In 1952 a Time magazine article focused on a local wonder: “High on a New Jersey hilltop, overlooking colonial steeples and the Delaware River, music fills the clear air six nights a week. It rises from a huge, floodlit, green and yellow tent, home of Lambertville’s Music Circus. Under the big top (where there is room for 1,500) the attractions are Broadway shows (with good second-string casts) such as ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ and ‘Call Me Madam,’ and such vintage operettas as ‘Sweethearts,’ ‘New Moon’ and ‘Die Fledermaus.’ Last week, the Music Circus put on view a frothy revival of ‘Orpheus in the Underworld,’ by Jacques Offenbach.” The short review went on with more excitement about the venue than the performance.
Now the Lambertville Music Circus — or the memory of the prominent theater enterprise that opened in 1949 and closed in 1970 — is again a focus, but this time of a new documentary that is set to have its world premiere at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope on Wednesday, October 9.
“Magic on Music Mountain: The Story of the Lambertville Music Circus,” which includes regional artists recalling the circus’ glory days, is part of an effort to re-establish a music venue in the Lambertville. That includes the current series of music performances at the Bucks County Playhouse that are designed to launch a Lambertville Music Hall, an enterprise that is not without some degree of controversy. The latter is involved in why the events are in New Hope.
The film is the latest effort by independent filmmakers and Lambertville residents Gary Cohen and Paul Kaye.
The two long time friends and collaborators — who grew up in the 1950s in Roselle Park, NJ, and coincidentally moving to Lambertville 13 years ago — are also the creators of the cult 1980s horror film “Video Violence” and the documentary “Halloweenville,” which explores Lambertville’s obsession with Halloween (U.S. 1, October 17, 2012).
As Cohen writes for the International Movie Data Base (IMBD), “From 1949 until 1970, St. John Terrell’s Music Circus in Lambertville, NJ, presented Broadway musical comedies and the top jazz, folk, and rock ‘n’ roll artists of the time period. ‘Sinjun,’ as Mr. Terrell called himself, was the first to create a theater-in-the-round housed under a huge circus tent. The first decade or so was devoted to Broadway musicals, and many stars began their careers at the Music Circus, including Bernadette Peters, Dom DeLuise, Shirley MacLaine, and Robert Goulet.,” writes Cohen of the film for the International Movie Data Base (IMDB).
That “first to create” label is no exaggeration. As one successful California summer theater that uses a tent notes, “In 1949 theatrical innovator St. John Terrell set up a circus tent in an empty New Jersey field and began producing musical plays. The Music Circus, as Terrell’s hybrid was called, mixed familiar but disparate elements of theater in a combination no one had ever tried before: the informality of the circus; the arena layout that afforded everyone a good seat; the summer-camp, Chautauqua-style ambiance; and the musicals themselves, then, as now, the first choice with theatergoers. It took the Eastern Seaboard by storm.”
Music circuses became a phenomenon that gave audiences the opportunities to see professional productions of Broadway hits with firmly established as well as popular young performers from stage, screen, and television.
The Lambertville circus’s dual advantages of its proximity to New York City and its out-of-the-way yet vital connection to the New York theater world are what brought producer and innovator Terrell to the theater.
While the film focuses on Terrell as showman and the names who appeared at the music circus, there is little on the producer’s bio which is as fascinating as any of the shows that played under the tent.
St. John Terrell, as told in two Time magazine articles in the 1950s, was “a Chicago-born showman who pronounces his given name ‘Sinjun,’ in the English fashion-not because he is English but, as he explains, because he started off his entertainment career as a fire-eater.”
Terrell was born George Clinton Eccles in 1916. After his parents separated, he was raised by a grandmother who gave him his grandfather’s name. He attended Chicago’s Francis Parker School with future film and stage star Celeste Holm and became star struck. Although he went to Columbia University to study business (and to work with his mother’s perfume business), he was busy attending Broadway shows, got a part as radio’s first Jack Armstrong (the All-American Boy), and wrangled a part in prominent American playwright Maxwell Anderson’s new play “Winterset.”
Time magazine was one of the first to see Terrell’s place in local and theater history: “After leaving Columbia, Terrell wintered in perfume, summered in stock, with friends’ money opened the famed Bucks County Playhouse in 1939. During World War II he piloted transport planes until injured in a crash, then managed U.S.O. troupes through the South Pacific. In Manila once, he found no theater available, asked to use a tent. The Army said no; but the idea lingered,” Time noted.
Terrell says in the magazine that he picked Lambertville because it was “far enough from Broadway to avoid competition and near enough to Bucks County’s ‘genius belt’ to have an interested audience.” That belt included novelists Pearl S. Buck and James Michener, playwright George S. Kaufman, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, and others.
The article says that “almost from the start, the tent has drawn big crowds all summer long. Its attendance in 1959 was 160,000,” and adds that Terrell “owns a patent on his tent (it has only two poles), has a scheme for adding smell to the sight & sound of movies and TV, and an interest in three other music circuses around the country.”
The 1998 New York Times obituary says that the 81-year-old “Terrell left his mark on American culture,” by founding both the music circus and the Bucks County Playhouse, “the still-thriving playhouse, which (Terrell) started in an old grist mill and ran for a year . . . helping to touch off the summertime stampede of artists and others that transformed once sleepy Bucks County into a hotbed of the arts.”
