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.
Flushed with the success of musicals such as Show Boat and Brigadoon, the operation moved to its current 11 acres at Main Street’s west end in 1954. In a contest to rename the Circus, Barnstable historian Donald Trayser coined the winning entry: “The Melody Tent.” Each spring, anticipation gripped Hyannis as the crew pieced together the canopy from colorful patchwork strips of heavy tarpaulin.
In its early years, the Melody Tent employed resident singing and dance companies, a live orchestra, and apprentices—including a rookie named Liza Minnelli. Bigger names, like Don Ameche (No No Nanette) or Elaine Stritch (Mame), were brought in as leads, thrilling audiences by performing only 50 feet from the canvas spectator chairs.
But without the traditional proscenium theatre arch, there was a learning curve. “Theatre-in-the-round was a new shape for many,” says Brockton resident Thalia Lingos, who, with her three sisters, worked multiple jobs at the Melody Tent in the ’60s and ’70s. “Actors had special rehearsals to make sure they knew where they should stand and look.”