The Maine State Music Theater (MSMT) has a long and storied past, but this year, because of COVID-19, they had to close the doors and cancel their season. In its 62-year history, they had never had to take that drastic step before, and it was taken much to the chagrin of more than 70,000 regular patrons and the 240 employees who relish being part of the show. Actors, stagehands, choreographers, and designers and many more found themselves unemployed, while office employees were reduced to half time. The theater group found itself without the income from an all-important summer season, which provides nearly eighty percent of their annual revenue. “We normally make about $4.5 million in ticket sales, so it was quite a hit for us losing this season,” said Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark in a recent interview.
The theater had its beginnings back in the 1950s when, according to MSMT, “Victoria Crandall, affectionately known as Vicki, opened her summer playhouse in the Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus with a production of The Song of Norway. It was an adventurous undertaking: Vicki was a woman working in a field dominated by men, and she was producing nine shows—one per week—all with full sets, costumes, and chorus. The following year she reduced the number of productions to seven, running two shows for two weeks at a time, while her audiences were building rapidly.”
Since that time, summer theaters became popular in Maine, making up what the New York Times called the “Straw Hat Circuit.” Many of these playhouses featured television and film stars in romantic comedies as well as other plays, but few were exclusively musical theatre houses. In the 1970s the Pickard Theater became a non-profit, and by the 1980s it had adopted the name Maine State Music Theater. It was exclusive to the production of musicals, something rare at the time. During the late 1990s the theater was renovated, to the tune of about 11 million dollars, leaving its historic look intact while installing air conditioning and adding new seating throughout. With the dawn of the 21st century, MSMT purchased the Maine Bus Line Garage and renovated the building to house administrative offices, as well as technical and rehearsal space. Over the last decade a Capital Campaign replaced worn carpeting and seats, upgraded the audio system, and improved housing for theatre professionals and the technical and rehearsal space.
Just a few weeks ago, Clark announced the Season for 2021, with hopeful anticipation that the novel coronavirus would not interfere. The planned run for productions starts in June and includes Kinky Boots, Cinderella, The Color Purple, and Jersey Boys. “We can only hope that we will be able to open for the 2021 season,” said Clark. “Certainly, our faithful audiences are anticipating it to happen. I’ve been told that this announcement is a bright spot in an otherwise bleak forecast of events here in Maine.”
Clark came to love live theater when he had a small part in Annie Get Your Gun as just a seventh grader. “I was hooked,” he recalled with a smile. He graduated from University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana after growing up in the small farm town of Pecatonica, Illinois. “I need to thank my mother for instilling this love of theater in me,” he said. “She got me a subscription to the Broadway Series at the Cornado Theater in Rockford (the nearest big town). They brought in all the touring companies. I’m positive that’s the reason I am where I am today because the minute I saw my first show I was absolutely hooked and knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” He headed to the big city of Chicago after graduating college and for the next 16 years was successful as a paid actor. “The moment I graduated, I got hired in Chicago for a Union production and I’ve never looked back!” he exclaimed. He’s been a Union Equity member since 1989. “One of my first gigs was doing Industrials for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company (NML),” he explained. “That involved singing at their various sales conventions. I sang two songs. One was something like ‘Oh, NML you make me wanna kick my heels up, throw my hands up . . .’ They took that song ‘Shout’ and made it work for NML,” he laughed. “The other song I sang was based on a tune called ‘Magic In The Moment,’ which I sang while they were handing out awards to people for their time with the company,” he recalled. “Best of all, they recorded that song and used it at every convention for the rest of the year, so I got paid every time, even though I wasn’t even there! My agent knew what he was doing!” Clark was making about $1800 a week for this job, a huge salary for the time.
During his time playing Don Lockwood in Singin’ In the Rain, Clark had a terrible fall and was laid up for about a year. “I had done that part at least a thousand times, and I was going crazy with nothing to do,” he confessed. So, he and his partner Marc Robin started a casting company. “We were so fortunate,” he said. “We had a million contracts that year, and some were very large contracts including singer Barry Manilow. He liked us so much he even wanted to contract us to do his entire cruise ship line, but then we would have had to give up everything we had and everything we worked so hard for in Chicago,” He paused for a minute with that recollection. “That would have changed our life in a way we didn’t want it to change, so we turned him down.”
It was a fortuitous decision, as Clark was offered an acting job in Maine. “Marc and I fell in love with the area,” he smiled. “We had said for years that if we could ever afford it we would like to get a second place here because we loved it so much. And when I got the job as Artistic Director for MSMT we said, ‘Hey, it’s time to get that second place after all!’” That was nine years ago, and the love for Maine hasn’t diminished a bit. “Maine is like a big neighborhood,” he said. “Plus, I love lobster!”
Marc landed the job of Artistic Director of the historic Fulton Theater in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “So, we have a house in Lancaster and Brunswick,” Clark said. “We divide our time between both places.” Before COVID, Robin and Clark would go long stretches without seeing each other, which isn’t a bad thing, Clark observed. “We found we appreciated each other more because of the time we were apart,” he noted. They will be observing their thirtieth anniversary at the end of 2020.
In addition to his job, Clark has a passion for writing. “Since COVID, MSMT is on half time so that basically that means for two and a half days a week, I’ll either go to Lancaster or Marc will come here,” he said. “We write and its one of the things that we do that we really enjoy doing together, and it allows us to have a forward thinking focus. It really helps us not get too depressed with the way things are these days.” Gardening is another passion. “I call my gardens ‘Friendship Gardens’ because most of the plants are gifts from neighbors and friends over the years. I love the fact that so much that’s in my garden has come from people I know and care about,” he said. “People here are so willing to share. I’ve found that Mainers are very generous!”
Occasionally small town life gets to him. “I admit every now and then I need a city fix, and I have to go to Boston,” he said. “I need some [city] pavement beneath my feet. But luckily, we have a train that takes off right here in Brunswick.” Some of his future plans for MSMT include advertising in the Boston market. That’s where the train comes in. “It can bring audiences right up here and drop them off a block away from the hotel and our theater,” he explained. “It’s the perfect venue!”
For the 2021 season, season Tickets are now available. The beautiful and historic Pickard theater is located on the campus of Bowdoin College. Check out their website at https://msmt.org, visit them on Facebook, or give a call to their Box Office at 207-725-8769. Main Stage subscriptions include four main stage shows, each with top-notch production value, Broadway-caliber stars. In addition, any support you would like to give this invaluable asset to Maine is welcome, be it in the form of tickets or an out-right contribution to help the cause. Artistic Director, Curt Dale Clark’s door is always open, and he is happy to correspond via phone (207-725-0124) or email: [email protected]