With those words Enrica Clay Dillon christened her “dream-child,” Deertrees Theatre, a 350-seat opera house located on the site of an old deer run in the hills above the little village of Harrison, Maine. A bottle of Champagne was smashed against the proscenium arch and the fancy stage curtain, made of with a gay India print of flowers that “bloomed brightly under the lights” by “Dilly” and her friends during those hectic nights just prior to the theatre’s opening, drew apart. It was August 15th, 1936.
Freda Behrens, a long-time Harrison summer resident and close friend to Ms. Dillon, claimed that Enrica’s dream was born in her kitchen during the summer of 1933, but in all likelihood it was conceived much earlier. Miss Dillon had been coming to Harrison since 1916 when Marie Sundelius, who later became famous at both the Metropolitan and Chicago Civic Opera, asked her to be her singing coach for the summer. Frederic “Pa” Bristol had a music camp just outside the village and a sizable artists’ colony had developed along the shores of Long Lake. Miss Dillon fell in love with area and purchased a house on Dawes Hill where Deertrees stands now.
Enrica originally wished to become an opera singer, but illness and her own temperament interfered with her singing career so she turned to dramatic coaching and directing. Then as now female directors were a rarity and Miss Dillon’s was an extra-ordinary career. She spent nine years in Washington, D.C. with the National Opera Company, three with the Philadelphia Opera Society, three directing operas for the N.Y. Singing Teachers Association, five more with Herbert Witherspoon, and still another five as director of the New York Opera Guild. Each summer she would bring her students from New York to Harrison and when her summer school productions grew too large for her porch, she built a theatre.
Designed by the famous theater architect Harrison G. Wiseman and built by George Locke of Bridgton, the building was constructed of rose hemlock harvested on the property and the beams, doors, trim, and light fixtures were hand-carved. The theatre was designed so the entire auditorium with its pitched floor could be detached from the proscenium end and moved forward allowing an extra section with more seating inserted. It boasted a thirty-member orchestra pit, stage dimensions identical to the Metropolitan Opera House, and the best technical equipment of any theatre outside of New York. Whether by chance or design, the it also had near perfect acoustics. More than sixty years after the theatre first opened, Christopher Hyde, classical music critic for the Maine Sunday Telegram, theorized that the tight sheathing of rough hemlock and pre-stressed posts and beams created the effect of a large stringed instrument, able to transmit vibrations efficiently without echoes or reverberation. (Some visiting performers, knowing of the theatre’s reputation, have opened their program by dropping a pin onto the stage. If the audience is quiet and the pin large enough, it can be heard throughout the auditorium.)
Miss Dillon never told where all the money for the theatre came from - it cost the then phenomenal sum of $60,000. There is a story that a rich Californian who had been aided as a young man by Miss Clay’s father, at one time the District Attorney in Los Angeles, contributed a good deal towards the construction costs. An “anonymous” contribution from her friends, the Schwab family of United States Steel fame, was acknowledged, and it is reasonable to assume that her own family - her sister Josephine was once married to Clark Gable and another sister, Fanny, was a gifted composer - helped underwrite the project. Listed among her sponsors in the first program were such wealthy luminaries as Helen Hayes and Rudy Vallee.
The gala opening featured the classical actor, Walter Hampden, reading from Caponsacchi and Cyrano de Bergerac and the program notes for that night included a welcome address by theatre founder Enrica Clay Dillon that reflected her idealism:
“ It would be so easy to commercialize the entire venture. It would be so easy to devote our efforts to productions that spell continuous box-office success. Such success is essential, but to my mind chiefly as a means to an end: Deertrees Theatre must stand for the beautiful, the truly real, for fine work and for unwavering ideals.”
Miss Dillon also showed a sense of wry humor on that opening night. Local hunters had told her that deer flocked over the ridges above the theatre and down the wooded hillside in search of the natural salt lick located there. In the same way, or so Enrica thought, audiences between the acts would crowd around the theatre’s snack bar where drinks and coffee were served, and so she named it the “Salt Lick Cafe.”
