Editor’s Note: Olive Tomlinson spoke with Linsey Lee, oral history curator for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, about her recollections of Liz White’s Shearer Summer Theatre, one of the first summer theatre groups on the Island after World War II. An actress who felt stymied by the stereotyped African American roles available to her on Broadway, in the summers Liz returned to Oak Bluffs where her family owned and operated Shearer Cottage, a popular inn for vacationing African Americans. There she formed an all-black repertory group made up of talented friends and family members. Their first Island performances took place in the gymnasium of the old Oak Bluffs School in 1946. Later Liz purchased Twin Cottage in Oak Bluffs, whose wraparound porch was perfectly suited for a theatre stage. The elaborate, sophisticated shows there drew large audiences. Shearer Summer Theatre productions declined in the early 1960s, as Liz focused her energy on producing an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, filmed partially on the Vineyard.
Ms. Tomlinson is the daughter of Cutie Bowles, a member of the Shearer Summer Theatre. What follows is the script from this interview for a film that can be seen on the Martha’s Vineyard Museum website. The film and information on other Vineyard theatre groups is included in the museum’s exhibit Showtime —100 Years of Theatre on Martha’s Vineyard, on display at the museum campus in Edgartown until April 10.
Mother had three dear friends. One best friend — who is my godmother — is Sadie Shearer-Ashburn’s daughter, Miriam Walker. Miriam has a first cousin, Liz White. So they were like a triad: my mother, Olive Bowles — known as Cutie — Miriam, Liz White.
These women, led by Liz White, were an integral part of the Shearer Summer Theatre.
Thank goodness I have my father’s album. My father William Bowles was the still photographer for Liz White’s productions.
The first play Aunt Liz ever did was surprisingly in New York city. And it was called The Shearer Summer Theater Presents . . . And the play was The Women. The Women was in 1946. And I was in it. I was Little Mary.
I’m six years old. And I’m playing Little Mary. And in the movie version, Little Mary is very insipid. They all are insipid. But in Aunt Liz’s version, there’s an edge to everyone. And I’m six years old, sticking out my tongue at the villainess.
And then Aunt Liz, intrepid Aunt Liz said, “I have an idea. Let’s do theatre on the Vineyard!” And that was it. There was no budget. Everything was done on a shoestring. It was “Let’s chip in.” And people chipped in.
They were friends — a few had houses here. Again, this is the late 40s now, 1946, 1947, 1951. That time. They were friends who would come up for a three-week vacation. And put in all of their time and energy with the Shearer Summer Theatre. But they were busy. You had to do a play, take care of your family, make scenery, do the lights, do everything. And my father did the same. He worked at the post office in New York, and his time off was building sets, taking pictures and listening to what Aunt Liz said. And she had grand ideas.
Oh, she was wonderful. My generation marveled at how innovative and daring and charismatic they all were. They were very dramatic and very glamorous. They were all beauties. That’s the other thing. And they would try anything. Aunt Liz literally said, “I have an idea,” like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. “Let’s have a theatre.” And they did it. They did it.
Well, she did about 10 plays on the Vineyard and for about five years. Ten different productions.
The first was The Women in New York. Then she did 10 productions here on the Vineyard of different plays. The Slab Town Convention, Lysistrata, Anna Lucasta, Angel Street, and If Men Played Cards As Women Do, Cooling Waters and some others. And then she began Othello. And Othello was at Twin. And that was it. Now, Aunt Liz did maybe one or two performances of West Side Story for the young ones. I was no longer young, so I didn’t pay any attention. I had two babies of my own.
I can’t imagine how they did it. Because people were on vacation — I have photos of them sitting on the beach rehearsing. And I know at night they rehearsed. It can’t be more than three weeks. It cannot be more. Because people were working. And they were in their 40s. And they had kids.
We kids, wonderfully, were on our own. We loved it! They did not have to — well, they fed us dinner. That’s about it. And we would go up to Shearer to eat sometimes. So, once in awhile, they were, “Send the children for this, send the kids, send the kids for this, send the kids for that.” But we had a wonderful life, because we would drop in and drop out. And I remember going to the movies on Circuit avenue, the seven o’clock movies, and then walking up to rehearsal at the Oak Bluffs School. And I remember how we used to be so frightened going by the cemetery at night! But we would go all the way there and wait until rehearsal was over. It could not have been longer than three weeks.
Aunt Liz, she was here for the whole summer. She was here for an extended summer, because she didn’t work full time, full time in New York. She worked backstage on Broadway. She was a dresser who helps the star. And I remember all the women she worked for. Marlene Dietrich. Judy Garland. Brenda Vaccaro. Who was married to Rex Harrison? Lily somebody . . . There were others but I don’t remember. Sometimes she’d go on the road with the actors, sometimes not. It was flexible. And then towards the later years, towards the Othello years, she was running Shearer, I think, also.
The one I loved the most was — she did Angel Street. It’s called Gaslight, also. It’s a great play. And I remember it. Because I was 13, 14 years old. It was a great production.
My mom was the maid. Aunt Liz was Mrs. Manningham who was being berated by her husband and her husband was played by her brother, Lincoln Pope. And he was a wonderful actor. Delightfully hammy and just right. And Angel Street lends itself to that kind of thing. And he’s harassing Mrs. Manningham and he’s trying to drive her crazy and he almost does.
