Not long into Act I of the Cape Playhouse story, a determined young woman in a summer dress and heels strides down a rutted, sandy drive toward a churchlike building.
It is early summer 1928, and sea gull caws meld with distant hammering. The playhouse's nattily dressed owner is reviewing a playbill. He pushes back his hat to wipe his forehead.
He is taking a chance -- his third production of the season, "The Barker," will include a young man making his first professional appearance.
The young woman waits, reading over his shoulder. The newcomer's name -- Henry Fonda -- means nothing to her. She has traveled to the year-old Cape Playhouse on Cape Cod on the slim hope that she can apprentice to an established actor.
The man barely looks up as he tells the girl the best he can offer is an usher's job. She takes it and, in doing so, adds her name -- Bette Davis -- to what will become the Cape Playhouse's illustrious and star-studded history.
This summer, America's oldest professional summer theater will open its 75th season of entertaining generations of visitors and year-round residents.
Its mission has changed as little as the shingled playhouse.
"The Cape Playhouse . . . aspires to be of service to many artist-workers and to be a source of inspiration and recreation to the public," read the manager's message inside the July 1927 opening night playbill.
While audiences might be drawn by the promise of a balmy evening of live theater, possibly with a "name" leading the show, there is always the possibility they also might see the birth of a star or a romance.
Betty White and Alan Ludden met in 1962 while performing in "Critics Choice" and later married. They returned to the theater several years later to play "Once More With Feeling."
The slightly frowsy, wood-dark theater is rich in history, its stories burnished to a gloss from years of telling and re-telling.
Few would say that tourists are drawn to the Cape for its theater, but its role is well documented in personal scrapbooks where pages from Cape Playhouse programs are beside beach snapshots and flattened matchbooks.
"For me, that is the heart of the playhouse -- its combination of traditions, and at the same time, it's still a vital place," said Evans Haile, artistic director of the Cape Playhouse.
"We are a vital and living theater. We are not just resting on our laurels," Haile said. "It's not a musty place."
He was speaking metaphorically. In fact, the theater is a little musty. It rather has to be, as it's locked up against the Cape damp for more than half the year and because it's summer theater, for heaven's sake. It's supposed to be faintly musty. It's part of the charm.
"We are building on our past and looking to the future," said Haile, a trained conductor who made the playhouse his artistic home two seasons ago. The lineup "reflects the new and the classic," Haile said. "That's what we can offer here -- the balance of terrific and classic theater and new. Something for everyone."
It has been years since the shows were produced and rehearsed on the property (that happens in Manhattan before the whole shebang moves to the Cape for the two-week runs), but the playhouse property has been alive with activity since mid-May.
The tiny, bare-bones dressing rooms, including the one haunted by legend Gertrude Lawrence, are being aired. Electric cables snake across the circular drive into the nearly antique theater -- power tools buzz as technicians bring the theater back to life.
The dark oak pews that serve as the primary seating will be polished, and the chair seating (to the side) will be checked before the scenery is brought in and the walk-throughs begin, just about the time that the summer traffic patterns set in near the Cape bridges.
Until mid-June, the 605-seat theater will be quiet -- "dark," as they say in the business. Still, it manages to speak, especially through its "backstage wallpaper" -- decades of playhouse posters nailed up between the oak studs all the way to the hand-hewn ceiling beams.
The block letters of the posters shout -- TALLULAH BANKHEAD, MARY ASTOR, JUNE LOCKHART, GREGORY PECK, BASIL RATHBONE, GERTRUDE LAWRENCE, EVA GABOR, PAUL ROBESON, HUMPHREY BOGART, EVA MARIE SAINT, BETTE DAVIS (from usher to actress in one season), RICHARD THOMAS, CYBILL SHEPHERD and dozens of others.
In some cases, these actors and actresses were not the stars they became after they appeared at the playhouse. For example, Jane Fonda was little known when she made her first public performance in 1956 with her father in "The Male Animal," or Nancy Davis (later to become Mrs. Ronald Reagan) when she played in 1947's "The Late Christopher Bean."
In other cases, the stars were fixed in the firmament long before they arrived and were treated as such. For example, Bankhead was allowed to bring her pet lion to rehearsals, and Lawrence's agent wired that her house had to be near a lake and supplied with fresh flowers (lilies) and delicacies.
Opening nights, even when they required driving on dark roads in the years before street lighting, were huge social events.
Last season, Haile began a program on Sunday afternoons for less formal performances and talks, making the former Unitarian meeting house even more accessible and alive.
Similarly, the playhouse hosts summer theater for kids, with a different show each Friday at 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. all summer. This season includes "Aesop's Fables," "Happily Ever After," "Just So Stories" and "Beauty and the Beast."
Things are busy enough on the 27-acre property that includes the Cape Museum of Fine Arts, the Cape Cinema and the Cape bistro/restaurant.
"We really are a destination," Haile said. "There are not that many places that you can spend an afternoon at a museum or (art) cinema, get a great meal and then have an evening in the playhouse."
For this, vacationers and islanders can thank Raymond Moore. He came to the Cape to paint but soon switched to greasepaint, starting his own theater in the 1920s. He eventually settled on Dennis as the best place for his big vision, which in a few short years had grown to include other arts venues all on one campus.
Moore died young, about a dozen years after opening the playhouse, but not before seeing the acclaimed opening of the Cape Cinema and various buildings devoted to support of the arts. The campus is still managed by the Raymond Moore Foundation, and much of it is unchanged.
The playhouse was joined in June 1930 by the Cape Cinema. Outside, it looked like a local Congregational church; inside, it surprised.
There were wingback chairs of black lacquer with tangerine suede seats from a New York gallery. And then there was the ceiling. It's a conversation piece even today.
Designed by Rockwell Kent and executed by scenic artist Jo Mielziner, the neck-craning mural from mid-wall to mid-wall spans 6,400 square feet and depicts a modernistic version of the heavens, with floating lovers, the Milky Way, comets and galaxies.
The Cape Cinema, which specializes in art and foreign films, became a pre-screening site for films before they were widely released in major cities. One such film was "The Wizard of Oz," which had a debut that included an appearance by the wicked witch, played by Margaret Hamilton, who had made her stage debut years earlier at the Cape Playhouse.
Ties between the playhouse and the cinema became more pronounced in the 1930s and 1940s, when big-name movie stars also walked the boards on the Cape. They included Jackie Cooper, Lillian Gish, Helen Hayes, Claudette Colbert, Shirley Booth and Roddy McDowell.
Humphrey Bogart did "Tourists Accommodated" in 1933; Gregory Peck appeared in 1942's "The Circle" as well as "You Can't Take It with You"; Walter Matthau and Dana Andrews did "Glass Menagerie" in 1952.
The 1956 season included Gloria Vanderbilt in "The Spa" and Art Carney in "The Seven Year Itch," and Frank Langella performed in "Under the Yum-Yum Tree" in 1961.
The last decade saw performances by dozens, including Julie Harris, Juliet Mills, Tony Roberts, Jamie Farr, Loretta Swit, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Elaine May, Stephanie Zimbalist, Helen Reddy, Bonnie Franklin, Gavin McLeod and Jean Stapleton. The shows have run the gamut from "Deathtrap" to "Will Rogers Follies" and "A Cheever Evening."
When something works for you, you stick with it.For tickets or gift certificates, call (508) 385-3911. To learn more about the playhouse, visit www.capecodtravel.com/capeplayhouse.
Backstage tours are conducted by Marcia J. Monbleau, author of a book about the playhouse, on July 5 and 19 and Aug. 2, 16 and 30. Call the business office at (508) 385-3838.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times