Green Mansions: The Adirondacks’ Original Theater Lab
By James H. Miller
Thursday, August 8, 2013
In 1952, prior to becoming one of the most widely celebrated composers on Broadway, Charles Strouse, who 25 years later would write the music for that most enduring and ubiquitous of musicals, “Annie,” was engaged in some dry work as a dance lesson accompanist, “sweating out each minute of my $1.50 per hour rate.” Strouse’s luck suddenly changed for the better, however, when he accepted an offer to become choreographic composer at a resort located between Warrensburg and Chestertown on Tripp Lake, which boasted of a famed theater.
As Strouse would recall in his memoir, “Arriving at the resort, the first thing I noticed were the fourteen nondescript brown wooden cabins, four brown tennis courts, a brown dining hall, and a not-too-solid, two-hundred seat brown wooden theater. All unaccountably called Green Mansions.”
About 15 miles from Lake George, the Green Mansions resort—which took its name from W.H. Hudson’s novel—may not have looked particularly grand (or green). But from the time when then husband and wife Sam Garlen and Lena Barish opened the resort in 1927, to when it was eventually sold in 1972, Green Mansions hosted an impressive lineup of performing artists for the entertainment of its guests. The list reads like a glowing marquee: dancers Doris Humphrey and Dorothy Bird, the Group Theatre with Clifford Odets, Harold Clurman, and Lee Strasberg, songwriters Harold Rome and Sheldon Harnick, actors Stella Adler, Jack Gilford, and Carol Burnett, and such directors as Elia Kazan—to name only a handful. All of them had their start at Green Mansions, and nearly all would thrill the popular imagination on both stage and screen with talents they honed at the resort.
As for Charles Strouse, who played piano, occasionally acted, and served as musical director that summer at Green Mansion, his stay had a decisive impact on his songwriting career. “Having spent the time since my graduation from Eastman imprisoned by my self-doubts, I felt, for the first time, if not free at Green Mansions, at least paroled,” he wrote. The applause he received at the resort became a “magic tonic.”
A nephew of the owner Lena Barish, Michael Bronson passed each summer at Green Mansions with his parents, who worked at the resort, from the 1940s to the mid-1960s. “From the opening day my aunt was determined that those who would vacation there would have entertainment at a higher quality level than you would normally expect to find in a summer resort or camp,” said Bronson in a phone interview. “It wasn’t just comics and singing acts. As it developed, it was meaningful theater and opera, and a lot of dance.”
It was Sam Garlen’s family connection to Glens Falls that led the couple to Warren County. His father, Charles Garlen, owned Queen City Bakery, the only Jewish bakery in the city. He also founded and directed Camp Walden in Diamond Point throughout the 1930s and 40s. For a short time, Barish and Garlen operated a rustic resort in Warrensburg called Echo Lake before they purchased the land that would mount Green Mansions. It was a collaborative effort between husband and wife, but it was Lena Barish’s vision that would define the resort as an “adult camp for moderns,” as it would come to be known. To the slightest detail—from the furnishing and food, to the architecture and flowers that blossomed around the resort—she scrupulously labored to curate a memorable retreat. She would even loan artwork from New York’s better galleries to display around Green Mansions. It was the same with the theater: the performances on stage reflected Barish’s taste.
“She was an example of a truly independent woman in an era where that was not always the case. She preceded all these women who are now CEOs of major companies. She ran this place,” said Bronson.
When it was invited to Green Mansions in the summer of 1933, the Group Theater was flat broke. Founded two years before by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford, the Group, which introduced “method acting” to the stage, had defected from the Theater Guild, but naturally at a great financial cost. In general, as the Great Depression unfolded and “talkies” became a phenomenon on screen, stage theater struggled to find capital and audiences. By 1931, two-thirds of Manhattan’s playhouses had ceased to exist. In 1932, 22,000 unemployed performers registered with Hollywood casting bureaus, commencing a vast migration to Southern California.
