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“The farm was a stage set; the tractor drivers and nurserymen were stagehands.”
Steven Bach

“When I order a tree at nine a.m., I want to be sitting in its shade by five p.m.”
Moss Hart

In 1937 Moss Hart (You Can’t Take It with You) was a rich and successful Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter. He had a Pulitzer Prize and a little cash to spend. So he purchased a more than 200 year old farmhouse house on 87 acres—called Fairview Farm— in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. (About an hour and a half from New York City.)

Back in August, I wrote a post about Bucks County because that’s where a young playwright named Neil Simon took one of his first plays that was struggling to find an audience. He called the the three-week summer stock run at The Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania a ”last ditch for his play.”

Playwright George S. Kaufman also had a farm in the area, which is probably originally drew Hart to the area. Plays that Kaufman & Hart wrote together would be performed at the Playhouse, sometimes with Kaufman or Hart also directing or acting.

When Moss Hart married Kitty Carlisle in 1947 the two spent their honeymoon performing the Kaufman and Hart play The Man Who Came to Dinner, at The Bucks County Playhouse.

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Moss & Kitty Hart on their Fairview Farm in Bucks County where they started a family and entertained famous guests.

The Playhouse helped attract many people to the area including John Steinbeck, Burgess Meredith (perhaps now best known as Rocky Balboa’s original trainer), Lillian Hellman, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harpo Marx. Many who found a way to spend time with Hart on his farm.

Hart also did much of his writing on the farm including a story based on his own property—George Washington Slept Here. He also spent a good deal of money on the farm—including expanding the farmhouse, adding a pool and tennis courts, and thousands of trees and shrubs— which had an positive economic impact in the area during the 1930s.

“Landscaping, decorating, and remodeling would continue as his Broadway and Hollywood earnings helped end the Depression in Bucks County, bringing delight to friends and contractors, not to mention well-diggers.”
Steven Bach
Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart

Hart “bought the farm” in the other sense when he was only 57 years old after three heart attacks.

P.S. When I started this blog in 2008 I knew that I could probably gather enough notes to write a year of posts. I never thought I’d be doing to a decade later. Now I realize I could do a year of posts on just Moss Hart (1946-1961), but this will be a last post on him for a while. But in a few days I’ll begin a string of posts on early Hollywood screenwriter Frances Marion who had a connection with Hart. In the 1930s he rented her famed estate overlooking Beverly Hills.

Scott W. Smith

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“Borscht — beet soup usually served cold with sour cream and the waiter’s thumb — is a metaphor for Jewishness. . . . Thus the Catskills, which catered almost exclusively to Jewish vacationers for two generations, might have been called Pastrami Paradise, Derma Road or the Bagel Circuit. But Abel Green, the editor of Variety, reputedly coined the term Borscht Belt — and so it remains.”
Stanley Karnow
The Washington Post, “Goodbye to the Borscht Belt”

Some day I’ll do a run of posts on Yiddish theatre and why screenwriter/playwright David Mamet says parts of Hollywood were built by Ashkenazi Jews with Eastern European roots. Consider this a primer on how some Jewish entertainers in the early and mid-20th century got stage time experience at summer camps and resorts in upstate New York.

Before Moss Hart became an established Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter he decided that he could not rely on working a regular job and have energy to write at night. (He did that once with limited success.) He wanted instead to write in the daytime while his mind was fresh. So what he did was take low paying theatre directing jobs and earn a chunk of money working as a social director at various summer camps and resorts.

In his autobiography, Act One, Hart both relished and abhorred his six seasons working the camps. The social director was in charge of the nightly activities. Here’s a snapshot of Hart’s week in his first summer season—one that was repeated each week from June to September.

Monday night: Campfire night that would include a Shakespearean recitation, usually out of Hamlet, Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet.” Hart was a skilled singer and guitar player.
Tuesday night: Costume or dress-up night. This would be something like “A Night in Old Japan” where the staff presented a Yiddish version of The Mikado.
Wednesday night: Game night. One-legged races, peanut relay races, and dancing.
Thursday night: Free time to play basketball or rehearse play for the weekend. (Some rehearsals were all night affairs that didn’t end until 7 AM the next morning.)
Friday night: Drama night. (Dress rehearsals began at 4 PM.)
Saturday night: Musical comedy night.
Sunday: Farewell to guests. Movies were shown at night for the new guests allowing the staff to get some sleep before beginning another week of activities.

This meant Hart and his staff of 10-12 people would be performing new plays every week. Lines had to me memorized, props gathered, sets built and painted.  Hart says these were amateurish productions but “elaborate and difficult in terms of light cues, props and quick changes of costume and scenery.”

Hart may have never spent a day in college, but one could argue that he got more than an equivalent of an MFA by directing and acting (and sometimes writing) two plays a week. Not only that but a ton of experience in managing people, problem solving on limited resources, and learning what works and doesn’t work in entertaining a crowd.  And along the way, Hart made a name for himself.

