Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
History Quarterly Digital Archives

Source: January 1998 Volume 36 Number 1, Pages 3–14

Club Members Remember: Valley Forge Music Fair

Herb Fry

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A headline in the Wednesday morning May 8, 1996 issue of the West Chester Daily Local News told the story - "Valley Forge Music Fair to shut doors; super sounds to give way to a supermarket." For the thousands of theatre-lovers who patronized the Music Fair for over forty years, the unthinkable was about to occur. The 1996 season would be the final act for this showcase of talent, with the annual Kenny Rogers Christmas show bringing down the curtain, so to speak, on Sunday evening, December 29, although a children's magic act played the absolute, ultimate, last performance on January 2, 1997. The end had come. Valley Forge Music Fair was history.

What caused the passing of this local landmark was a classic case of economics. Over the years real estate values escalated as the Great Valley metamorphosed from farms into housing developments and the land was paved over for high tech industry. Finally, values reached the point where more money could be made selling or renting the land to a supermarket operator than would be earned at the box office. The consequence of these economic forces was captured concisely in that newspaper headline.

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The coming of the Valley Forge Music Fair to our local scene in 1955 was preceded by some events which influenced its origins and foreshadowed its coming. The conclusion of World War II relaxed the grip of government controls which had inhibited growth of non-essential industry and institutions. Recreational activities denied during wartime quickly resumed.

In 1947 the old movie theatre on Cassatt avenue in Berwyn became the site of performances by the Main Line Civic Light Opera Company, which staged operettas, and Main Line Productions, which offered ramatic shows. Parking in Berwyn was limited and difficult to access for the flood of new automobiles turned out by the auto industry as it moved from war production to filling peace time needs, and after the 1947 season the Berwyn Theatre returned to offering movies.

St. John Terrell pioneered the concept of summer theatre in a tent with his Music Circus at Lambertville, NJ at least as early as the 1950 summer season, perhaps even earlier. A newspaper advertisement for the show "Where's Charley?" which ran September 2 to 14, 1952 was observed when researching others matters recently.

The success of Terrell's venture led, apparently, to an application on February 12, 1951 by the Devon Horse Show for a certificate of occupancy authorizing use of the show grounds "as a place of amusement during the summer of 1951 and succeeding summers for the operation of a tent theatre and such other activities as are customarily incidental thereto." Two days later Joseph Lehman, Easttown zoning officer, informed the Horse Show by letter that he could not issue a permit and suggested that the matter be brought before the Board of Adjustment.

The Upper Main Line News carried in its Friday, March 16, 1951 edition the story of the public Easttown Board of Adjustment hearing in the Berwyn Fire House earlier that week on the Horse Show application. "Devon residents lined up against New York actors and directors Tuesday night," the News reported, "to fight over the proposal of Theron Bamberger, producer and proposer of the tent theatre on the Devon Horse Show grounds." The writer continued, "An estimated 200 persons, both for and against the 'theatre in the round', a new form of dramatic production, sat through three hours of testimony, objection and counter objections as the three man board attempted to hear both sides."

The hearing featured charges by Devon residents of public health menace because of poor sanitation, traffic hazards due to parking and handling of

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incoming cars and general rumpus and noise that would accompany the opening of and presentation of shows. On hand to testify on behalf of Mr. Bamberger and his proposal were New York and Hollywood celebraties Ralph Bellamy, star of the play "Detective Story", and Louis Calhern, noted for his portrayal as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the "Magnificant Yankee". When debate wound down, it was announced that the attorneys would be given 30 days to file briefs and the board would then announce its decision.

At the Easttown Board of Supervisors meeting on November 26, 1951, just after Thanksgiving, the matter was finally laid to rest when the zoning officer's refusal to issue a permit was confirmed. [This issue surfaced again only two or so years ago when a proposed summer use of the Horse Show grounds for other recreational purposes again became a matter of contention and was denied.]

