Have You Ever Heard of the Cape Cod Music Circus?

This is the Music Circus circa August 1950 courtesy of Mass History.com

For more than six decades the Cape Cod Melody Tent has been wowing audiences throughout the summer. The well known acts, intimate seating, and summer air have made it a destination for visitors and locals alike. It has become a staple on West Main Street in Hyannis. Did you know that the Melody Tent once resided in a different area, and under a different name?

The concept of an open-air entertainment complex began in 1948 in Lambertville, New Jersey and was the brainchild of St. John Terrell. Broadway actress Gertrude Lawrence was vacationing in southern Florida when she happened upon a circus tent where actors were performing. It was a modern take on the Theatre-In-the-Round established in Ancient Rome and Greece. The tented theatre in Miami Beach, called a ‘music circus,’ impressed her so that she told her husband, noted Broadway producer Richard Aldrich, who at the time owned the Cape Playhouse in Dennis as well as the Falmouth Playhouse at Coonamessett.

Aldrich would parlay his previous successes to gain a buzz for his project. A piece of open field located at the intersection of Main Street and High School Road in Hyannis was chosen as the home for Aldrich’s venture. Dubbed the Cape Cod Music Circus it would be the first such venue in New England. The fireproof tent seating 1,000 spectators would hold events over a ten-week summer season. Aldrich would present the high class musicals, comedies, and operas that he was used to seeing and producing on Broadway. Though they would not have scenery due to space constraints there would be lavish costumes where needed and a nine-piece orchestra.

A postcard of the Music Circus at its original Main St./High School Road location courtesy of Mass History.com

After months of anticipation opening night of the Cape Cod Music Circus came on July 4, 1950 with a performance of Sigmund Romberg’s operetta ‘The New Moon.’ Actress Lilian Gish, comedian Fred Allen, and several local politicians were among the 880 who packed the debut.

Despite the difficulty of producing weekly shows due to the lack of scenery and proximity to the audience the first season went off without a hitch for Richard Aldrich and his associate Julius Fleischmann ending the inaugural season on Labor Day Weekend with a performance of ‘Show Boat.’

In December 1950 the tent and all of its chairs were moved from Hyannis to St. Petersburg, Florida. It would be a part of the new Treasure Island Music Circus, a joint venture with music circus originator St. John Terrell. Aldrich opened another open-air music venue in nearby Cohasset in the summer of 1951 naming it the South Shore Music Circus.

Richard Aldrich, a commander in the Navy, was called to active duty in the Korean War before the start of the 1951 Music Circus season. He would be replaced in management by friend, and New York lawyer David Holtzmann. The season would open with Moss Hart’s ‘The Great Waltz.’ The event was attended by nearly 1,000 people on a cool July 2nd.

A Postcard of the Melody Tent shortly after relocating to its current site.

That success was followed by a new five-year lease signed in August to keep the Music Circus at its location off Main Street. Aldrich also managed to keep ticket prices stable, roughly $1-3 per show depending on the day and time, despite costs constantly increasing. Attendance would remain high. This was helped by rerunning popular shows and the rising fan favorite status of actor Jim Hawthorne thanks to roles in shows like ‘The Student Prince.’

Early in 1953 worries arose that Aldrich could not retain the Music Circus site just off Main Street. Increasing costs had Aldrich deciding how to expand without losing the intimate setting.

Those worries were put on the backburner when on June 16, 1953 a lawsuit for breach of contract was filed by the originator of the music circus concept St. John Terrell against Richard Aldrich and Cape Cod Music Circus. Terrell claimed that in March 1950 he had agreed to help setup the Cape Cod Music Circus and produce or supply shows for a weekly fee and percentage of the gate. Aldrich’s lawyer shot back that Terrell actually breached the agreement by not creating the Music Circus of America Corporation as he had promised.

While the proceedings were ongoing the Music Circus was dealt a huge blow when the plot of land it resided on was sold to the up and coming Stop & Shop supermarket chain. The venue would have to be moved in time for the 1954 season. Aldrich had five sites in mind but promised to stay in Hyannis.

The current Melody Tent courtesy of Mass History.com

In December 1953 the courts found in favor of Terrell. The decision forced the ‘music circus’ name to be dropped. A contest was held to find a new name and in January 1954 the Cape Cod Melody Tent was born. Shockingly two people, Mildred Hobbs and Donald Traysor, submitted the same name and were given grand prizes of two season passes.

The Melody Tent would relocate to a piece of property along West Main Street just behind the former Dutchland Farms restaurant. The new locale would have hardtop flooring, upgrading from the dirt and grass of the old venue. It would also usher in the need for the West End Rotary to be built to account for the increased traffic. A larger tent with slender poles allowing less obstructed viewing holding a capacity of 1,100 people was created. Fittingly the first event at the new Cape Cod Melody Tent would be fan favorite Jim Hawthorne starring in ‘The Student Prince.’ This was followed up by ‘Oklahoma!’ and the Tent was off to the races.

The new venue secured and successful Richard Aldrich would sell his interests in the Melody Tent, leaving his attorney David Holtzmann in charge. Aldrich would remain a consultant and stay on as producer at the Cape Playhouse and Falmouth Playhouse until his contractual obligations ran out.

As the 1960’s dawned slowly the Melody Tent began shifting its attention from musicals and operas to shorter engagements with traditional musical acts. These changes became more frequent until the seasons at the Melody Tent evolved into what is seen today, a tremendous mix of some of the best entertainment the world has to offer.

The Melody Tent remains a fixture on Cape Cod more than sixty-five years after it first opened in a grassy field along Main Street. Except for a brief flash by the Cape Cod Coliseum it has remained the standard bearer for entertainment on the peninsula.

By Christopher Setterlund

737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
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