From the Historian: Actress Cloris Leachman, an ER connection
The recent death of Cloris Leachman (Jan. 27) called to mind the years when Broadway actors came to East Rochester to perform in summer theater.
It all began in 1950 when the East Rochester Fire Department sponsored the Famous Actors Summer Playhouse, one of the earliest summer stock theaters in the state. Eight shows were presented in the high school auditorium on East Avenue.
Well-known actors had the lead roles and often stayed at the Green Lantern Inn in Fairport. Supporting actors of the permanent summer company frequently stayed at the homes of village residents. Local young people served as apprentices, including high schooler Barry Tuttle. While Barry served as an apprentice in the early years, he gradually took on more responsibilities as stage manager and later technical director. He also acted in a couple of the plays.
The Famous Artists series ran from 1950 to 1953. Actors who performed included Nancy Walker, Olivia De Havilland, Edward Everett Horton, Jerry Stiller, Barbara Bel Geddes, Bela Lugosi, Franchot Tone, Jackie Cooper, Ethel Waters and Margaret O’Brien. Sometimes, the plays were headed to Broadway. For the first three summers, Paul Crabtree was the managing director.
The first play of 1950 was “Harvey” starring Burgess Meredith. George Englund, Cloris Leachman’s future husband, was in the cast. The next season, Englund co-starred in another play. In 1953, Paul Crabtree was not able to be managing director due to theater commitments in New York city. He asked George England to take the job. So, Englund came to East Rochester with Cloris, his bride of five months. Cloris had acted in other summer stock companies and Broadway.
The first play of the 1953 season was “Peg O’My Heart” starring Margaret O’Brien. As Cloris describes in her autobiography, the leading man became ill and an unknown actor named Steven McQueen was named to play the part. Not used to stage acting, he was helped by Cloris in his first acting role. Later that summer, McQueen was in another of the plays — ”Member of the Wedding” with Ethel Waters. Local children also had smaller parts.
Theatergoers came from miles around to see the summer productions. The start of the season was preceded by a parade through town, ending up at the school. These early days of the 1950s provided many happy summer memories for us all.
Summer Theater, 1960-78 will be continued in my next article.
Anita Mance serves as historian for the town/village of East Rochester.