My Pop received a diagnosis of cancer in November 2008. He listened and blinked and said to his doctor, “Well let’s get it taken care of quick ‘cause I have a play to do in Peterborough this summer!” A play to do in Peterborough this summer. Words that had great meaning for my father throughout his wonderful life.
James Whitmore was an actor, but the story of how his career began is not universally known. Mustered out of the Marine Corps at the end of the Second World War, he hit the streets of New York City with a dream that he had nurtured in the chaos and terror of the Pacific: To become an ACTOR!
He was a farm boy from Buffalo who had thought about becoming a Presbyterian minister, like his father before him, but had fallen in love with Gilbert and Sullivan. The war experience had made it clear that he better go after what he wanted in life! No matter how farfetched.
So, he hit the bricks in New York and started learning his craft and auditioning for jobs. He got a job in early 1947. He was hired to work at a summer stock theatre way up in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
Before he left New York he was in a scene class at the American Theatre Wing. A casting lady came in from the rain and sat in the back of the theatre. She was waiting for a cab. While she waited, she watched. She noticed the stocky kid on stage, he was a good actor and seemed like the Marine that he was. A few days later she was having a meeting with Kermit Bloomgarten – a big Broadway producer. He was producing a new show about the war Command Decision starring Paul Kelly, and he was looking for a new guy to play Kelly’s adjutant. An important part. But he needed a kid who he could believe was military. The casting agent thought of the tough kid she had seen doing the scene on that rainy afternoon. He was perfect! But who was he??? She tracked him down and found out his name. The problem was he had left town a few days ago and was starting that summer stock job.
So, she called up to Peterborough Players and told the kid to get back to New York! He said “No I can’t risk this job! It’s the first paying job I’ve gotten as an actor and I’m not blowing it!” As luck and fate would have it, the woman who founded the Players, Edith Bond Stearns overheard the conversation and told my Dad, “You must go to the city and audition for this role, and I will pay your way. You cannot pass up chances like this.”
My old man did what she said and after several auditions which took him back and forth to NY a few times, he got the job!! Mrs. Stearns footed the entire bill for all the train rides, and she kept a place for him in the Players company that entire season.
My Dad met my Mom at the Players that summer and they got married at the church in Dublin. I showed up the next year. Command Decision got 21 curtain calls opening night! Pops was on his way to a career as an actor that few have matched for integrity and commitment to craft.
James Whitmore made his bones in Hollywood but never stopped going back to the theatre. It was the source of it all. It all began with Edith Bond Stearns and Peterborough Players.
In 1998 Pops was in Peterborough doing his renowned one man show, ”Will Rogers USA.” He was once again feeling the excitement of the place, the dedication to doing great work, and the young people working hard. He remembered his beginnings.
Gus Kaikkonen asked if Dad would be interested in coming back in 2000 and doing “The Stage Manager” in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, for the millennial. “If I’m alive, I’ll be here” Dad said. He was and he was!! And so, James Whitmore started another run at the Players, one which lasted to the end of his life.
In 2004 he invited me to leave my TV and film work to come to the source. We did Inherit the Wind together and Tuesday’s with Morrie here at the Players. I got to finally give my Dad something back after all he’d given me.
My Dad had found his Oasis at the end of his life! A place to explore great plays with wonderfully gifted collaborators. The seasons were rich in tradition and classism. Gus pushed the envelope into groundbreaking and edginess.
The Players is a cultural treasure which continues today. With Tom Frey ascending to the role of Artistic Director, this place is more alive than ever.
Mr. Frey’s vision for coming out of the pandemic was with a dynamite Grand Restart lineup, -- Our Town, downtown in the town, BEEHIVE: the 60s Musical, and the US premiere of Where You Are -- all staged in beautiful outdoor environments for the times we’re living thru. And, this spring my daughter called me very excited and said, “Dad I can’t believe it, I have a play to do in Peterborough this summer!” There she was Mrs. Gibbs, Peterborough Players 2021. She was wonderful!
It is an exciting time for the theatre. It’s also a life and death time for the theatre.
The Peterborough Players is a bastion of excellence and commitment to all that makes us great as a country and a species. The human heart does not keep beating in a vacuum. It takes support.
Help us please! Will you join me now in making a generous gift to the Players Annual Fund at this important time? Let’s keep this national treasure alive and thriving.
James Whitmore, Jr.