Betty White performed in the play "Critic's Choice" alongside her future husband, Allen Ludden, in 1962 at Lakewood Theatre. Credit: Courtesy of Lakewood Theatre

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The first season at the Lakewood Theater in Madison kicked off in 1901 on the grounds of an amusement park on the shores of Lake Wesserunsett, built by the operators of a trolley car line between Skowhegan and Madison.

Founded by Bangor native Herbert Swett, it was one of the very first “summer stock” theaters, entertaining tourists and locals alike during the summer season.

Lakewood is still going strong 122 years later as the longest-running summer stock theater company in the country. And for many decades, it was considered the preeminent tryout spot for new plays and musicals bound for Broadway, and for actors about to break into the big time in theater, film and television.

The list of both established and future movie, Broadway and TV stars and Oscar, Emmy and Tony winners that took to the stage in the summers at Lakewood is long and illustrious, spanning multiple eras of Hollywood and the early days of television.

One of the first people who would soon become a household name to perform at Lakewood was none other than Humphrey Bogart, who was in the 1928 and 1929 seasons there before making his feature film debut in 1930 in “Up the River” — coincidentally, directed by famous Mainer John Ford. Bogart later returned for two more seasons at Lakewood in 1931 and 1935, narrowly missing a chance to perform during the same season at Groucho Marx, who made his sole Lakewood appearance in 1934.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, many established names would appear at Lakewood. There were stars from the silent era of film, including Ethel Barrymore in 1940, sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish in 1956 and Gloria Swanson in 1959. And there were actors at the tops of their games, like Vincent Price in 1940, Margaret Hamilton, a.k.a the Wicked Witch of the West from 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz,” in 1941, and Jessica Tandy, who appeared at Lakewood in 1951, a few years after winning a 1948 Tony Award for originating the role of Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Starting in 1960, theater goers could reliably see both established and up and coming stars in Lakewood shows for the next two decades, performing alongside Maine and other New England actors. In 1960, screen legend Joan Fontaine appeared alongside newcomers Buck Henry and Tom Poston, years before either would become famous. In 1962, Tallulah Bankhead appeared in the play “Here’s Today” in the same season that Betty White was in the play “Critic’s Choice,” alongside her future husband, Allen Ludden.

In 1964, Lloyd Bridges, then the star of TV’s “Sea Hunt,” appeared in the Lakewood production of the play “Happy Anniversary” with his son, 14-year-old Jeff Bridges, who later would become the major movie star we know today. Bangor historian Dick Shaw went to see the production and met Lloyd Bridges — though he wasn’t particularly interested in meeting teenage Jeff.

“Lloyd forgot to return my sister’s ball point pen, which he signed autographs with, and when he came back over to our table to return it, my sister, by then in her early teens, almost melted under the table,” Shaw recalled. “Lloyd was tall, blond and every inch the movie star.”

Every year between 1966 and 1978 there were notable names on the Lakewood stage each summer. Broadway royalty made appearances, including a teenage Bernadette Peters in 1966, future EGOT winner Rita Moreno in 1971 and Carol Channing in 1976. Abe Vigoda performed one season in 1970, just a few years before he would appear in “The Godfather.” That same year, William Shatner appeared in “The Tender Trap” at Lakewood, one year after the original series of “Star Trek” ended.

1976 was quite a year for Lakewood. In addition to Carol Channing’s cabaret show, actor Brian Dennehy, 1940s matinee idol Van Johnson, comedy icon Phyllis Diller and up-and-coming star John Travolta all appeared that season.

One year later, Travolta would star in the mega blockbuster “Saturday Night Fever.” You can still see Travolta’s signature on the wall in Lakewood’s dressing room. Some Lakewood actors say they kiss it for good luck before a show.

By the late 1970s, the era of big stars and Broadway talent at Lakewood had largely ended. The theater’s future was unclear until 1985, when a local theater troupe, the Cornville Players, moved in and produced plays that summer. The following year, producing company Curtain Up Enterprises was formed, and one of the founders of that company, Jeffrey Quinn, still runs Lakewood with his wife, Susan, while their daughter Katherine runs the adjacent restaurant.

Since the late 1980s, Lakewood has performed nine shows each year between May and September, drawing on a deep well of local and regional talent. It also has a youth theater camp and a popular on-site restaurant. The era of Hollywood and Broadway stars in Somerset County may be in the past, but the legacy of summer stock theater lives at Lakewood.

Lakewood Theater’s 2023 season kicks off on May 25 with a production of the comedy “Final Appearance.”

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.