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Summertime at the Sconset Actors’ Colony


Edward Underhill was a war correspondent for The New York Times during the Civil War, before developing 17 summer rental cottages on three streets in Sconset in 1879. This was a time when summer cottages were really cottages, a design based on fishing shacks.

According to Frances Karttunen, writing for the Nantucket Historical Association, Underhill was also instrumental in bringing railroad service to Sconset in 1884. Four years later he bought 14 more cottages on the North Bluff.

Summertime had come to Sconset.

This was a time before air conditioning, when Broadway theaters sometimes closed during the sweltering summer months. Soon writers, producers, actors who performed on both the vaudeville and Broadway stages, and on the big screen of silent movies, found their way to what was becoming known as the Sconset Actors Colony.

You could take an Old Colony Railroad train from New York to New Bedford, then the ferry out of Woods Hole to Nantucket. Among those actors were Alice Brady and her husband James Crane. She had acted on Broadway stages and in silent movies. In 1920 the couple starred in a silent movie filmed in Sconset, called “Sinners.”

A poster for the movie, distributed by Realart Pictures Corp., of New York City, says the movie entertains audiences with “Mother love supreme. Sham and pretense exposed. Strong temptations overcome. Penitence and forgiveness for sin. Wholesome humor and dramatic situations.” All of this against the setting of “quaint Nantucket village scenes.”

Also in that summertime crowd was DeWolf Hopper, another Broadway actor, who found fame by giving voice to Ernest Thayer’s then-unknown poem, “Casey at the Bat.” It was said he recited the poem a thousand times, often as a curtain call for some of the plays he acted in and later on the radio. The gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was the fifth of his six wives.

Hopper’s best friend was Digby Bell, vaudeville actor and singer, who starred in many Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas. He was also an avid golfer, as was his pal, Hopper. The two must have made an interesting sight on the golf course, Hopper at 6’5” and Bell at 5’5.” For a time, Bell was the president of the Sconset Golf Club.

Broadway stars George and Percy Fawcett rented one of the Underhill cottages, along with their two daughters and Percy’s mother. George later starred in Maurice Chevalier’s first American movie, “Innocents of Paris.”

A story in Yesterday’s Island puts the Actors Colony at the center of building the Sconset Casino. “These big-name Broadway actors pooled their money together and built a ‘hall of amusement’ complete with tennis courts, a bowling alley, and most importantly, a stage known as the Sconset Casino.”

Frank Gillmore found his way to Sconset. The British-born playwright and sometimes actor had married American actress Laura Margaret MacGillivray and they had two daughters, Ruth and Margalo. He was president for many years of the Sconset Casino and was also founder and president of Actors Equity. Margalo grew up to be an actress, appearing in the film “High Society” in 1956.

When in New York City, the writer and humorist Robert Benchley was a member of a group of writers, critics and actors who gathered for lunch every day at the Algonquin Hotel. The group, which famously included Dorothy Parker, became known as the Algonquin Round Table. When in Sconset, Benchley was known for his wit and his performances in his own skits at the Casino.

An NHA digital exhibit called “Sconset 02564” mentions the 1923 skits “If Men Played Cards as Women Do” and “The Treasurers Report,” as two of Benchley’s best-known skits. The artist Tony Sarg, reads the story, “took the stage as an able comedian, and drew impromptu, humorous sketches of people at the Casino.”