The idea to establish a place for summer musical theatre in our community still flourished and ultimately could not be denied. Three Philadelphia friends, Lee Guber, hotelman and night club operator, Edward Felbin, radio broadcaster under the name of "Frank Ford", and Shelly Gross, announcer and TV personality, joined in late 1954 and early 1955 in promoting the $100,000 project which they called Valley Forge Music Fair.

Advertising of the fictitious name registration appeared in the Daily Local News on April 4, 1955. Plans were revealed for a tent theatre to accommodate 1600 seats constructed on a terraced bowl-shaped excavation over which would be erected a colorful blue and white tent. A parking area for 800 cars was planned to adjoin the theatre. Thalheimer & Weitz, Philadelphia architects, designed the complex, which also in­cluded an office, box office, dressing rooms and electrical booth with controls for sound amplification and lighting.

The 10-1 /2 acre site on the south side of Swedesford road just west of New Centerville, located in a rural setting difficult to imagine today, had been part of the David Abraham farm in the latter part of the nineteenth century. It was originally leased by the Music Fair from Penrose and Ronald Reichman of Norristown, [The Reichmans at the same time were constructing the Talley-Ho Hotel Motel on their land adjoining the Music Fair on the west. The motel opened in May of 1955. It its lobby hung a plaque inscribed, "Dedicated in fond memory of William F. Isinger, a Gentleman, a great Civic Leader and Past President of the Paoli Bank. A true friend." Isinger had helped obtain financing for the motel project.]

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The Valley Forge Music Fair opened on June 23, 1955 with Frank Loesser's hit musical "Guys and Dolls". In fact, all ten shows that first season (and for ten or more years, thereafter) were summer stock musicals, but the fare suited the times and it was an unqualified success. "Guys and Dolls" ran through July 2 to warm reviews. Tom Reider, who took the role of "Sky Masterson", was Robert Alda's understudy in the Broadway production, and Marilyn Ross, a newcomer to the role, portrayed "Miss Adelaide". Among the supporting cast was "Two-Ton" Tony Galento, a former contender for the heavyweight boxing title.

Those who had to crane their necks to see the stage around tent poles in the first seasons at the Music Fair received good news as the 1960 summer opening was announced. A new tent (this one described as red and orange striped) constructed to a special patented engineering design, made it possible to erect the canvass without the 18 quarter poles, giving the audience a complete and unobstructed view from every seat in the house. In addition to the new cantilever rigging, a new concrete bowl was constructed, making every row of seats evenly higher than the row in front. A new sound system was also installed. The improvements repre­sented an additional $25,000 investment.

During the first 13 seasons, through 1967, a total of 134 shows ap­peared on the stage at the Valley Forge Music Fair tent (some of the shows returned for performances in two, three and even four seasons, so the number of different shows was only 81). The popular "Kiss Me Kate" and "Carousel" each appeared four times, while ten other shows logged three appearances each. They were "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes", "Wonderful Town", "Show Boat", "South Pacific", "Call Me Madam", "The King and I", "Pajama Game", "Oklahoma", "West Side Story" and "The Most Happy Fella". These 12 shows accounted for almost 38% of all shows scheduled in the first 13 years and almost 60% of all performances.

Times change and so did the Music Fair. At the close of the 1971 season it was announced that a new all-weather structure would be built to shel­ter the patrons and the professionals. The conversion from a tent theatre into a permanent air conditioned and heated theatre in the round made possible year round operation (although the Music Fair was usually dark in January and February). The new building had seats for 2750 patrons and greatly expanded opportunities for use by local organizations.

One of the highlights of the 1972 inaugural season for the all-new Valley Forge Music Fair was Hugh O'Brian's appearance as John Adams in the musical "1776".

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Carol Claypoole

I worked there for fifteen years. I worked in the box office and I worked back stage - I did a little bit of everything. I was an usher for a little while. Over the years I accumulated a collection of things, like programs, ticket stubs and even the big posters.

People ask, did you get to meet any of the stars? I did. I met some of them. That was not something that you normally did though, unless you worked back there with the costuming, or whatever. They kept pretty much to themselves. It was a very fun experience. It was great and I miss it a lot.

