22 Years Before Jamestown . . . 35 Before Plymouth Rock

  • This year, 2012, marks two important anniversaries: it’s the 425th anniversary of the birth of Virginia Dare, the first child of English parentage born in America; and it’s the 75th anniversary season of The Lost Colony, America’s first outdoor symphonic drama.
  • Last night, July 3, 2012, at Waterside Theatre—home of The Lost Colony on Roanoke Island—there was what is called in theatrical language a “standard theater” . . . one minute of silence while all theater lights were dark . . . to pay tribute on the passing of Andy Griffith, who performed there in the play during the late 1940s and early 1950s.
  • Tonight, July 4, 2012, will mark the 75th anniversary of the first performance of The Lost Colony.

Morton collection volunteer Jack Hilliard takes a look back at the beginnings of Paul Green’s masterpiece and how the players, staff, and crews have dealt with fire and storm.

Actress portraying Queen Elizabeth from "The Lost Colony" outdoor drama, posing in the empty Waterside Theater on Roanoke Island, NC.

“. . . had there been no Roanoke Island, and Fort Raleigh, it is doubtful if there would have been a Jamestown (in 1607) or a Plymouth Rock (in 1620).”

— Lindsay C. Warren, United States Representative from North Carolina, in a speech before the first performance of The Lost Colony on July 4, 1937

The Lost Colony, Paul Green’s outdoor symphonic drama tells the story of 117 men, women, and children who attempted to establish the first English settlement in America, only to meet a strange and mysterious fate.  On July 4th, 1937, the initial performance of The Lost Colony took stage in Waterside Theatre on the northeast shore of Roanoke Island.  Sam Selden, friend and co-worker with Paul Green at UNC, staged and directed the performance.
Just before that performance, North Carolina Representative Lindsay C. Warren spoke briefly.  Expressing gratification that the first settlement here was “by a race ardently attached to freedom and personal liberty and trained to the usages and customs of the realm of England.”  Representative Warren asserted that “so long as the liberties of the people are cherished and protected, then so long will civilization exist.”
On August 18, 1937, the production celebrated the 350th anniversary of Virginia Dare’s birth on August 18, 1587.  The featured guest that evening was President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Traveling down the sound in a coast guard cutter from Elizabeth City, the president’s party headed to Fort Raleigh where he was introduced by North Carolina Governor Clyde R. Hoey as “the first citizen of the republic, the colossal figure of the century, the President of the United States.”
In his 3:30 speech before 20,000 people, the President declared, “We do not know the fate of Virginia Dare or the First Colony.  We do know, however, that the story of America is largely a record of that spirit of adventure. . .  These people who landed on your island had courage to do what their countrymen had not done before.  Our heritage is the fruition of their brave endeavor.”  Roosevelt returned at 7:30 for the evening’s performance.
The 1937 production was scheduled to run for only one season, but public response was so enthusiastic that it was decided to repeat the show the following summer.  New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson reviewed the production on August 15, 1937 and said, “The Lost Colony has made an extraordinarily versatile use of spectacle, sound, pantomime and cadenced speech . . . .”
Critical acclaim continued, as did the show.
At the opening performance of the third summer season, in 1939, special guest Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was greeted by a huge audience.
Writing in the July 10, 1939, issue of Time magazine, Louis Kronenberger praised both The Lost Colony and Roanoke Island.  Said Kronenberger, “An elaborate spectacle . . . Paul Green wrote no glib anniversary pageant . . . with great sincerity, he infused into the drama of his lost colonists his own dream of democracy.”
When the “curtain came down” on season number five on September 1st, 1941, no one knew that in 97 days the world would change drastically.  On December 7, 1941, the attack at Pearl Harbor would bring to a close The Lost Colony . . . at least temporarily.  The lights would remain “out” on Roanoke Island until June 30, 1946 when once again The Lost Colony would be performed on the North Carolina coast.

"The Lost Colony" outdoor drama with Andy Griffith (upper right) as Sir Walter Raleigh, reenacting scene with Queen Elizabeth I (seated, played by Lillian Prince. Eleanor Dare (dressed in white in front of Griffith) is played by Barbara Edwards Griffith (wife of Andy Griffith at the time), circa 1949-1953..

