Vokes Theatre
Route 20, P.O. Box 283
Wayland, MA




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Beatrice the Cat Beatrice Herford Vokes

Beatrice Herford, Her Theatre & Vokes Players
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Beatrice Herford

A PARTIAL HISTORY

Beatrice Herford was born in England in 1868, the sixth of seven children of the Revered Brooke Herford and Mrs. Herford.  When she was six or seven, her father was called from England to a church in Chicago.  After several years, he came to the Arlington Street Church in Boston where he served for nine years.  During that time, the family spent the summers in Wayland, Mrs. Herford buying the James Draper house on the corner of Plain and Draper Roads with the accumulated wedding fees that Mr. Herford always turned over to her.  The family returned to England when Beatrice was a young lady, and it was not long before she hit upon the idea of entertaining at teas and house parties at country estates (it being the vogue to have “entertainment” at such functions).  She wrote her own monologues and practiced on her friends and relatives.  Finally, in 1895, she gave a recital at Salle Erard in London and was instantly a smashing success, receiving very favorable reviews in the newspapers.  After that, she had all the engagements she could manage. Read more about Beatrice on Wikipedia

In the fall of 1896, she came to Boston and gave a recital in Association Hall, and then spent the winter in New York, Chicago, and other cities, returning to England in May of 1897. There she took part in a duologue in her father’s church where she was married to Sidney Hayward of Wayland. Three days later, she said for American and Wayland, which was her home until her death in July of 1952.

For many years, Beatrice was the darling of the Keith vaudeville circuit, and she also acted in plays in New York. In the summer of 1904, Beatrice conceived the idea of building a theatre on the Hayward estate in Wayland for the amusement of herself and her theatrical friends. She made a model of a theatre and Mr. Everett Small and Mr. James Linnehan build it along with Beatrice. At first, there was no lobby or back part, but these were added a year later, thus placing the front door, the box office and the lobby at the rear of the auditorium. Beatrice named the theatre after Rosina Vokes, a great English comedienne whom she very much admired. She wanted a real theatre, and that is what she built – real balcony, real boxes, real stage with dressing rooms, red blush rails (stuffed with excelsior from the wedding presents of Marian Bennett Robbins (a neighbor). The balusters on the balcony were constructed from tracings she made from some wallpapers in her house (probably the famous scenic French wallpaper depicting the Lady of the Lake). And, of course, there were gold framed mirrors with their gilded bow knots which Beatrice made of putty and then gilded. Mr. Meade of Weston, architect for the Wayland Library, gave the shield with the festoons for the proscenium, and the frame of the arch was made of valances from an old Salem mansion, brought to Wayland in 1975 and presented to Beatrice by Mrs. James Coolidge when the theatre was built. Mr. Gannon, who painted at the Boston theatre and, according to Beatrice, mixed his paints in chamber pots, painted the curtain; and Beatrice painted the “tormentor.” The little gilded lion seated so regally on the shelf at the foot of the stairs to the balcony was picked up by Beatrice in an old shop in London.

On September 23, 1904, Herford opened the doors of what was dubbed in a June 1917 article by House Beautiful Magazine as the "Smallest Theater in the World."  Opening night took place on September 23, 1904 with the production of a minstrel show and vaudeville. Gelett Burgess was in the box office. There was a doorman to take tickets, and the ushers were young boys who wore white trousers with red stripes at the sides and red epaulets on their coats. Every year for fourteen or fifteen years, one play was given in the theatre by local talent. Sometimes there was a small orchestra under the direction of Mr. Bennett. Dances and parties were also held there.

