Sleepless in Sandwich
Rip Van Winkle Comes to Town
By Joan Russell Osgood
Rip Van Winkle awoke from his long, long sleep and found himself in Sandwich…to be specific, on the Water St. shore of our Shawme Pond!
In 1960, a group of Sandwich and Cape residents took on the task of presenting the play, Rip Van Winkle. Mr. Fred Morey, Sandwich resident, who was producer of the play, was quoted back then as saying: “We tried to think of something that would have a connection with Sandwich”.
The Rip Van Winkle play connected to Sandwich? Yes, you really could say it is.
This play was made famous by Mr. Joseph Jefferson in the 1850’s. And who was Joe Jefferson? He was a noted author, actor, painter, avid fisherman, and “adopted Cape Codder”. Today we’d call him a “rock star” of the theater who made a towering presence on stage. He traveled all over the country as well as in Europe starring in plays of that era. However, his fondness for Sandwich was well known back in the day. He’s quoted many times as saying “Sandwich is the handsomest town outside of England”. He spent many hours fishing with his good friend, President Grover Cleveland, in our town’s ponds and lakes. And at the end of a day spent fishing, stayed many times at the Central House (later renamed Daniel Webster Inn). He also appeared at many gatherings at the Casino on School Street as Guest Speaker and was a supporter of our Library. And carrying out his wishes, he was buried in our Bay View Cemetery upon his death in 1905 in a plot he had selected himself.
Engraving of Joseph Jefferson in his costume for his most famous role as Rip Van Winkle, dated 1880 and stamped by Boyce Studio. Courtesy Sandwich Historical Society and Glass Museum.
So the unique relationship between Sandwich and Joe Jefferson appears to have been the factor in choosing his play to perform.
Federated Church steeple in need of repair.
Back to the play…
At the time in the late 1950’s the steeple on the Federated Church on Main Street was in need of restoration and became the inspiration for producing this play. It was thought to be a creative way to raise money to add to the funds already pledged by Sandwich residents. The production of this play truly became a community effort.
Fred Morey was elected Chairman; Peg O’Connell, Secretary; and Jean Volker, Treasurer. All three were Sandwich residents and each had significant credentials having studied drama in college. Work began in earnest in the winter of 1959. Sub-committees were set up to oversee selection of actors, costume making, securing vintage furniture and props for the setting, etc.
From the beginning, it was thought a perfect location for the play would be on Shawme Pond, down the hill from the Hoxie House in Thornton Burgess Park.
Because much of the setting of the original play takes place outdoors in the Hudson River valley, the setting of Shawme Pond would ideally serve as a backdrop for the Hudson River and also provide a natural outdoor amphitheater.
It was identified in a July 1988 edition of the Sandwich Broadsider as the first outdoor production on Cape Cod.
The building of a stage (which still remains in the Park) would be overseen by Sandwich natives, Howard Pierce and Howard Burke. A stone wall hid the front of the stage and was where the prompter hid. And the change from scene to scene was done with turning off the stage lights rather than using a curtain.
An excerpt from the play was filmed and shown in July 1960 on TV Station WHDH’s “Dateline Boston”! It featured Fred Morey as Rip; Peg O’Connell as Mrs. Rip and Katie Adams & Hank Roberti as their children. Large signs advertising the play were hung from both the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges. And when in 1985 Russell Lovell, Sandwich historian, interviewed Morey about his memories of the play, he told him that “when the play was being produced, there was national publicity”. In short – this was a big deal.
Fred Morey with Rip’s Stein & Pipe light
The play was performed in 1960 and 1961, once a week, in July and early August to full capacity audiences seated in the 400 chairs placed in front of the stage. The play would begin at dusk and people attended from all over the Cape. In the July 1960 edition of the Falmouth Register it was stated: “The Rip Van Winkle players hung out the Standing Room Only sign at Sandwich for their performance last Wednesday in Thornton Burgess Park. All 400 seats were filled and there were 40 standing.” It went on to say that the week before in competing with the televised Democratic convention, there were still 300 people in the audience!
The production served to bring together many talents – from acting to those handy with a saw and hammer. To list a few more of the many Sandwich residents involved: Allen Carpenter, Brad Moore, Brenda Holt, Richard Ladenburg, Stephen LeClair, and Esther Kestenbaum.
I spoke recently with Kathy Ellis, who at the age of 11 was an understudy for the role of “Meenie”, the young daughter of Rip Van Winkle. Kathy, as an adult, has acted in many plays and performances. As a matter of fact, many of you may have seen her and Melinda Gallant (SCTV’s “Cape Conversations”) teamed
up and performing hilarious comedic skits across the Cape billed as “Ellis-Smith & Company”. But to my surprise, Kathy told me that back then when it came to the Rip Van Winkle play to her “greatest relief I didn’t go on”. When I asked why, she said “I didn’t learn all the lines!”
Playbill designed by Winnie Fitch Phelan
Winnie Fitch Phelan of Hedgerow, East Sandwich, illustrator, and commercial artist consulted in the production and was assisted by John Carafoli, a native of Sagamore, who was studying at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts at the time. Later in their lives both Winnie and John became well known and regarded in their professions. Winnie became Winnie Fitch Houston, having married John Houston, noted musician/songwriter and together they collaborated on writing and illustrating books, songs and musicals for children. And John Carafoli has become an internationally known food stylist, writer and consultant. And I imagine many of us have copies of at least one of many cookbooks he has authored.
Most of the performances went without hitch and had rave reviews in the Cape newspapers of the day. There was however, one eventful evening when a small fire broke out on stage. It seems in order to make the fireplace on the set in the fourth act look realistic, a red paper was placed over a 100 watt bulb. Well, it burst into flame.
While Fred Morey ad-libbed, Peg O’Connell put out the blaze with her hands, suffering minor burns. As ever, though, the show must go on – and it did! However, for future performances they used a red flashlight in the fireplace.
As all good things seem to eventually come to an end – so did our play after two successful seasons. It’s been 60 years since Rip awoke in Sandwich. Though, the stage, the stars, the pond, the idyllic setting are all still there. Maybe an energetic group of townspeople might find that it’s time for Rip to awaken again in Sandwich!
Joe Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle
The Creel, dated 1880-1905 is a woven wicker basket used by Joseph Jefferson while he hunted and fished in Sandwich. Donated to the Sandwich Glass Museum by daughter in law Mrs. Charles Jefferson.