I was still there when it closed. It was hard. There were a lot of friends there. And the stars really enjoyed playing there, too. It was a unique place. We would get dinner for them between shows, home-cooked meals, and it was something that they really looked forward coming to.

Skip Eichner

At one time, in the early days, Guber, Ford and Gross had at least six summer tents operating and the shows would circulate among them during the summer season. They had a place on Long Island [Westbury] and one in New Jersey [Camden County]. As a matter of fact, I believe I read that they had two in Maryland [Baltimore-Washington], one at Shady Grove (Gaithersburg) and one at Painters Mill (Owings Mills), as well as one in Connecticut at one point. I believe they are all closed now, except Westbury is still functioning.

Dick Kurtz

I will tell you the story involving the Tredyffrin township Board of Supervisors. I was on the Board for, I guess, six years. Those were the dates the Music Fair was getting going. Of course, the townships were always looking for new sources of taxes. We were only allowed property taxes and one other tax, the amusement tax. There were only two amusement places in Tredyffrin township, the roller rink in town and the Music Fair.

So we said, well, we're spending a lot on employees and so on, why don't we just have a 2% tax on amusements, and everybody was pretty much

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in agreement. One of the members of the Board was opposed to it. His daughter worked for the Music Fair, but the vote was six to one in favor of the amusement tax.

Shelly Gross, who was one of the promoters, got into this, contacted all of us personally, gave a personal presentation, convinced us that if we imposed this tax they would turn it into a grocery store. [Laughter... but it took another 25 years.] It was finally seven to nothing to not do this.

[The School District later did impose such an amusement tax and it became a contentious issue between the Music Fair and the District. In a late 1979 letter to the School Directors, Shelly Gross made a well documented appeal for relief from the tax. Receiving none, the matter was litigated. Eventually the courts awarded the Music Fair the relief it was seeking, but not until just before the decision was made to shut down.]

I'll also tell you one that's not quite as official about the Talley-Ho Motel. It was absolutely gospel that there was a call girl ring operating in the Talley-Ho Motel. Everybody said so, but it was hard to get first hand witnesses. The Tredyffrin township police - Thomas Baynard -- looked into this and did an investigation, and they assured us that there was nothing, no hanky-panky, going on in the Talley-Ho Motel.

As a result of getting to know Shelly Gross (he never did give us any free tickets), if we would call him he would arrange for good seats. So Jackie and I were fortunate enough to see some really great talent there. I'll just mention one to you. I never liked Frank Sinatra, but he came to the Music Fair and we sat right on the first row. He came on the stage and was the most captivating man --I think the word is "presence". He walked onto that stage, had a glass of iced tea in his hand, and it was just as if he were talking to you personally. So, we'll all miss the Music Fair.

Mary Ives

Those of you who read the Good Housekeeping may remember that the last page was always written by a lady named Lois Wyse. And it was always entitled, "The Way We Were." She was Lee Guber's wife and I didn't realize this until he died very suddenly [in 1988]. And then she wrote in her column for several months about the shock it had been to her. Barbara Walters was his first wife. He then married Lois Wyse. She married again later, but I believe she divorced not long after that.

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Eleanor Chworowksy

I remember meeting Lee Guber years ago when I went to the University of Pennsylvania. He was working on a master's degree there. He was in my department. That was the time he was getting this thing started at the Music Fair. I asked him one day, "Lee, where are you getting the fi­nancing for this?" He said, "Among the three of us we have a hundred friends and we are asking a thousand dollars each." That's how they raised the money. They got it pretty quickly. I knew him at the time he was marrying Barbara Walters. That was a long time ago.

Skip Eichner

I can remember little things --I was there when it rained. The wind blew and the rain beat down on the tent. Once in a while they would have to curtail a performance or postpone it. One time I was there with Beverly. She was a nurse and she had to get back on duty. I remember leaving before the end of the show to get her back on duty before 11 o'clock.

