The Lakewood resort was built around the summer theater. The theater was built originally in 1898 by a trolley company which was seeking to establish an amusement park on the shores of Lake Wesserunnsett in Madison, Maine. It was in 1901 that Herbert L. Swett was hired as manager. Mr. Swett had the vision to build Lakewood into a resort with a theater that became the most important summer theater in America between 1925 and 1941. It was at Lakewood that many new plays were tried out before going to Broadway.
Of course, I was born in 1942, after the heyday of the theater. Lakewood became for me the most significant place in my life. I was born five miles away in Skowhegan, and spent my first summer at Lakewood when I was 4 months old. At that time my dad worked in Skowhegan for his father in the machine shop he owned, and my mother was the postmaster at Lakewood. During subsequent summers when I was too young for my mother to look after me and work too, I was taken care of by various nearby relatives. When I was old enough, probably about 7, I started spending the entire summer at Lakewood with Mother. We lived in Connecticut by then, and I left school early in June so that I could go to Maine with Mother.
Those summers until I was out of college are the sweetest memories of my life. Lakewood was owned and operated by Mr. Swett’s two daughters and their husbands. Mr. Swett himself died in 1945 so I don’t remember him but I remember my dad’s stories about him. Daddy was very fond of him and had a lot of respect for his business capability.
In the beginning I spent most of my time playing with various other children who summered in the area. It was quite an adventure for me as an only child. Mother and I enjoyed the privilege of eating in the dining room where the guests ate meals. Therefore I had to dress and act appropriately from a very young age. I ran errands for my mother all around the grove. Each week there was a new play to attend; sometimes I would like the play so much that I would go several times. Once in a while there was a play that I wasn’t allowed to see because Mother thought it was too risqué. A Streetcar Named Desire fit that category! Best of all, I had bit parts in four of the plays starting when I was nine years old.
Billie Burke and Clark Gable, 1934Needless to say I was pretty star-struck. During the years when I was a child, we had our own company of actors who were there all summer. Later on the theater started using the “guest star” system. Each week there would be a new company of actors moving in so I got to meet some of the important performers of the day, such as Edward Everett Horton, Martha Raye, ZaSu Pitts, Billie Burke, Faye Emerson. Once in a while I was asked to assist one of the stars with wardrobe changes. I remember when I did that for Billie Burke. Miss Burke was somewhat elderly at the time and wore white gloves to hide her wrinkled hands! I decided to wash all her white gloves with bleach. However, no one told me about diluting the bleach. I scrubbed those gloves in that bleach until my hands were so burned and blistered that I was in misery. I know I didn’t tell her what I had done to burn my hands so badly. I can only wonder how long those gloves lasted after my laundering.
Miss Billie Burke
Lakewood as I remember it was a beautiful place. You entered through stone gates near the golf pro shop on Route 201 and drove down a paved drive into what we called the Grove which was the area including the Inn and the Theatre and the lakefront. The first buildings you passed on your left after passing through the gates were the cottages which were rented to travelers. They were cedar shingle buildings which accommodated from 2 to 6 people. A bit farther along on the right was Bungalow Service which was where my mother’s post office was and where the cottage reservation desk was. There was also a bedroom and bath off the back. This was where my parents lived early on in their marriage and later where the two young men lived who worked each summer as combination clerks and bellhops. During my teen years I was often enamored of one or another of these young men. Like the waitresses at the Inn, these young men attended various New England colleges and came for the summer for employment.
Going farther down toward the lake, you would pass the tennis courts on the right and a lovely tree-shaded pergola before you would bear to the right and see the Inn. The main dining room of the Inn looked out over the water. The front entrance faced the theater. These two buildings were imposing white clapboard structures, always beautifully maintained and would have been considered the heart of the resort. Beyond the theater was the Shanty which served light snacks and was always a popular place during intermission at the theater. And beyond the Shanty were four lakefront cottages which were available for overnight guests. On the broad sweep of lawn in front of the Inn you would see groupings of white Adirondack chairs.
If, instead of bearing right to go to the Inn and Theater, you stayed to the left and drove down to the waterfront and along the shore, you would pass the Colony House which was a large, cedar shingled guest house looking over the lake. During most of my childhood it was owned by a family separate from Lakewood, but there was always a cooperative relationship. In fact my mother and I lived in a beautiful downstairs bedroom in that house for several summers. Beyond the Colony House were various privately owned cottages as well as cottages owned by Lakewood and used to accommodate the staff and the actors.
