In 1912 Phidelah Rice and his wife Elizabeth opened the Phidelah Rice School for the Spoken Word, a summer school for acting, at Trinity Church adjacent to the Tabernacle. The school was moved in 1914 to Arlington avenue in East Chop and a playhouse was added in 1924. From 1914 until it closed in 1940, several buildings were acquired to house 50 to 100 students per summer, most from off-Island, but several from the Island as well.
Phidelah Rice was an accomplished actor who had gained a reputation for “Monacting,” where one person acted out the multiple roles of a play. One of his best-known performances was Great Expectations, a play with 32 characters. Once Rice read for an hour and a half. In 1934 the New York Sun hailed Rice as America’s greatest monactor after a performance where he played 24 parts. “By sheer force of imagination and a magical genius, he made his men and women appear, disappear and reappear on stage,” the article said.
Even having attended college in Boston and living year round in Brookline, it isn’t clear why Rice chose Oak Bluffs for such a high level of cultural expression. However, in a 1914 handbook for the school, he wrote: “Oak Bluffs is an ideal spot for a summer school. With its picturesque cottages, its adjacent bathing beaches, its wonderful blue skies and bluer waters, it resembles a fairy island. The scene on its streets at night might well persuade one that he had happened upon a fete day in some foreign city; Orientals cry their wares, children laugh, carefree pleasure-seekers stroll and talk — surely no place could combine a greater variety of attractions.”
The Rice’s 200-person theatre built in 1924 was used for the students to hone their craft (many of whom returned year after year), and was filled with patrons nightly during its many seasons. Occupying several buildings, the school included dormitories (Stag Cottage, North Cottage, West Cottage and Sumner Hall), a dining hall (Club House), the school, the playhouse and later, in 1932, a 25-seat children’s theatre. Rice provided free bus service from the Island House Hotel on Circuit avenue that stopped at the Wesley House and Ocean View Hotels. Tickets were $1.50 for evenings that included art exhibits and musical recitals during intermissions, and cold drinks were served at a refreshment stand.
Vineyard Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough was a big fan of the theatre, writing in one of his books, “In the early part of summer one would drive to the playhouse before twilight and see the sunset glow in the sky during the first intermission.” On the night of June 29, 1940, Clara Smith was murdered in the Rice’s Sumner Hall. In addition, the nation was exiting depression and the war was heating up in Europe. After the confluence of events, No Time for Comedy (ironically popularized by the Vineyard’s Katharine Cornell on Broadway) became the last show for the Phidelah Rice School of the Spoken Word’s summer theatre. The nationally-renowned Oak Bluffs school and theatre remains in memory only today.
The United Methodist Church of Martha’s Vineyard hosts a marathon Good Friday vigil in eight sections at the Tabernacle’s Trinity Church beginning at 1 p.m. and ending with a 6:30 p.m. service.
Next Saturday, April 6, the Oak Bluffs Library is having a book drive from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. The library is also looking for your gently-read books. You have a week to select and box up those you can part with, including DVDs CDs and audio books on CD. Nelia and Amy continue to read to children from birth to age three this Thursday, April 4 and again on April 18.
Of all who have commented on the missing T and R from the “Sand” Theatre (grrr!), each has mentioned with some disdain our beloved Island Theatre and its, well, exterior shabbiness. I am reluctant to add that to tirades on town travesties due to how much has to be invested to render it digital in order for it to remain a working theatre. It is hard to imagine Oak Bluffs without a theatre, especially because the Island was the first one on-Island (in the 1920s it was the Eagle). Philadelah Rice’s, may it rest in peace, was the second professional summer theatre in the United States.
The Flying Horses opens again on Saturday, yay!
Keep your foot on a rock.