The year was 1931. It was the first season of The Barnstormers, founded by Francis and Alice Cleveland and Ed Goodnow. Francis, the youngest child of President Grover Cleveland, was already pursuing a career on Broadway when The Barnstormers made its debut in the family’s summer hometown of Tamworth, New Hampshire.
The original troupe was composed mostly of young actors – recent graduates from colleges including Harvard, Wellesley, Radcliffe and Amherst. The first director was Goodnow, a graduate of Harvard and George Pierce Baker’s “47 Workshop” which later became the renowned Yale School of Drama.
The name “The Barnstormers” was a natural choice as it described exactly what the theatre troupe did – barnstorming from town to town, opening on Monday in Tamworth and then touring towns in Maine and New Hampshire during the week, returning for a final Saturday evening performance in Tamworth at the Tamworth Gardens – a former boxing venue where the audience was often greeted by former First Lady Frances Cleveland dressed in a formal gown. It was an ambitious project as the locations included Sugar Hill, Wolfeboro, Conway, Holderness, and Harrison and Poland Spring, Maine – long hauls even today.
After four years of touring, The Barnstormers bought the old Kimball’s Store on Tamworth’s Main Street in 1935 and converted it into a theatre. World War II brought an abrupt end to barnstorming. The theatre did its part to keep the home fires burning by showing movies, and, after the war, the building became the troupe’s permanent home.
With many updates (like air conditioning!), the theatre today continues to provide the region with what many consider the best live summer theatre in the state. It is one of only three Equity theatres in NH – a professional designation which separates the company from community-based theatres. This summer actors will travel from across the country – most hail from New York City – to participate in the region’s longest running summer theatre.