Among her many friends who have visited the theatre were Katharine Cornell, Ellen Terry, Lotte Crabtree, George Arliss, Nora Bayes, Ethel Barrymore, John Drew, William Archer, and Gelett Burgess, some of whom (as well as others) inscribed their signatures on the inside of the box office door.
circa 1930

This was the Vokes Theatre in June of 1937, when a small group, organized as the Vokes Players, received the gracious and delighted permission of Beatrice Herford to use her precious theatre. It was a courageous group, for the little theatre was by then in sad disrepair. The seating capacity was about 90, backstage space was nil, and the two dressing rooms, one for men and one for women, were just about the size of telephone booths. To go from one side of the stage to the other during a performance, one had to run around outside the building…and often did. At the sides there was just room for one person to stand offstage and operate the curtain and lights which, by the way, were antiquated and defective. If the cast was large or props numerous, it was necessary to accommodate them in a tent pitched near the rear door or in a car trunk backed up to that entrance. Still, enthusiasm was high, and when the first production went off so well, a second one was put on in September of that year. As there was no heat of any kind in the theatre, activities then had to be suspended until spring.
circa 1930

In that era, there were more obstacles to surmount, but one that caused much consternation in the second season was an inspector from the State Department of Public Safety whose attention was caught by a poster placed in the Wayland post office by the very efficient publicity committee. The inspected had never before heard of a theatre in Wayland. He inquired where it was and dutifully made his inspection. As a result (about one week before the play was to be performed), he forbade the performance without an asbestos curtain, another exit from the auditorium, an outside stairway from the balcony, and several other impossible things. He finally relented when a few of his minor suggestions were carried out and promises were made to get the other work done promptly thereafter. It was then that it was realized that substantial funds would have to be raised to improve the theatre if Vokes was to continue using it.

In 1939, as a way of earning additional money, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was presented in the Town Hall, which would seat a much larger audience than the theatre. Leaving the theatre for this production was entirely mercenary and for the eventual benefit of the theatre building fund. Those who remember the old Town Hall appreciate the challenges this production faced. However, with the money earned, the first heat was installed – two oil burners, one near the side door in the auditorium and one backstage. It was ugly, smelly and inadequate, but at least there was some heat!

Ever so gradually over the next five years, the bank account began to grow and with it dreams of grandeur in the future. Then, the war struck – World War II – and productions were suspended for lack of manpower, gasoline and time. The Vokes organization was kept alive, however, when many older and stronger groups withered and died. Monthly supper meetings were held in the Vestry of the First Parish, when husbands came out from Boston on the six o’clock train and wives combined their trips to the station with preparing supper at the Church. And all the time there were dreams of adequate heat and more room in the theatre.

The war’s end saw re-awakened interest in the little theatre and a swelling of the membership to include many new and talented young people able to contribute a diversity of skills necessary for successful theatrical productions. In March of 1946, Vokes again filled the Town hall to capacity with their production of “Night of January 16th,” a profitable evening for the building fund – not only from the sale of tickets, but from the first and only sale of advertising space in the program.

Also in 1946, a wonderful thing happened to Vokes Players… Beatrice presented the theatre property to the organization. A year later, Vokes was incorporated in order to take the title. At once repairs and alterations were started. The old front door was moved from the back to the side toward the street. The lobby was eliminated and filled with seats, and a new lobby was installed on the side at the front door. This increased the seating capacity to about 125. The right side of the stage was built out toward the street and two dressing rooms were constructed there. Most miraculous was a gas heating system being put in. Now there was adequate room and luscious heat… but the Players were broke and still without running water, telephone or storage space.

Time went on with many wonderful things happening, such as the Vokes Children’s plays, and the fabulous melodrama “Only an Orphan Girl,” the first production to run for two weekends. The need for more room was felt and, above all, plumbing. Again, Vokes Players started the struggle for enough money for the needed expansion. Finally, in 1952, the enlargement of the building was begun by attaching a large addition for working space in the back of the stage. The first new dressing rooms which had seemed so adequate were torn down and two larger ones put at the back of the new part. The electricians now had elbow room, as well as a new switchboard (salvaged from the Sears estate in Weston when it was wrecked). There was a cellar under the new part, but still no bathroom and no running water.