At Green Mansions the Group Theatre found both freedom and stability. In exchange for four nights of entertainment each week, the Group received bed, board, and a fairly bucolic rehearsal environment. To be sure, it was an arduous summer, and the director Harold Clurman would complain that, “The gossip columns in the New York papers kidded us, and made disparaging remarks about our services as ‘entertainers.’” Yet the fact remained that, since there was no box office and no direct pressure from the critics, the resort was an ideal place to experiment with new material.
“In a country where theater, movies, and entertainment is usually based on whether the investor gets his money back or not, this whole enterprise had no financial element to it other than whatever budget my aunt felt was affordable in terms of providing entertainment for the people who came to the resort,” Bronson said. “There was the ability to do stuff without the fear that you were failing,” he added.
Among those who arrived with the Group Theatre was the playwright Clifford Odets (his 1949 play “The Big Knife” was recently revived on Broadway). At the time, Odets was finishing a nascent version of what would be his first play and a pivotal success for the Group, called “Awake and Sing!” The second act was performed for Green Mansions’ guests, who responded by “roaring their enthusiasm and falling out of their chairs,” as Odets later recorded in his diaries. The urban working-class drama was a mighty success, and there would be an identical response when it premiered in 1935. After that night at Green Mansions, Odets claimed, “I was not to be stopped or contained.”
Another work that owes its genesis to Green Mansions is Harold Rome’s pro-labor, anti-fascist musical, “Pins and Needles.” Rome first summered at resort in 1935, which he called “the best training you could possibly get,” and would do so for the next two years. There he wrote a portion of the material that would become “Pins and Needles,” including such devilishly amusing songs as “Sitting on Your Status Quo,” “Sing Me a Song of Social Significance,” and “It’s Better with a Union Man.” The International Ladies Garment Workers Union would commission the musical based on the Green Mansions material. It premiered in 1937—with a cast made up entirely of the union’s workers—and ran a staggering 1,108 performances—a record at the time. Eleanor Roosevelt saw the musical four times and then brought it to the White House, where President F.D.R. guffawed at the lampooning of Italian autocrat Benito Mussolini.
“The theater wasn’t focused on being progressive, it was focused on being entertaining, but in the process of doing that there was certainly a lot of satire that poked fun of more conservative elements of our culture,” said Bronson.
Green Mansions continued to host a wellspring of talent throughout the 1940s and 50s. Actor Jack Gilford was one of many performers who passed through. Perhaps best known for his Cracker Jack commercials of the 60s and 70s and his work on Broadway, Gilford was a social activist who, with his wife, the actor Madeline Lee Gilford, fell under the suspicions of the House Un-American Activities in 1956. Both refused to name names of subversive individuals to the committee and were subsequently blacklisted. Lena Barish and Jack Gilford had become close friends, and she stood by him during the financial distress that followed the blacklist.
“She said, ‘Well, whatever happens you’ll always have a job at Green Mansions,’” Bronson said.
Lena Barish and Sam Garlen’s marriage dissolved in the 1960s. Barish would buy out Garlen’s stake in Green Mansions and then sell the resort in the spring of 1972. She then took her first summer vacation in 45 years, traveling to Europe, where she died in Prague. “It was so much of her life,” Bronson said of Green Mansions. While the resort still exists today, the dining hall and theater have since been converted into condos.
Michael Bronson, a producer and media consultant, also had his start at Green Mansions. When he was just 13, he started working backstage at the theater. He eventually became stage production manager, and worked with such people as Don Adams, who would later garner several Emmy-Awards for his portrayal of Maxwell Smart in the television series “Get Smart.” Bronson has also been awarded several Emmy-Awards for PBS programs he produced for the Metropolitan Opera.
“I run into a number of people I worked with when I was a teenager and for them they still look back at their time at Green Mansions at being an important element in how they became successful,” Bronson said.
One such person is Charles Strouse. When the Broadway composer published his memoir, “Put On a Happy Face,” quoted at the beginning of this article, he mailed a copy to Bronson.
“The note when he sent the book to me was ‘Green Mansions is a big part of this,’ meaning it’s what helped get him started.”
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