The first season featured two more productions: on August 20th Eleanor Steele and Hal Clovis, accompanied by Frederick Bristol, presented a musical evening and on August 29th Maya, listed in the program simply as a “dancer of distinction” performed The Legend of the Snow Goddess, and the mezzo-soprano, Thea Behren, sang a selection of “modern songs.” By all accounts 1937 was a successful season, presenting four different plays and a musical comedy with a distinguished cast of professional actors in repertory, but in 1938 the theatre failed to open. In a letter to the Bridgton News published August 5th, 1938, Ms. Dillon gave assurance that Deertrees was “neither dead nor sleeping, just taking a breathing spell.”
“So many friends from Bridgton, North Bridgton and the surrounding towns have been interested about the closing of Deertrees Theatre this summer, that I appreciate very much giving you the correct information that might be of service to the many friends that I do not contact directly. Deertrees Theatre was not built in the first place with the idea of being a competitive organization to other theatre but had the ideal in mind of a laboratory and experimental theatre where problems, both artistic and educational, could be worked out in perfect surroundings. I have always felt that the beautiful work done at Lakewood and Ogunquit and by our own friends, the “Barnstormers” was quite adequate to supply the public with stock company performances and I have had no intention of competing with them on this line. The company last summer was an experiment. Its artistic success was thanked and I had great satisfaction in your acceptance of them as a company of first rank, but I have felt that such an experiment did not lead us in the direction that we had first in mind. I needed to have both quiet and time to think out a more practical plan that would overcome the difficulties and at the same time keep the performances at a high standard. This work is being done during this summer and is progressing well, and it is a pleasure to assure you that Deertrees is continuing and will continue and has not come to a stopping place as many have supposed. I am particularly anxious, in forming these plans, to have them meet the community ideals and tastes of our wonderful people in the immediate vicinity, for I am very anxious to make Deertrees a community theatre rather than build up a public from long distance. I would appreciate hearing from as many friends as would care to write me suggestions about what they would like to hear, and particularly if they would be pleased if certain musical attractions were added to the program. Very many distinguished theatrical people have come to see Deertrees and are continually coming, and I am sure you will be glad to know that they consider it the very finest theatre they have seen. This, in itself is worthy and a wise development. It was beautifully built by George Locke and is full of details worked out by our own native carpenter artists. My great hope is that we may all build together in the future.”
What caused Ms. Dillon to reverse her initial plans is unknown but when Deertrees reopened in the summer of 1939 it was as a straw-hat summer theatre under the auspices of the noted Broadway producer Bela Blau.
Bela Blau's first season at Deertrees was impressive even by contemporary standards. He ambitiously advertised a nine-week drama festival with "A New Play - A New Broadway Star Every Week." A feat accomplished by importing an entire Broadway cast into Harrison from New York City every week. Ethyl Barrymore, Tallulah Bankhead, Edward Everett Horton, Dame Mae Whittey, and Rudy Vallee were just a few of the stars that appeared on the Deertrees stage that year, while a young David Merrick was credited on several playbills as being the associate producer. Local talent played smaller roles as the need arose. In addition to the theatre, Blau operated a school for theatrical designers headed by Raoul Pene duBois.
The 1940 season followed the same format as the previous year with stars such as Arthur Treacher appearing in The Hottentot and Joe E. Brown in Elmer the Great. Each company performed eight times a week, providing six evening and two matinee shows. Ticket prices ranged from 55 cents to $2.20. In the last playbill of the 1940 season Bela included a note to those patrons who wished to pre-book tickets for the next year. He explained that that they did not have to pay then - tickets would be held at the box office until called for - and then went on to explain his philosophy about subscriptions, a philosophy that echoed Enrica’s idealism. “You know why I do not want audiences on a subscription basis, for I have repeatedly urged you not to come to the theatre in the name of "art" or civic responsibility or duty, having always maintained that a well-presented play will find its audience, and a production that does not deserve support will not and should not receive it. I will say no more.”
Regretfully, Bela Blau had little opportunity to say more; he died at the age of 44 from a heart attack on October 21, 1940 while in his doctor's office.
