Alice and Francis in the theatre c. 1968

Alice and Francis in the theatre c. 1968

The troupe started its productions in a large hall called the Tamworth Gardens that used to feature wrestling and boxing exhibitions.  It was located behind the Tamworth Inn.  In 1935 the Clevelands purchased Kimball’s Store, across from the Inn, and transformed it into a theatre.  In 1998 the building was totally renovated and converted to a cultural center presenting artistic, educational and civic activities for the region from mid-September through early June.

The coming of the Second World War curtailed barnstorming.  During the war years, the Barnstormers showed motion pictures, and company members joined the rest of the world in doing whatever was necessary to look after the needs of the country.  After the war, the company stopped touring and performed only in Tamworth.  Shows opened On Tuesday and closed on Saturday, just as they do now.  Actors and crew spent their days, as they do now, rehearsing and building one show and performing another in the evening.  There are few, if any, theatres in the United States that still perform this way.  The Barnstormers, almost from its inception, has been associated with Equity, the Actors Union, and was recognized as the oldest Equity theatre in the country under the same direction, until Francis Cleveland’s death in 1995.

photo of night must fall

Night Must Fall 1937- Helen Ray, Lester Damon

Although the first production of the Barnstormers Theatre opened in 1931, the genesis canbe taken back over 100 years to the bustling, yet bucolic resort community of Bourne on Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts.  President Grover Cleveland and his family had chosen this spot on Cape Cod for a summer retreat and getaway from the demands of Washington and political life.  One of the Clevelands’ closest friends was the noted American actor, Joseph Jefferson, who lived next door.  Francis Cleveland, the youngest child of President Cleveland, claims he was too young to remember Mr. Jefferson, but he remained convinced throughout his life that the great man had a prenatal influence on his career.

Also vital to the start of the Barnstormers was Francis Cleveland’s mother, Frances Folsom Cleveland.  She had a great love of the theatre and encouraged her son in his interest.  Francis enjoyed success, appearing in the original Broadway productions of “Our Town” and “Dead End”, among others.  At the same time he was pursuing an acting career in Boston and New York, he and his wife Alice, and their friend Edward P. Goodnow founded the Barnstormers.  The year was 1931.  The troupe consisted of young actors, graduates from Harvard, Wellesley, Radcliffe, Amherst, and other colleges.  The first director, Edward Goodnow, was a graduate of Harvard and George Pierce Baker’s Theatre 47 Workshop.

photo of early barnstormers troupe

An Early Barnstormers Troupe

Tamworth and surrounding communities were crammed with summer folk from Boston and beyond and seemed the perfect location for a core audience.  However, no one expected theatre goers to drive for miles and miles on a summer night, no matter how good the plays were.  Hence the troupe, like others in that era, barnstormed from town to town, sometimes as far as eighty miles away.  The circuit included Wolfeboro, Franconia, Conway, Holderness, and even Harrison, and Poland Spring, Maine.  The crew, actors, and sets would caravan over the roads in open touring cars and an old secondhand truck.  By some miracle, there were never any serious mishaps.  Francis Cleveland always noted that many a summer romance was kindled beneath the car blankets on the trips to and from Tamworth.