In the summer of 1952, Vokes members were saddened by the death of Beatrice Herford Hayward, and at a special ceremony, a portrait photograph of her was hung in the box which had always been reserved for her use during her lifetime, and which she occupied on opening whenever it was possible for her to be there. This was to be a permanent memorial and an expression of affection and deep appreciation. The following year, her box was roped off and unoccupied on opening nights.

It was in the spring of 1955 that the very first musical was given, and original by a Vokes member, Frank Hatch. It was entitled “One on the Town” and it packed the house for seven nights, bringing enough revenue (coupled with who had already been hoarded) to cement the cellar floor and install two large dressing rooms with a make-up space in the corridor down in the cellar, thus leaving storage space backstage for flats and – wonder of wonders – TWO bathrooms, dedicated with solemn and appropriate ceremony during the Annual Meeting of January, 1956.

In the summer of 1960, entirely with volunteer labor from the membership, the auditorium was reconstructed and enlarged. The stairway to the balcony was relocated at the end of an extended lobby, and an office and a costume room were constructed at the rear of the balcony. This now brought seating capacity to 160. In 1965, two-thirds of the parking lot was black-topped, thus eliminating our long-time struggle with spring thaw quagmires. In the summer of 1966, the old lighting equipment was replaced with a brand new and modern switchboard.

Following 1966, there were five years when surplus funds were accumulated until there was enough money in 1971 to excavate the rest of the cellar under the front of the stage and the auditorium. The foundations, at the same time, had to be repaired and strengthened. Alas, in order to do all of this, a building permit had to be procured and, in the process, a Town Building Inspector, doing his job well, requested that steps be taken to bring the Theatre up to the standards of the building code – a fire-detection system would have to be installed. This meant that more money was needed, so in 1973, a committee of dedicated members secured local advertising that appeared in the play programs for the year, thus bringing in enough revenue to protect the Theatre with fire detection. This was the only time that Vokes felt it necessary to ask the merchants of Wayland for help.

It was in 1973 that one of Vokes’ great treasures was purchased – an oil portrait of Beatrice Herford. Dan Kennedy, “Mr. Vokes” for years, received a telephone call from the sister of the deceased portrait painter, Margaret Fitzugh Browne. She had, in disposing of things in the artist’s studio, come across the portrait of Beatrice and though that Vokes might be interested in owning it. Dan, with his wife, Louise, and Blackie Grannis, went to see the portrait, like it, and recommended to the Board of Managers that Vokes purchase it for a very nominal sum. This was done and now, with an appropriate frame secured by Grannis from Mrs. Edward H. Sears, Beatrice’s portrait hands with honor in the Theatre at the entrance to her box. The portrait, painted in 1937, was the piece de resistance at the showing of portraits by Margaret Fitzugh Brown at the annual reception and tea at the Cove House Studio in Annisquam, Massachusetts.

In 1974, the office, constructed on the second floor of the Theatre in 1960, was renamed “The Kennedy Room,” to honor Daniel E. Kennedy, Jr. (Dan), President of Vokes in 1949 and 1950. Dan, as noted previously, was nicknamed “Mr. Vokes” by many of his friends and acquaintances who knew of his long association with, and constant support of Vokes in all of its endeavors since the very beginning. Dan was one of the founding fathers of Vokes in 1937. He passed away in 1974.

