60 Years under the Big Top
The Cape Cod Melody Tent celebrates more than a half-century of musical magic
On first sight, the giant blue vinyl tent pitched over cement risers beside a gravel parking lot west of downtown Hyannis seems an unlikely spot for a 60-year success story. But once inside, as childhood tent-by-the-campfire instincts take over, the audience of 2,000 swiftly bonds with the performers beneath the canopy’s cozy cocoon. “The fans are so close that they become part of the show!” rock star Melissa Etheridge exclaimed following a recent appearance.
Sure, there’s the occasional bout with torrential rain and wind—ask Diana Ross, who had to crank up her vocals above the din. And in the dog days of summer, there’s the stifling Cape humidity—ask Frankie Valli, who welcomed audiences to “the world’s largest sauna.” But though the weather doesn’t always cooperate, something about the Cape Cod Melody Tent has seduced audiences and artists alike and drawn them together on balmy summer nights. Even in an age of pyrotechnics and digital wizardry in sprawling arenas, devoted crowds return to the intimate confines of the Melody Tent for first-rate entertainment.
It all began in the late 1940s, when Broadway actress Gertrude Lawrence was vacationing in Florida and happened upon a curious circus tent that, rather than showcasing clowns and elephants, presented live theatre. The venue, modeled after a location in New Jersey, was much like a sunken circus ring with the audience surrounding the actors, stadium-style. Intrigued, Lawrence introduced the idea to her producer-husband, Richard Aldrich, as a summer-stock concept for Cape Cod. Shortly before cancer claimed her, she witnessed the nation’s third tent theatre—aptly named “the Music Circus”—rise in 1950 on Hyannis’ Main Street at the High School Road intersection.