At one time, I believe, the Music Fair used a big estate back of Devon to house the principal actors, actresses and others when they were here for shows. It was at Waterloo and Church roads. Pierce Junior College once wanted to use it for a campus. It had been the Patterson estate before it got into that kind of usage - a big thing on the side of the hill on the east side of Waterloo road. I think they stayed there.

I remember seeing Ann Blythe at the Music Fair in "The Student Prince" once. I guess her other claim to fame was she married an obstetrician. It was actually Dennis Day's brother. He was an obstetrician on the West Coast. The last time I was there I saw Tony Bennett, who also had quite a stage presence - a very charismatic individual. Also he shared a lot of his act with his ensemble. And then I remember I saw Bill Cosby once. He would just relax with you. He was very good. Over the years we saw off and on a fair number of shows there, but not so many in recent years when there were a lot of rock groups, etc. It was very enjoyable. I liked the old tent-style days when you thought you were part of the environ­ment outside.

Now that call girls have been mentioned, I'll share a funny experience with you. Years ago our church group back in Broomall, it was the Methodist church there, had a very active couples group, many of them gone now.

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Every month we did something special. I was in charge one time. I had them scheduled for a show out here at the Music Fair. This was years ago, and the show was called "The Wonderful Days of Burlesque". Now I don't know who booked the play or what they thought "burlesque" was all about, but it was a take-off on classic burlesque with the bump and grind and everything else that went along with it. Here was a church group out there at a burlesque show. I will always remember the Methodist group going out there for a burlesque show.

Mary Lamborn

Speaking of the Methodists, Berwyn Methodist Church went there once, and I don't know who picked it out. I don't remember the name of the show either, but we had Alice and Joe Manypenny that were really straight-laced. We didn't know how they were going to like it, but they kind of enjoyed it. We survived, and made some money for the church.

Mary Ives

The Philadelphia College of Bible rented the Music Fair at least once a year, and their music department gave a wonderful concert there.

Mary Whitworth Barbee

Mr daughter Charlotte took me to the Music Fair back on October 5, 1984. She was an auxiliary police officer at the time and of course helped park the cars onto the lot. The "Stars of Lawrence Welk Show" was there. Myren Floren (he played the accordian), Ken Delo (he sang), Elaine Niverson and Bobby Burgess (they danced) and Guy and Ralna. It was a very lovely program. I enjoyed it very much.

Steve Dittman

My story is a double header. I remember seeing Yul Brynner in "The King and I" on two occasions - separated by approximately 25 years - most recently about ten years ago, and the other, I believe, must have been 35 years ago. [A book on Brynner's life estimates he played in "The King and I" some 4625 times over a period of thirty-four years.]

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Skip Eichner

You mentioned Yul Brynner. He had an interesting tape on lung cancer which was put out after he died in 1985, of lung cancer -- smoking.

Eleanor Reilly

One thing we haven't mentioned is the children's programs on Saturday. I took my grandchildren there to see their first live shows.

Peggy Egertson

I remember seeing several different shows there and taking the children. Especially in the summer, I think, they had children's programs.

But I also remembered singing there with some group, and I thought it was our church choir. I had a chance this morning to ask Paul Vanderslice, our choir director, and he said, "Oh, yes!" He had directed it. We sang one time at Christmas. I think the show was probably Dickens' "Christmas Carol" that was put on, and we sang five or six Christmas numbers before it started.

Choir member, Carolyn Geasey, was one who didn't remember it, but she went home after church this morning and called back to say that her husband, Bob, who plays the trombone remembered that he played at the dedication of the new building [in 1972]. He took a day off from work to play in a band at the dedication. It was the Norristown Band, which is no more, but he played with them for over twenty years.

Barbara Fry

The first time Herb and I went to the Music Fair was in July of 1956, and the show was "Wish You Were Here". Early advertising told us a swim­ming pool would be on stage. Sure enough, the pool was there, but it was a very cold night for the middle of July. I always remember it as the only time I wore a woolen dress in the summer. The stars ran up and down the aisle, and jumped in the pool. The whole atmosphere was very chilly, absent the usual warm summer evening. This was not the most important of musicals, but it was real fun.

