Retro Rumson Summer: The Barn Theater

Clip of press photo for The Barn Theater's production of "The Fantasticks" in the summer of 1977
Clip of press photo for The Barn Theater’s production of “The Fantasticks” in the summer of 1977
"Bye Bye Birdie" at The Barn Theater in Rumson circa summer of 1977 Photo/Elaine Van Develde
“Bye Bye Birdie” at The Barn Theater in Rumson circa summer of 1977
Photo/Elaine Van Develde

The following piece was originally posted on July 8, 2015. As we dive into summer season, we thought it only fitting to remember good summer times outside of the usual beach romp for those who grew up and raised their families in the Rumson-Fair Haven area — summer theater. Once upon a time, there was a special little place in Rumson … Take a trip back with us to  simple summers and magical, theatrical times … 

Remember The Barn Theater in Rumson?

Well, if you don’t, you missed out and are probably significantly younger than those who do and didn’t — miss out, that is.

It’s a plus if you’re that young. But, it’s definitely a factor in the minus category if you didn’t work, play or get entertained there.

It was a community theater that cast hundreds, maybe thousands, from the area, including many Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School (RFH) students.

The building is still there, only a few blocks away from the high school on Avenue of Two Rivers near the intersection at Ridge Road. The reason why it was called The Barn was, well, because it was an old barn, gutted (if there is such a thing with a barn) and converted into a small arena-type stage theater, with the stage at floor level and risers around it as seats, though not all the way around.

You get the picture. Now, here’s what’s behind the place’s show folk and shows …

The Barn was where a lot of theater kids, teens and adults spent a lot of their time honing and sharing their talents and really just plain having a ton of theatrical fun. There was always some sort of show, dance class or rehearsal going on at the theater and a good gaggle of friends met there and kept coming back for more — of one another and the place.

It was run by Lois McDonald, a grey-haired eccentric with a gravely, curmudgeon-like voice and manner — and the token cat, of course, as a constant companion and office mate. She was tough and wasn’t afraid to let you know that if you wanted a life in the theater, you needed to grow a thick skin and get right to it — no tap dancing around it.

She was a former dancer who taught many a kid the classic ballroom steps and the jazz, tap and ballet stuff that was made for the stage as well.

Her tough, eye-roll tenor at times (OK, often) masked her heart for the theater and its people as she’d crow from her office, “Don’t forget to leave a dime on the counter when you use the phone to call for your rides, kids!”

I’m sure now that we grated on her nerves a lot more than she actually let on as we pretended to call California just to irk — and she didn’t hold back too often. So, I’m guessing we pretty much shot her nerves to shreds at times. But, honestly, when you got the Lois wink and smile, it was real and you knew you did something right.

She was the one who did something right. She brought The Barn to many and cultivated and exposed a lot of talent in the process. There were all sorts of productions — from children’s theater to grand scale musicals. And they were going on year-round.

But, as an ode to those of us who “summered” at the barn, we’re taking you back to the summer of 1977, when two musicals were being rehearsed at the same time and running back to back. One was The Fantasticks, the longest running off-Broadway musical.

The other was Bye Bye Birdie. And there were a few cast members who did both. I was one of them. The bigger, more teen-centric cast was that of, of course, Birdie.

So, in honor of all the summer theater fun so many in the area had and were entertained by at The Barn, today’s Retro Pic of the Day is a double feature — a pic of the cast of Bye Bye Birdie when Birdie gets the key to the city and the cast photo featured in the review of The Fantasticks.

Recognize anyone in the cast? There are quite a few locals, some of whom are still in the area, in the Birdie photo. And there’s at least one in both casts whom you’ve seen in film, television and most recently in the Broadway revival of Of Mice and Men.

Summer theater fun at The Barn was nothing short of star quality. Thank you Lois McDonald for giving us this haven in which we made lifetime friends and got a great start on stage. There was a lot of love going around The Barn for both.

Remember shows at The Barn? Which was your favorite? How about some Lois McDonald-isms?

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