It was late afternoon on June 24, 1947, when fire destroyed Waterside Theatre and The Lost Colony props.  Irene Rains, longtime costumer, saved the costumes when she tossed them into Shallowbag Bay.  Another hero from the ’47 fire was Albert Q. “Skipper” Bell, the designer and builder of the theater.  Bell’s pledge: “Give me some lumber and some men and I will rebuild the theater in four or five days.”  It took six days and the show went on.  One of Bell’s helpers on that construction job was a young man from Mount Airy who had just joined the cast as a soldier.  Two years later, he would take over the role of Sir Walter Raleigh and would play that part through the 1953 season.  He went by the name of Andrew Griffith.
Andy wasn’t the only famous person to grace the stage at Waterside Theatre.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, band leader Kay Kyser and Emma Neal Morrison, the drama’s most devoted patron came up with the idea of “Celebrity Night” in order to bolster attendance. It was simply putting names in the news as players in the show.  Some of the folks who participated were novelist and movie writer James Street, radio personality Kay Kyser and his wife actress Georgia Carroll, undersecretary of state James Webb, authors William Coxe, Jonathan Daniels, Foster Fitzsimmons, and Betty Smith.  UNC football great Charlie Justice, football coaches Carl Snavely from Carolina and Wallace Wade from Duke, Miss North Carolina 1951 Lu Long Ogburn and Miss America 1952 Kay Hutchins all were given a part in the show.  “Celebrity Night was a huge success.
The Lost Colony faced another challenge on the night of September 11, 1960.  Category 3 Hurricane Donna came ashore just inside the Outer Banks region, making landfall at Cape Fear.  Sustained winds of 115 miles per hour brought destruction to Waterside Theatre, but islanders would not allow their pageant to be blown away.  They again rebuilt the theater and the show went on.  Dedication of the new two-thousand-seat theater on July 14, 1962 also marked the celebration of the 375th anniversary of Virginia Dare’s birth and the 25th anniversary of the drama.  A 25th anniversary greeting came from Eleanor Roosevelt:  “Congratulation on the 25th anniversary of the presentation of The Lost Colony.  I remember how much we enjoyed it.”
Performer in Native American dress dancing in "The Lost Colony."
Performer in Native American dress dancing in "The Lost Colony" outdoor drama, Roanoke Island, North Carolina, circa late 1940s or 1950s.

In 1964, Joe Layton, famous choreographer, began as the new director, charged to reshape the play.  Remaining true to Paul Green’s original script, Layton had a new vision for the drama, and was able to bring high tech lighting and staging techniques.
On June 12th, 1987, The Lost Colony began a celebration of its 50th anniversary season.  A congratulatory note from President Reagan thanked all who had a hand in making it America’s longest-lasting outdoor drama.

There was yet another challenge for The Lost Colony in the early morning hours of September 11, 2007, when fire destroyed a maintenance shed and the costume shop with 80% of the show costumes.  Ironically, the costume shop was named for Irene Rains, the lady who saved the costumes in the 1947 fire.  At first it was thought that Andy Griffith’s sword from his days as Sir Walter Raleigh was lost, but the day after the fire Andy called production designer William Ivey Long and said he had the sword and would bring it out of retirement.  As before, The Lost Colony recovered from the 2007 fire, rebuilding the building and replacing the costumes in time for opening night on May 30, 2008.

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary season of the grandfather of symphonic American outdoor drama, the future is bright—although ever changing with new talent and improved technical achievements.

11 thoughts on “22 Years Before Jamestown . . . 35 Before Plymouth Rock”

  1. A lot of obstacles for one play… this reminds me a bit of the stories I heard about the shooting of Apocalypse Now, where the crew had to deal with similar disasters but created a classic in the face of destruction. All this aside, a very well written article and some beautiful photos as usual, thank you.

  2. On this day 75 years ago, August 18, 1937, The Lost Colony celebrated the 350th birthday of Virginia Dare. Featured speaker that day was President Franklin Roosevelt.

  3. A photograph, uncredited but possibly by publicity director Aycock Brown, that is very similar to the opening photograph to this post appears in the play’s 1961 souvenir program. For several years “The Lost Colony” had a competition for press photographers during a dress rehearsal, which may be when Morton made this image. A different photograph in the program (page 31) of the Raleigh and the queen posed in the Elizabethan Garden seems to be from a Morton 4×5 black-and-white negative (1.1.136-1-20 or ~ -23 in the finding aid).

  4. This past weekend the American Theatre Wing, based in New York City and dedicated to supporting excellence and education in theatre, presented its annual Antoinette Perry Awards for excellence in live theatre. The award is affectionally known as the Tony.
    In a special ceremony on Saturday night, “The Lost Colony” was presented a Tony Honors Award “for major contributions to American theatre.”
    Then on Sunday night, in a major live CBS-TV program, long-time “Lost Colony” costume designer William Ivey Long won a Tony for his costume design for “Rogers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella.”
    This was Long’s 13th Tony nomination and his 6th award. He is currently in his 43rd season as costume designer for “The Lost Colony” which is celebrating its 76th season through August 23rd.
    During the “In Memoriam” segment, Hugh Morton photo subjects Andy Griffith and Richard Adler were honored. Adler, composer and lyricists, passed away on June 21, 2012 and Griffith died 12 days later on July 3rd.
    Both Griffith and Adler are alumni of UNC…Griffith in 1949 and Adler in 1943.

  5. Special congratulations are in order for the cast and crew of Paul Green’s
    “The Lost Colony.”
    Tonight’s performance, July 4, 2013, will mark the 76th anniversary of the first performance on July 4, 1937.

  6. Two important “Lost Colony” anniversaries to be remembered today, August 18, 2013.
    (1) Virginia Dare’s birth on August 18, 1587.
    (2) Featured guest at the “The Lost Colony” on August 18, 1937 was President Franklin Roosevelt.

  7. Congratulations once again to the cast and crew of Paul Green’s “The Lost Colony.”
    The performance tonight. July 4, 2015, will mark the 78th anniversary of that first performance on July 4, 1937.

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