60 Years under the Big Top
Cape Cod Life / June 2011 / History, Recreation & Activities
Writer: Diane Speare Triant / Photographer:
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.
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.”
The tent’s open design made it susceptible to unique hazards. “One of the worst scenarios was always a skunk in the house,” says former head-usherette Tasha Lingos. “The only thing we could do was not alert the folks sitting in that section, grab a large container of popcorn, and try to lead the skunk out with a trail!”
There was no back stage. Tania Lingos, who is now a Boston oncologist, describes a tense wardrobe moment during a performance of George M. “We had a quick change at the top of the aisle from black to white tuxedos,” she says. A dry-cleaner mix-up had left two actors with the wrong size white pants and no time to switch. “The men had to run back down on stage half in black and half in white!” she recalls.
Such trials for the crews were mitigated by behind-the-scenes interaction with celebrities like Sammy Davis, Jr. and John Raitt. Tamara Lingos of West Yarmouth remembers the former as “laid back and quiet” when not bubbling onstage, and the latter as “charming beyond description,” while singing warm-up scales with his daughter—blues icon-to-be Bonnie.
As ownership of the Melody Tent passed to Bill and Beverly Carmen in 1978, the big top was replaced by a larger tent, the roster of children’s matinees expanded, and weeklong musicals were phased out in favor of shorter runs to spotlight individual artists. A rotating stage platform helped performers unfamiliar with theatre-in-the-round adapt, while a Bavarian beer garden helped vacation-minded audiences relax.
The Carmens also deserve an ovation for the caliber of acts they signed. From The Man in Black’s signature intro of “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” to Roy Orbison’s famous crying falsetto, management delivered on its promise of “the best of American theatre from Broadway, motion pictures, Las Vegas, and television.” The visiting celebrities—whether stars, starlets, or entertainment legends reviving past glory days—dazzled tiny Hyannis, bringing business flocking.
Neil Sedaka cruised into the harbor on his 60-foot yacht, singing his hit “Oh, Carol,”; the showy pianist Liberace performed in a $300,000 blue-fox cape; Patti Page sang “Old Cape Cod” while Hyannis’ Main Street was renamed in her honor for the day; and Bob Hope offered up his deadpan routine for an entire week in 1980. “I’m staying with a friend in Osterville,” Hope quipped to his audience. “I find it a very quiet town, especially at night. If you need to burp after 7 p.m., you have to go over to Centerville.”
In 1990, the Melody Tent—purchased by South Shore Playhouse Associates (SSPA)—became a sister theatre to the South Shore Music Circus and underwent a gradual renovation with upgrades to everything from its seating to the sound system. Each August, Executive Producer Vincent Longo and General Manager Tony Raine, backed by 80 tent staffers, initiate their search for diverse talent in fresh genres for the following summer’s lineup.
With most artists performing at both venues, the number of shows has increased, with the likes of Buddy Guy, LeAnn Rimes, Willie Nelson, Adam Lambert, Counting Crows, Peter Frampton, Howie Mandel, and Sugarland stirring up the mix of returning crooners and comedians. As a nonprofit organization, SSPA also has donated $3.6 million to date to local arts groups, including Harwich Junior Theatre, Cape Cod Conservatory, and Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre.
And audiences receive top billing. On one of Tom Jones’ performance days, a string of thunderstorms grounded his flight from New York to Hyannis. “We decided to put Mr. Jones in a limo heading north,” explains Longo. “But three hours later, it still hadn’t gotten out of New York!” Not giving up, the Melody Tent chartered a nine-seater Cape Air plane to meet the limo in New Haven, squeezed Jones and his considerable luggage aboard, and, in Hyannis, provided a police escort to the theatre. “The audience had been waiting for one and a half hours,” says Longo, “but from the dressing room, Mr. Jones could hear the entire crowd singing ‘Delilah.’ He slipped into his tux in five minutes flat and went out and did a slam-dunk show!”
In an era of state-of-the-art but impersonal venues, stories like these keep summer-touring artists returning to the little tent by the sea. A fan entry on Tony Bennett’s Facebook page puts it simply: “Now that’s a place to see a show!”
Diane Speare Triant last wrote for Cape Cod Life on naturalist and storyteller Thornton W. Burgess.
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