“The Kennedy Room” was the second dedication of a memorial to long-time members of Vokes who, by their dedicated service, deserved to be honored. The drinking fountain bubbler in the lobby, a much needed adjunct, was installed in 1962 to honor Arthur E. Grannis, Jr. (Blackie), when he resigned his Treasurership of Vokes after ten years of watching over the financial affairs of the organization with great care and efficiency.
circa 2002

It was the summer of 1974 that Joan Havener and Penny Kreidl spent untold hours of painting the interior of the Theatre, framing or reframing many of the pictures of Beatrice’s contemporaries and hanging them on the walls of the auditorium where they make a unique display. One of their memorable achievements was the conversation of the two bathrooms into two colorfully decorated, carpeted “powder rooms,” of which any theatre could be proud.
circa 2002

The summer of 1974 also saw the start of the use of the Theatre for summer adult productions. “Oh, Coward!,” presented by a group of young, talented, ambitious “college kids,” was an auspicious launching of the Vokes “Summer Theatre”. Subsequent summer productions in 1975 and 1976 established a policy and a regular schedule for the use of the Theatre during the summertime.

No building can long survive without constant maintenance, and 1975 brought once again the need for a considerable expenditure – replacement of the roof which had been only spasmodically patched for years. A direct appeal to members for contributions to “The Roof Fund” brought more than enough to re-shingle the entire roof and replace the rotted sub-roofing materials.

In 1975, the Vokes also instituted a policy of permitting the use of the Theatre by non-profit organizations – a policy in keeping with its charter to keep it a true community asset. A string quartet and The School for Special Learning used the Theatre, the School for three years for its Christmas plays. There have been joint meetings of Vokes and the Wayland Garden Club, and in September of 1976, the Woodridge Garden Club presented a program, the proceeds of which went for the beautification of the front of the Theatre. During this time, Vokes also instituted a policy of having benefit performances of a Vokes play for various community non-profit groups whereby a designated evening of a current play is announced as a benefit for a certain organization. The Wayland Historical Society, the Wayland Action Group, and the Wayland Boosters Club have all benefitted from this community-oriented policy.
Beatrice's Boxcirca 2010

Inspired by the late Jo Wilson, beloved Vokes member and longtime Wayland resident, the Vokes Players made a commitment to the cultural preservation of the theater and its artifacts. Organized in 2006, the Vokes Development Committee set out on its inaugural venture with the "Adopt an Artifact" project. This successful campaign resulted in the preservation and restoration of 47 authentic pictures of prominent theatrical dignitaries. These framed luminaries now grace the walls of our historic building.

Beatrice Herford built her beloved Vokes Theatre as a proscenium theatre, that is, one where the audience directly faces the stage with no audience on any other side. Separating the main acting area from the audience is an opening in the wall – the proscenium arch. This arch forms a "picture frame" through which the "picture" (the performance) is revealed by opening a curtain.  Complementing the arch are other unique adornments – gilt bows above the box seats, with gilt bows, bell flowers and shield above the stage. Sadly, today this elegant portal is deteriorating before our eyes. The arch and adornments clearly demonstrate the destructive handiwork of the ravages of time. 
Proscenium Restorationcirca 2010
The Vokes Players submitted an article to warrant at special Town Meeting on November 16, 2010, including a request to appropriate funding to restore and preserve Beatrice’s historical proscenium arch and its adornments. The article was passed and in 2011, the arch was restored.

But there is so much more to be done. Future efforts include preserving vintage costumes, scrapbooks and personal mementos from the Beatrice Herford Collection, and ongoing structural repairs needed to continue the life of the aging Theatre. At the same time we will continue to pay heed to the physical aspects of our building, such as the ornate hand-carved steps to the stage, Mr. Gannon’s hand-painted show curtain, and the refreshment structure "Dribley, Nibbs and Company" which is historically rich in and of itself.

Vokes Players take great pride in directing their own productions, making their own sets, and pilfering their attics and living rooms for props. Few towns in American can boast as rare and precious a possession as Beatrice Herford’s Vokes Theatre, containing as it does, many unusual mementos of internationally famous “greats” of the professional theatre, and inspiring the players to build for themselves an important niche in the world of amateur theatre.

Selected Monologues of Beatrice Herford

View Our Entire Production History

View Our Personality Photo Gallery


View a Sampling of Our Costume Archive

About the Theatre


View Some Structural Changes Over the Years





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