”In time, Hart’s status as social director changed markedly for the better. By 1929 he was, as he said, ‘the most highly paid [$200 per week], the most sought-after social director of the Borscht Circuit,’ as the string of hotels catering primarily to Jewish customers in the Catskills was known. At the Flagler Hotel he had a personal staff of twenty-six people, a substantial budget to work with, and he was able to provide much more polished entertainments than he had presented in earlier years.”
Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre
Jared Brown

Here is a program for the 1929 summer season when Hart presented recent Broadway successes that regularly filled a 1,500 seat theatre. That was Hart’s last year working the Borscht Circuit as his own play Once in a Lifetime  (written with George S. Kaufman) became a hit on Broadway.

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Many other well known entertainers honed their craft on the Borscht Circuit on their way to Broadway and Hollywood. Perhaps none better than Danny Kaye. (Who would eventually work with Hart on Broadway.)

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In the Catskills; A Century of the Jewish Experience in ‘The Mountains’
Edited by Phil Brown
Page 228

The heyday for summer camps appears to be between the 1920s to some point in the 1960s. From when automotive travel became more common until the days when air travel became common place. Hart’s autobiography was published in 1959 and even then he said the summer camps that still existed were greatly different from the ones were he worked.

The film Dirty Dancing (while shot in North Carolina) depicts that era in the Catskills.

And to prove what’s old is new again, the second season of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (2018) takes a trip to the Catskills. (Episode 4: We’re Going to the Catskills!)

Related Books:
A Summer World: The Attempt to Build a Jewish Eden in the Catskills, from the Days of the Ghetto to the Rise and Decline of the Borscht Belt by Stefan Kanfer

Article:
The Ghosts Hotels of the Catskills (Sad photos of the remnants of abandoned theaters.)

Scott W. Smith

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“After his first Broadway smash, Hart’s life morphed from the grim black-and-white of poverty to Technicolor.”
Meryl Gordon

I don’t recall the stock market crash of 1929 getting get mentioned in playwright/screenwriter Moss Hart’s autobiography Act One.. Perhaps because in 1929 he was in his 20s and had never had money in the first place. That was also the year when he was working on a play with established playwright George S. Kaufman in the daytime and directing small theatre plays at night.

Even though he and Kaufman’s play Once in a Lifetime debuted on Broadway in 1930, the Great Depression didn’t seem to have an effect on ticket sales of that show. Other shows didn’t fair as well and ticket prices drop to stay running.

As the Depression deepened, there were other ‘angels from within’ who fought to ease some of the suffering of the ailing system. Playwright Rachel Crothers helped to organize the Stage Relief Fund to assist actors in paying for food, rent, medical necessities and utilities. Dramatic actress Selena Royle helped to initiate and run the Actor’s Dinner Club, where hot meals were served nightly at $1.00 each to those who could afford it and free to those who could not. It is reported that during the leanest season of Broadway, over 120,000 free meals were served.”
Robert Rusie
Broadway 101

The Great Depression lasted until 1939. But for Hart the ’30s were incredibly productive and profitable.  Hart and Kaufman wrote the Broadway hits You Can’t Take It with You (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939).  In 1937 Hart and Kaufman were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for You Can’t Take it With You, and the following year the movie version based on their play won an Best Picture Oscar and and Frank Capra won the Best Director Oscar.

In the ’40s Hart also wrote screenplays including Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) for which he earned an Oscar nomination. In the ’50s he worked on the screenplay for A Star is Born (1954). There were many other plays and movies he worked on (including musicals with Cole Porter and Irving Berlin) but his last big production was directing My Fair Lady for which he won a Tony Award.

His autobiography was published in 1959 and since it’s titled Act One and only went up to 1930, you sense that he eventually planed to write the books Act Two, and Act Three down the road. But he died in 1961 at age 57 of a heart attack.

Something else he doesn’t mention in his book is is struggle with depression.

“He had terrible depressions. But I find that most creative people have creative depressions. . . . And he would go into these declines and it would sometimes be two weeks before he’d come out. But he never imposed that sort of thing on other people.”
Kitty Carlisle, Moss Hart’s wife
YouTube video 

Hart’s letter are keep in the Wisconsin Historic Society in Madison. There were off limit many years after his death. But according to a Vanity Fair article he does talk more openly about his depression and bouts of writer’s block.

Scott W. Smith 

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“Very few plays are without faults of one kind or another, but few plays succeed with a bad last act. The best kind of fault for a play to have is first-act trouble, and the worst kind last-act trouble. An audience will forgive a slow or even weak first act, if the second act grows progressively better; and a third act that sends the audience up the aisles and out the theatre with the impression of a fully rounded evening, can sometimes make that hair’s-breath difference between failure and success. A bad third act or even a poor last fifteen minutes of a play can be ruinous. It can somehow wipe the slate clean of all that has gone before and completely negate the two acts preceding it, and if a playwright is not in control of his last act in the final week of the tryout, it is unlikely he ever will.”
Playwright/ screenwriter Moss Hart (You Can’t Take it With You)
Act One,
page 389 (of the original 1959 publication)

And to follow that bit of advice from a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, here’s Oscar winning writer Michael Arndt unpacking what he believes makes for a good ending. (Just click on the “Watch on Vimeo” button, or click here.)