The notice marks an additional regional contribution: “By the time the music circus closed in 1970, Mr. Terrell had already created his next theatrical splash, the annual re-enactment of Washington’s famous Christmas Day crossing of the Delaware in 1776. Typically, Mr. Terrell, who made the first crossing with six friends in 1953, conceived the idea as a one-shot publicity stunt for his music circus. It proved so popular, and so effective in generating publicity, that he continued for 25 years. When he relinquished the role in 1978 to a longtime crewman, Jack Kelly, Princess Grace’s brother, it had become such a tradition that the re-enactment was taken over by the Washington Crossing Foundation, which has continued it.”
Lambertville Music Circus’ musical director Art Frank remembers what the venerable performing venue meant to the community. “People were able to see Broadway shows with Broadway stars with a professional orchestra without going to New York. About three of four years after the show were on Broadway, they were available. (The productions) would play in theater in the round, but the show was the same,” the retired Hopewell resident says during a telephone interview.
The circus also brought more than shows and stars. “It was terrific for the economy of Lambertville. It brought people into town, and they would go to dinner first. Or after the show they would go to a hotel and have dinner. The actors coming from New York were saying there and buying food and paying rent. It did very well for the economy.”
Frank says the circus also did well for artists. “It kept nine professional musicians working for 16 weeks and hired professional carpenters. They were professional union contracts. It was for real. It was very good for the area.”
One example of how a local professional venue could help a local artist comes from Frank’s own experience. Although Brooklyn born, Frank was raised in Yardville, where his family ran Frank’s Restaurant on Route 130 (later Giovi’s and now Vila Romanzo). His father was the well known Dixieland musician “High” Frank.
Art Frank was an enterprising young percussionist who toured with the army, taught music at the Hamilton Township schools, and became chair of the music department at Rider College when it first moved to Lawrenceville in the early 1960s. At age 27 he became a pit musician at the Lambertville Music Circus.
Frank was serving as musical director for a Rider production and contracted a music circus choreography to stage dances. The choreographer realized that the locally-based pit musician was as strong as any New York-based music director and later suggested Frank to Terrell when a music director was fired and the show needed to go on.
“So they handed me the script ‘Destry Rides Again,’ which starred Jean Shepherd. It was a terrible show. So here I come in on Monday morning. (The cast) had been rehearsing since Wednesday. And I come in, face a resistant group who just lost their director, and I have to open the show up on Tuesday night,” says Frank.
“Jean Shepherd was a radio monologist, but he had never done a Broadway show before, was not a theater person, and was not disciplined. He couldn’t remember his lines or entrances. So I made up a system, where I would give a hand signal and we would lead into the chorus and end the song. We saved his ass. It was like that all week. For the professional staff, it was a nightmare. The fact that I got him through it, Sinjun realized that I was real,” he says.
While he went on to become a professor of music at Temple University (retiring after 27 tears), a performer with the Trenton Symphony Orchestra for 20 years, and musical director for the Bucks County Playhouse, several McCarter Theater productions, and Foundation Theater, he says those years in Lambertville were vital. “That was my first professional conducting experience. I did 10 or 12 shows a summer. Learning a show in one week was invaluable. I loved those years and I loved those summers. It was hard work.”
Frank says that the new interest in both the Bucks County Playhouse and a Lambertville music venue could be beneficial, especially if the organizations maintain a commitment to professional artists. “It’s a perfect location. It’s gotten to be a high end town that could support something like that again. People would come from Yardley, Newtown, Lawrenceville, and Pennington.”
Lambertville residents, however, have voiced concerns about downtown traffic, parking, and changes that the proposed music hall will bring, slowing the proposed transformation of a 144-year-old church into the 450-seat venue. Interestingly, “Magic on Music Mountain” shows that the same concerns were expressed during the music circus era.
Nevertheless, the curtain is going up, and the Lambertville Music Hall is ready to make its debut at the Bucks County Playhouses, bound together by a bridge, the spirit of Terrell, and dreams of turning the area again into “a hotbed of the arts.”
The Lambertville Music Hall Concert Series starts Thursday, October 3, and continues to Sunday, October 13. Concerts $25 to $85. Film $15
Thursday, October 3: Country singer Travis Tritt
Friday, October 4: Serbian-born blues guitarist Ana Popovic plus guest JB Kline
Saturday, October 5: The all-male string quartet Well Strung
Sunday, October 6: Singer-songwriter Joan Osborne with guest Lily Mae
Tuesday, October 8: Rock legend Ginger Baker and His Jazz Confusion
Wednesday, October 9: “Magic on Music Mountain,” movie screening with musician guest Vince Martell of Vanilla Fudge
Thursday, October 10: Classic rock group Jefferson Starship
Friday, October 11: Singer and composer Howie Day and from American Idol, with Casey Abrams and Shaun Ruymen
Saturday, October 12: Rock guitarist and singer Eddie Money
Sunday, October 13: Philadelphian comedian Joe Conklin. Concert tickets range from $25 to $85, $15 for the film screening.
Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope. www.bcptheater.org, www.lambertvillemusichall.org, or 215-862-2121.