This is what I remember. Mr. Manningham gives my mother, the maid, a note to take upstairs to Mrs. Manningham. And I saw my mother take the note and I saw her jump. And that was it. And she took it up.
So later on I went up on the stage to tidy up, to do whatever I’m doing, and I see the note. And on the note, he wrote, “F___ you!” which made her, on the stage, jump. I know that they had a great time. The whole crew.
I remember a production of a one-act play, called Slab Town Convention. It’s a play that plays on the black theatre circuit. And it’s ladies in the late 1800s who take over the church. And there’s a scene where Lincoln Pope, Liz’s brother, who was just a wonderful actor, he’s preaching. He’s preaching and he’s tormenting these ladies. And he reaches up to the heavens. And it’s in the Oak Bluffs old, old school — and a clap of thunder happened. And he milked that moment so! He waited, he used it, and he said, “Thank you, Lord!” So that was, it was fun.
I was only in the first, The Women. The rest were all adults. Liz White wrote a play of her own called Cooling Waters. And it was a play about slavery. And I think I can speak for my contemporary, Gail Jackson, Liz’s niece, and I, we didn’t approve. We didn’t want to have anything to do with it. We were in it. I don’t remember it. I have pictures of it. I’m standing there. I’m doing what my mother said to do. But I don’t remember anything about it because I was at that prickly age when I didn’t want to have anything to do with slavery.
For us then — I have no idea how old we were, 12, 13, 14 — it was shameful. We had no adult sense and no historical sense and no enlightened sense. So we didn’t want to do it. We could not understand why they would want to. But it was a cast of thousands, now I’m exaggerating, but it was lots of people.
And then in the early, early 50s, she began to think, this idea percolated about doing Othello. So she did two productions of Othello. The productions here on the Vineyard were magnificent. They were at Twin Cottage and so the audience sat in front of this big cottage. It’s a double house, built by the ubiquitous sea captain for his two daughters connected in the middle by a wraparound porch. Then the second level was another porch, a small porch. And the best part, the top, was a tower. And the actors came in from the woods on the sides and worked on the porches, and came out of the attic windows, onto the balconies and did their lines. And it was just super. It was just wonderful.
The house is so dramatic. You don’t have to do sets. And if Othello comes bounding up the steps saying, “I’ve just got off of my ship and I’m here!” Well, he just got off of his ship and he’s here. You didn’t have to bring in a cardboard ship. The house spoke volumes.
Then, it was so well received and so exciting, she thought, “I want to film it.”
And that — “I want to film it” — the filming of Othello went on from the early 60s to the late 70s because it was a matter of raising money and getting the cast together and getting people back. And it was her labor of love.
When they did Othello, there was no money. There were no grants. A few friends chipped in, were called “producers.” And there was a time when Aunt Liz remortgaged Twin Cottage. But people gave their time and their talent and energy.
She was dauntless. And my mother would say, “Oh, my gosh. Not Othello again!” And the issue is — besides money — the technology changed. So you begin filming in the 60s and then the technology is changing and changing. And you have to dub and I don’t know how she did it — she cut, she spliced. But now I was a young adult raising my own family and I didn’t want to hear about Othello. But I remember going to some of her screenings in New York, and going with a date. And he was very impressed.
They filmed Othello here on the Vineyard, a lot of the scenes are at Twin Cottage and the woods around Twin Cottage and there’s some in Gay Head. And there’s some in somebody’s farm in New Jersey. And there’s a scene in my parents’ Queens basement, I think where they had a fireplace. Yes.
I remember Yaphet Kotto. Okay. Yaphet Kotto. I thought to myself, “Oh! He’ll never be an actor! He’ll never make it.” You couldn’t photograph him well at all. I remember my father had a very hard time getting him on camera. And he had a lisp. So I thought to myself (mimes lisp) “He’ll never . . .” — well honey, right in the middle of filming Othello, Yaphet Kotto got an offer, left Liz White, and went to Hollywood where he became a star.
So she had to change the script. Because she had no intentions to, when it was on stage. Yaphet Kotto was a young man that Liz met in Manhattan. And she brought him here. So he filmed with her, but then he left and he got a job and left to go to Hollywood. So she had to work around him, around Othello. But somehow she was able to. She was able to save filming from before, and splice it in for later, and do this and do that. And it almost centered on Iago, which people do, which makes sense. Because he’s a wonderful character. So that’s what she had to do. Her son, Richard Dixon, is Iago.
Like most Liz White productions, it was a family affair: her son played Iago; Richard Dixon’s wife Audrey Dixon was Desdemona; all of the young men in it, Othello’s soldiers, had been in many of Liz White’s previous performances. My father was the photographer and set builder. My mom was Amelia.
Then all those productions wound down. Say there were 10 productions in the 40s and 50s. Then Aunt Liz stepped back and said, “Now I’m going to do Othello.” So she had no time. There was no time. And nobody else said “Let’s do it.” No, no, no. Only Liz was so brave, so intrepid, so dauntless. Nothing stopped her.