, new manager Sid Sawyer and his wife were able to lease the former Strand Theatre on Summer Street. In June the relocated theater reopened for a five-week season. In the meantime, Friends of the Red Barn Theatre, a fund-raising organization, was formed to help rebuild the theater.
For more on this story, visit communityadvocate.com/localhistory
Glenn Parker is a former member of the Westborough Historical Commission and the author of “A Cornfield Meet -? A history of the trolleys of Westborough.” He is also the former Westborough Chief of Police, retiring from active duty in 2012 after 42 years with the department.
Parker and his wife Mary Ellen have four children and six grandchildren.
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