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Someone has mentioned the distractions of the weather, and I remember the noise of the rain on the tent roof drowning out the voices of the actors. I also remember the long lines of cars leaving the parking lot. A very disappointing night was seeing "Camelot" in 1964 with Howard Keel. He was very low on energy and enthusiasm that night.

Around 1967 I took my two younger children to a daytime performance of "Pinocchio", I think it was, in the middle of the week. After the first act someone came out on the stage and explained very carefully to the children the meaning of intermission. Our daughter Ann remembers that Stefannie Coggeshall took all the little girls to a party on Melissa Coggeshall's birthday and they saw "Rumpelstiltskin".

Ida Hardester

My niece was going to Penn State and she was quite interested in drama and dance, and she was, I think, between her junior and senior year when she got a job with Pat Carroll as assistant wardrobe mistress. The last thing I saw there was Yul Brynner in "The King and I," and I can't remem­ber who the female lead was. And then I talked with one of my daughters, and she remembered seeing Jacque Brell in "Alive And Well In Paris" and she said that was great fun.

Skip Eichner

I wonder if Judy Holliday was in "Bells Are Ringing"? I always liked her. She was great, but she had a very tragic death from cancer at the much too early age of forty-two in 1965. [Jane Morgan played at the Music Fair in the 1959 season production advertised as "the show that starred Judy Holliday, right from Broadway."]

Marlene Rafner

I was always impressed with the fact that no matter where your seat in that theatre was you could see. It wasn't like going to the established theatres downtown where you were always wondering, "Am I going to get behind a post?" You could always see. The last person I had seen featured there was Tina Turner who put on an incredible show. And Lou Rawls - he was wonderful, too.

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Helen Hayes

I remember Phil Donohue. He was the "Morning Show" person, with Shelly Winters as guest.

Libby Weaver

Taking my grandchildren to some of the morning, and even afternoon, performances is something I also remember. And way back when it was first opened I remember going with Clarence and Jane Staats and my husband Wally to see "Finian's Rainbow". Another time we went to a Bicentennial musical by Harry Bollback, "Let Freedom Ring", and it was very, very interesting.

Betty Ripka

Many times when a large-sized place was needed for a community gathering, the Music Fair was the ideal spot. Particularly, I remember one meeting there with Peter Marshall Jr. [His father, Peter Marshall, had been chaplain of the Senate in Washington for many years. His mother was Catherine Marshall.] But because Peter Marshall Jr. was so involved in history, in writing and in lecturing, it seemed very appropriate that he was so close to Valley Forge at that meeting.

Skip Eichner

I remember one time, I think it was one of the last times I saw Tony Bennett, they had to hold the thing up because it rained heavily. Some of the roads were flooded, and they started a half hour late because the people couldn't get to the show on time.

Jane Denk

We saw Carol Channing! I just remembered. She was absolutely enchanting. She came over like a bombshell, just like she was talking to you and singing to you.

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Edith Housworth

I remember one time I went to one of the children's programs on Satur-day afternoon at Valley Forge Music Fair, "Beauty And The Beast", and I was amazed how many adults were there. It was a theatre group out of New York that put on the performance.

Herb Fry

One quick observation before we close. In reading the early Music Fair advertisements it is interesting to note that a subtle change in emphasis was taking place. Initially, the names of the lyricist and composer of the music were featured with the show name. For example, Irving Berlin's "Annie Get Your Gun" or Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel". Then only the show name appeared. Finally, by 1959 the ads had changed to show the name of the actor or actress who got star billing.

I think we all agree that the Valley Forge Music Fair was a true community asset. It was an entertainment facility, but it also provided space for community events and businesses. It will be quite a while, if ever, before it will be replaced, but in the meantime, it will be remembered fondly by all. And, as someone said, "In all those years they never put a [traffic] light up, and now with a supermarket...." Oh well, so much for progress!

Advertisement for Children's Programs, 1956 season.


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