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The Sesquicentennial Amphitheatre

Tue, June 06, 2017 3:38 PM | Anonymous member

How Carter Barron was named

With the summer season about to begin, this week we remember a production that was designed to be staged each summer within earshot of our neighborhood (much to the chagrin of many Crestwood residents). While the show had a short run, it did give rise to the Carter Barron Amphitheatre.

In advance of the District of Columbia’s 150th birthday as the Nation's Capital, Congress established the National Capital Sesquicentennial Commission. Lawmakers authorized the Commission to erect some sort of building or buildings to mark the anniversary in 1950. The Commission decided on an outdoor stage where a historic pageant could be shown each year during the summer months. Secretary of the Interior Oscar Chapman presided over the groundbreaking for the Sesquicentennial Amphitheatre in December 1949. The structure was completed in July, 1950 at a cost of more than $560,000.

Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Paul Green was hired to write a dramatic play for the venue, similar to other pageants he created. In his lifetime, Green authored 16 such "symphonic dramas." The most famous one is The Lost Colony, which continues to be staged each summer in an outdoor pavilion on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Visitors to Williamsburg, VA could see Green's production "The Common Glory" nearly every summer from 1946 to 1976. For the DC production, the playwright came up with "Faith of Our Fathers," a musical about the life of George Washington. Advertising described the show this way: "It portrays the benevolent, wise and just character of the Father of Our Country. You will be stirred by the author's capture of Washington's contribution to the fibre and strength of our original democratic concepts. You will be thrilled with the Washington story told with all the ingenuity of modern theatre: pantomime, folksong, dreams, music, choreography."

Local actors and ordinary residents lined up to audition for roles. Professional actor Charles McClelland portrayed George Washington. But the cast member who would go on to the most fame was a veteran of Arena Stage and Olney Theater productions: playing the part of New York Governor George Clinton was Pernell Roberts, who was still nine years away from his signature role as Adam Cartwright in the television series Bonanza.

On August 4, 1950, President Truman attended the premiere, which the Baltimore Afro-American remarked "had all the glamour and glitter of a major theatrical event." However, the newspaper said there was nothing "to rave about" on opening night "except for the singing of the Sesqui chorus and the acting of John Tate." Tate (who played William Lee, a slave who served as Washington's personal servant) was one of several African Americans in the cast. The review noted that "the period of American history presented by Mr. Green's pageant was a tragic and often horrible one, in which the words "freedom" and "liberty" sound a little ironic to the members of the race."

The show's run that first summer was brief because of construction delays. A disappointing total of about 46,000 people came to the Sesquicentennial Amphitheatre over eight weeks. Tickets cost 90 cents for general admission; reserved seats went for $1.80 and $2.40.

The Commission's executive vice chairman, Carter T. Barron, died November 17, 1950. A week later, the venue was renamed in his honor.

Faith of Our Fathers returned the next summer "drastically redesigned" from the season before, according to Evening Star reviewer Jay Carmody: "New in production, lighting, music, dancing, and radically revised in script, the pageant drama bids everyone to forget the flaws and vicissitudes of last year's abbreviated run." For one thing, a large orchestra (described in various newspapers as comprising anywhere from 19 to 22 pieces) replaced the first summer's simple organ music. Still, Carmody called the production "frankly circusy in flavor, with fireworks, horses and tableaux." Tate returned as William Lee, and the new script made the part of Benjamin Banneker a speaking role. During the last performance in 1951, a disgruntled former cast member waved a pistol backstage just before the opening curtain and was arrested after threatening he was "going to get" three people working on the production.

Many Crestwood residents signed a petition opposing a third season of Faith of Our Fathers. According to the Evening Star, neighbors complained of "loud amplification, causing sleeplessness until as late as four in the morning; rehearsals after midnight, and loud and excessive noise of patrons leaving the theater at night," plus "dust from parking areas blowing for blocks into the houses, and parking patron's cars in the neighborhood, making it impossible for guests of residents to find parking places." The Crestwood critics won the battle, but not the war. The historic pageant was not renewed. Nevertheless, after the Sesquicentennial Commission was disbanded, federal authorities allowed Carter Barron Amphitheatre to be used in future summers for ballets, musicals, concerts and even the circus.

--David Swerdloff, Trumbull Terrace

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