Following the tragic death of Bela Blau, Enrica Clay Dillon regrouped by returning to her first love, opera. Her solution was to open an opera training school and inaugurate The Deertrees Opera Company. She hired the young Edwin MacArthur as her musical director and George Wells as scenic and lighting designer. Always true to her ideals, she included the following addendum in the promotion material:
There is at the moment a sincere interest in the development of opera throughout America. The impression prevails that vast sums of money are needed for this undertaking. This is not true. At Deertrees Theatre we would welcome those who are interested in starting such a venture for themselves. At Deertrees Theatre they can cover every practical subject necessary to the beginning of such a venture.
Robert P. Commanday, music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle from 1965 to 1993, was then a student at Harvard and an early advocate of regional opera companies. He recalls being on holiday in Maine when he heard a radio announcement for a conducting apprenticeship.
“I motored there in my sister’s Plymouth coupe and was taken on. In charge was a venerable actress, Enrica Clay Dillon, who, for some reason, was determined to produce opera just the way I had dreamed it should be done. Ms Dillon was having a big row with the music director, Edwin MacArthur, who was still Kirsten Flagstad's chosen conductor, and he left Deertrees within a day or so of my arrival. Karl Kritz, a fine musician and Viennese conductor in the German wing of the Met was then placed in charge. The other conductor there was Hermann Weigert, whose only function seems to have been the coaching of the then 23 year-old Astrid Varnay for the Wagnerian roles in which she later became famous. (She made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Sieglinde the following year, replacing an indisposed Lotte Lehmann, and six days later, filling in for Helen Traubel as Brünnhilde.)
The company consisted of 12 to 14 young American singers and was the forerunner of the great opera-training programs to come, very much like today’s West Bay Opera. Among the members were Phila Tharpe, and Elizabeth Caradonna, a coloratura, who had a pleasant career afterwards under the name Elizabeth Caron. They performed in English, just as I had projected in my essay of the preceding year. I was in pig heaven. That summer, in Dillon’s birch log theatre, we did I Pagliacci, Martha and La Traviata. Little did I think that it was to be 50 years, more or less, before, regional companies from Connecticut to California would be performing opera in English or in the original, with the then unimagined Supertitles, for plain folks.”
In a 1950 newspaper interview, Freda Behrens recalled the production of I Pagliacci.
“You've seen the theatre? Then you must have noticed those two big doors in the rear wall. ‘Dilly’ had those designed so that when a forest scene was needed she could just open those doors and floodlight the trees behind. It made a wonderful effect. We did Pagliacci once that way, and instead of a goat cart we got an old flivver and drove it right on the stage up a ramp. You should have heard the audience applaud that. The bugs and the moths flew in and out, and that was the most woodsy scene you ever saw.
The Deertrees Opera Company continued into the summer of 1942 but the United States had entered World War II and after a Red Cross/U.S.O Benefit concert on August 31st the theatre went dark and stayed that way for the next three years. In January 1944 Ms. Dillon wrote Mr. Stanley at the Board of Selectmen in Harrison:
I am enclosing a check for $79.18 to complete the payment of taxes for Dillon Homestead Inc. [the name under which the Deertrees' property was held]. I find the taxes have increased this year to $81.30 over the amount of last year which was $237.88 and I would appreciate knowing why this is the case - especially considering that the property not only deteriorates yearly but has no opportunity to have any income and is sustaining losses. These are exceedingly hard times for all of us but in business such as mine, increases in taxes are a real hardship. I know that you will help me to understand this.
In 1946 Ms. Dillon announced the re-opening of Deertrees Theatre for a "Summer Festival of Opera and Drama." In her announcement she chided herself, and others, for closing American theatres during the war, saying, “Europe, even in turmoil, succeeded in keeping creative centers alive.” Despite Miss Dillon's failing health the theatre produced a program of alternating operas, plays and musical programs. Performances ran weekly, while operatic concerts were held Sunday afternoons. But by mid-summer Miss Dillon health had deteriorated to the extent that she was unable to continue working and on October 9, 1946 her brilliant career ended. She was 72 years old.