Endings: The Good, the Bad, and the Insanely Great from Pandemonium on Vimeo.

P.S. Here’s a related quote that seems to belong here:

“I think all good stories have one thing in common. And that is they have an ending that— I don’t want to say satisfying, because some great stories have unsatisfying endings, which is why they’re great stories—but have an ending that transports you somewhere. You have to be at a different place at the ending than you were at the beginning. And if all the story has done is taken you right back to the very place you were when you read the first sentence, then it was a waste of your time. “
Malcom Gladwell
MasterClass/Selecting the Story

Related posts:
Insanely Great Endings
Insanely Great Endings (Part 2) 
Happy, Sad, Ironic & Ambiguous Endings 

Scott W. Smith 

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When Moss Hart was an office boy in New York City before becoming a Pulitzer and Tony-winning playwright, one of the perks of his job was free tickets to Broadway plays. This was in the early 1920s when there were 70 theatres “going full blast” at peak season. By pulling a few favors, and because new plays were opening all the time,  Hart was able to go to a different play every night. And because the tickets were free, much of what he saw were the bad plays.

“I am not suggesting that witnessing a spate of appallingly bad plays is a creditable method of learning how to write a good one, but it has its points. Though I had no idea whatever of writing plays at that time—the thought never crossed my mind— I am certain that some of those expository first acts, some of the ineptitudes of those second-act climaxes, and some of the stunning lack of invention in those third acts must have somehow seeped into my inner consciousness. The big ‘hit’ of any season almost seems absurdly simple; so effortlessly does it unfold, that it almost seems as though it could not have been written any other way. Watch a failure on the same subject, and you will see by what slim margin the mistakes have been by-passed, the cul-de-sacs averted in the hit. I am inclined to think those wretched plays I sat through stood me in good stead long after I’d forgotten what they were even about.”
Playwright and screenwriter Moss Hart (A Star is Born)
Act One, page 48

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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There was [The Wizard of Oz actor] Bert Lahr sitting with the cast of his latest vehicle . . . Stash [Prager] introduced me, saying ‘This is Doc Simon. The kid’s written a funny play Bert.’ Bert looked at me an said quite earnestly, but still in that Cowardly Lion’s voice, ‘Is it about anything? If it’s not about anything, they won’t like it. Make sure it’s about something, kid,’ then wished me good luck and turned back to his party.”
Playwright/screenwriter Neil Simon
Rewrites, A Memoir

P.S. That brief exchange happened in a restaurant in Philadelphia shortly before the opening night of his first play (Come Blow Your Horn) in 1961. The first performance received, according to Simon, “a partial standing audience.” Critic Ernie Schier of the Philadelphia Bulletin agreed with the audience writing, ”The theater season has bounced to its feet with Come Blow Your Horn, a laugh happy, bell-ringing farce which opened last night at the Walnut.”

And that’s how Neil Simon launched his playwriting career. That success in Pennsylvania paved the way for the play to make it to Broadway and eventually get produced as a movie featuring Frank Sinatra, Molly Picon, Jill St. John, Barbara Rush, Lee Cobb, and Tony Bill.

Related post:

How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (and where Michael Arndt gives basically the same advice as Bert Lahr)

Scott W. Smith

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This exchange between playwright Neil Simon and Terry Gross is from a 1996 Fresh Air interview:

GROSS: You have a theory that you write about in [your book Rewrite:A Memoir] that your mind doesn’t know, when you’re writing, that it’s only fiction. Your mind thinks you’re actually living through whatever you’re putting on paper.

SIMON: Yes.

GROSS: What has led you to this conclusion?

SIMON: Because my body goes through the pain that I am going through in the writing. I feel the tenseness if I’m writing a scene between, let’s say, a husband and wife who are having a fractious marriage. Things are going wrong. There’s a big argument. There’s a confrontation. I feel the intensity in my body, and I don’t think I’m acting that out. I truly feel it. I’m exhausted when I go home, whereas if I write something that’s a funnier scene, a lighter scene, a more loving, romantic scene, I don’t feel that same tension. I feel a lightness about me. So I don’t think that the mind differentiates about what’s going on in real life or what’s going on in the fiction you’re writing.

GROSS: So fiction really does take its toll on you physically.

SIMON: It does, but it’s been very rewarding for me. I don’t think I would like to have been anything else in life but a writer, but I also don’t think I could have been anything else.

Related posts:
Nostalgia: The Pain from an Old Wound
Emotion-Emotion-Emotion
Power Your Podcast with Storytelling “Everyone wants to find a way out of pain.”-
Alex Blumberg
Method Writing—Write with Your Scars 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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