Lakewood is the site of a summer resort and theater that attracted major productions and accomplished actors for more than half a century. It still offers productions with local and regional players.
In the late 19th century, the resort was an amusement park served by a trolley line. Established in 1901 and later designated the “State Theater of Maine,” the theater lies on the shore of Lake Wesserunsett in a complex of buildings that once thrived with summer cottage residents who dined at “The Inn.”
The theater began in 1901 with the production of “Private Secretary.” The Bealls Lakewood Musical Stock Company, associated with the theater, was begun in 1916. The guest cottages were built in 1923, the Country Club in 1926, and the present Inn in 1927. In 1967, the Maine State Legislature resolved that the Lakewood Theater is the Official Theater of the state of Maine. Curtain Up Enterprises owned and operated the theater beginning in 1993.
The evolution of Lakewood from an Indian campsite to a country picnic ground, an amusement park, summer theater and to the official theater of the State of Maine provides a unique chapter in the history of American theater.
The Lakewood Resort on Wesserunsett Lake near Skowhegan, Maine, was begun by Herbert Swett in 1895. Swett had come to Central Maine in 1901 to manage the trolley line for the widow of Gen. R. B. Shephard. Lakewood was part of the trolley line’s property.
Swett acquired the Lakewood property in 1926. Lakewood was operated under his helm until his death in 1945. His daughters and their husbands ran the theater in the 1950’s and 1960’s. From 1925-1941 this well-known resident stock company was the major summer tryout for productions hoping for success on Broadway. “Life with Father,” which went on to Broadway for 3,224 performances, a longevity record that stood for many years, premiered at Lakewood in 1939.
Writing in the playbill in 1946, Grant Mills, managing director, stated that the 575th play produced to that date, “The Late George Appley,” was “the greatest number of bills yet offered by any summer stock company in America.” The 2002 season saw Lakewood surpass its 1,100th production, surely a record that is untouchable.
A “Who’s Who” of silent screen, Broadway, movie and television have passed through the backstage door. Some of those include Mary Astor, Allen Ludden, Betty White, Milton Berle, Phyllis Diller, Carol Channing, Lana Turner, Robert Stack, John Travolta, Gloria Swanson, Mickey Rooney, Myrna Loy, William Shatner, Lloyd Bridges, Tom Poston, Patty Duke, Art Carney, Van Johnson, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Lillian Gish, Rita Moreno, Humphrey Bogart, Lynn Redgrave and Groucho Marx, to name a few.
Lakewood Theater held on to its resident company format until 1961 when it joined the other summer theaters on the East Coast in presenting package productions. The Swett Family sold the Theater in 1970 and for the next 15 years owners came and went. Then, in the summer of 1985, the dust billowed across the parking lot as the Cornville Players arrived at Lakewood Theater having agreed to perform three plays over six weeks. That group would later form Curtain Up Enterprises.
Individuals own and rent cottages near the theater and the lake. The adjacent golf course attracts area residents and summer visitors.
Cail, Harold L. Lakewood: A Brief Account of How Herbert L. Swett Brought Broadway to Maine. Skowhegan, Me. Lakewood, Inc. 1967?
Kellogg, Juliet Spangler. Performing Arts Programs Collection, 1950-1969. (includes playbills for the Lakewood Theater) [University of Maine, Raymond H. Fogler Library, Special Collections]
Lakewood Theater. http://www.lakewoodtheater.org/ (accessed September 2, 2013)
Lakewood Theater (Skowhegan, Me.) Programs Collection 1922-1983. Special Collections, Fogler Library, University of Maine. Orono.
Lakewood Theater (Skowhegan, Me.) Records, 1911-1972. (Cataloger Note: The collection consists primarily of photographs including studio portraits of Herbert L. Swett; photographs of Grant Mills, his office at the theater, and his home in Norwalk, Conn.; images of the theater building and grounds; and a few photographs of scenes from unidentified plays. The collection also contains abstracts for property titles for Lakewood, 1961; a map showing land of the Lakewood Golf Club, 1970; and a few newspaper clippings, etc.)
Oblak, John B. Broadway in Maine: A History of the Lakewood Theatre. Thesis (Ph.D.)–University of Kansas. 1971.