It was to this magical place that I was privileged to go every summer. I spent my winters in Connecticut yearning for summer to come so that I would be off to Maine again. As soon as I was old enough for a job, I was on the payroll. My first official job was as sidehall waitress in the dining room where the employees ate. There were long tables covered in oilcloth. My job was to keep things clean and to help out as needed. Employees picked up their own food out in the kitchen so I didn’t actually serve them. However, they tipped me each week, and that constituted most of my pay.
Another of my early jobs was helping Mrs. Swett in the Gift Shop. She had a storage room in the back of the Inn where I helped her with opening shipments and pricing items. The Gift Shop itself was near the main entrance to the Inn. I served as clerk in the Gift Shop on Sunday afternoons. Mrs. Swett was very fond of me and always very good to me. I loved helping her in the shop. While she was no longer involved in the management of Lakewood, she was the matriarch and I’m sure her opinions were heeded by her daughters and their husbands.
There were certain people who came back to Lakewood year after year. The golf pro, Leo Hansberry, and his family were among them. Leo’s son, Leo Jr., was a friend of mine from the time I was old enough to be at Lakewood with my mother. Polly Hansberry, Leo’s wife, was a close friend of my mother.
Other staff were also like family to me because they returned year after year throughout my childhood. One was the chef, Gordon Gilbert, and his assistant, Mickey. Both of them did hotel work in Florida in the winter. The two of them were dear to me. As I came in through the back door to the Inn, I would often encounter Mickey at a big butcher block table cutting up meat for the next meal. Gordon would be in his office nearby or out in the kitchen supervising the meal preparation. Of course, I always made friends with the pastry chef but I don’t recall that there was ever a person who returned to that position year after year.
The waitresses seldom returned for more than a year or two. However, the hostess, Enid, was there ever since I can remember. She was a home economics teacher in the winter and had lived with my family at one time when I was a baby. She was a little dynamo of a woman, hardly more than five feet tall. She ran a tight ship in the dining room but was, I think, well respected by the waitresses. She remained a close friend of my parents throughout their lives, and I kept in touch with her until her death a few years ago.
Across the street from the Inn, at the theater, were the offices of people involved in the management of the resort. A true fixture was Mildred Fogg, the treasurer. Her desk, in an office above the box office, afforded her a view of everything that was happening in the area. Along with Mildred in the offices on the second floor were the family members who ran the whole operation after Mr. Swett’s death. Libby and Twinnie were the daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Swett. Libby’s husband, Grant Mills, was what I suppose would be considered the general manager while Twinnie’s husband, Henry Richards, was in charge of the operation of the theater. Libby and Grant lived in Connecticut in the winter, not far from where we lived in Stamford. Twinnie and Henry spent their winters in New York City where Henry was involved in planning and hiring for the following season at the theater. Neither couple had children until Libby, at the age of forty-something, gave birth to Michael. I was a teen-ager at the time and did some baby-sitting with Michael at their home which was a large farmhouse on the edge of the golf course. Michael seldom came down into the Grove and was never really very involved in the day-to-day life of Lakewood.
You would think that I might have been a waitress when I got old enough but I was never interested in that job. I did fill in on busy nights but I really disliked waiting on tables. My job of choice was assisting my mother and her staff of two young men in the guest registration office which was called Bungalow Service. I was a “jack of all trades,” I suppose. I ran errands back and forth to the theater and the Inn. I assisted Mother with the post office, filled in for her when she went for meals, often helped her with cashing up and delivered mail when there was something that needed special attention. Most people came to Bungalow Service to pick up their own mail. I also greeted travelers and rented cottages. The two young men took turns taking guests to their cottages. They took along a pitcher of ice water since the cottages did not have potable water piped in. The ice was harvested from the lake in the wintertime and stored under sawdust all during the summer. Each day someone would drop off big chunks of ice at Bungalow Service and at the Inn. In the afternoon the bellhops chipped ice, filled pitchers, and delivered ice water to each cottage that was occupied that day. One of my best friends to this day, is a man who worked with me and my mother at Bungalow Service for two summers when I was in college. Duane became a teacher and later a school principal. He has been helpful to me numerous times in my professional life.