James Gordon Bennett., owner of the New York Herald, was the visionary founder of the Casino Theatre at Newport, Rhode Island. The Casino, a complex located on fashionable Bellevue Avenue, was recognized as the first complete resort facility in America. The theatre was an integral part of this complex. Between 1879 and 1881, this showcase was designed by the New York firm of McKim, Mead & White. White designed the theatre.
It is important to recognize that theatrical productions were a notable component of Newport life from pre-Revolutionary times. These theatrical endeavors were a prelude to the Newport Casino Theatre. It is a matter of record that Newport., in 1761., under the auspices of David Douglass, was the first in New England to host a public performance of a play. Later, between 1793 and 1799, Alexander Placide of Boston leased the Brick Market, the first formal structure of a theatre in the city. Buildings in which theatrical productions took place during the eighteenth century continue to exist today: the Brick Market, the Newport Opera House and the Strand Theatre, renamed the Jane Pickens. As in Shakespeare's time, both amateur and professional productions of this era were produced to be enjoyed by the ordinary citizens. In contrast, the Newport Casino theatre was exclusive from its beginnings.
In 1881., the Newport Casino Theatre opened with a dual purpose; it was used as a ballroom as well as a theatre. The summer colony whose identity links the institution with prestige and grandeur became rooted in Newport and identified with the Newport Casino. Its theatre which is the focus of this study, is located in the Northeast corner of the Casino complex.
By the late nineteenth century, the wealthy summer colonists, who chose Newport as their premiere summer resort, concentrated both their wealth and their interest on furthering the development of the Newport Casino complex, including the theatre. From its inception until the late 1950s, when the theatre lost its distinct force because of a variety of social and economic circumstances, the colonists and the theatre enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. Characteristic of him, once the Casino was established, James Bennett had moved on to other things and only occasionally reappeared in Newport for purposes of raising additional monies. His absence provided the opportunity for others to emerge as outstanding sponsors of the theatre. Such familiar names associated with the Gilded Age as Vanderbilt, Astor, Belmont, Taylor and Olrich all contributed to placing the Casino at the forefront of Newport society.
Beginning in 1927, primarily through the initiative of Moses Taylor, the cotillion theatre evolved into a legitimate theatre. Financial support of the summer colonists enabled the Casino management to draw from the world of the professional New York stage, and ushered in a new era that established the Casino Theatre as one of America's leading summer stock playhouses. For the second time in the theatre's history, this time through death, it lost its outstanding catalyst as Moses Taylor died suddenly following the first very successful season. For eight summers, however, the wealthy owned, governed and operated the theatre.
By 1934, the change in America's financial climate had a negative effect on the Casino Theatre. The financial losses distracted the colonists from full corporate management Actor Managers Inc., a theatrical producing agency from New York., headed by Helen Arthur well known to the New York stage, was hired as the new theatre management. During its four years of play producing, funds became increasingly scarce. In addition, Arthur died suddenly in 1939. New management came from the ranks of Actor Managers. It is of interest to note that three women, Marie Elkins, Emeline Roche and Nancy Rogers assumed the roles of leadership for one year. The following year Massey & Farrington of New York headed the theatre. Death once more intervened with the suicide 0 f Massey, and the theatre closed.
An extended period of stable leadership began with the appointment of Sara Stamm as producer-director. She influenced every aspect of the theatre from 1943 to 1960. Her vision for the Casino Theatre was limitless. Stamm extended the previous boundaries of status and patronage. She believed that the theatre was for everyone and combined the academic with the best in stage production.
In the end, societal forces overcame her very best efforts, and the theatre founded by Bennett, supported by the colonists, extended under Arthur and Stamm's leadership to the general populace in Newport, closed in 1960. Its reopening in 1963 as a new entity had little resemblance to its past history.