The following history of Cape May Stage was first written by Lynn Martenstein in 2018 for our 30th anniversary commemorative brochure: Thirty Years in the Spotlight: Cape May Stage Brings World-Class Theater to the Jersey Shore
By his own account, Michael Laird, the founder of Cape May Stage, was an “equity actor and a director and a producer and a sculptor and a playwright and a poet and a clown. ” He was also a dreamer and a salesman and a charmer with enough charisma to enlist others in his quest.
“It was Michael’s dream to have a professional theater space and take it forward,” said Jim Moffatt, a close friend and colleague, who helped Laird realize his dream.
Laird spent his school years and early career preparing for his ultimate role: establishing Cape May Stage. He appeared Off-Broadway in New York, at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia and at Aosolo State Theatre in Sarasota, Fla. He also did summer stock at PEI Playhouse in Prince Edward Island, Canada.
Laird settled in South Jersey in the mid-1980s. His home in Grassy Sound near North Wildwood quickly became a gathering place for friends and fellow actors. It also served as a makeshift stage and rehearsal space.
“You could only get there at low tide by foot,” Moffatt recalled. “It was impossible to get to at high tide.”
Laird’s performed his first show at his home, where the price of admission was a potluck-dinner dish. In 1989, he formed a Cape May Stage board, incorporated the company, and was granted permission by Actors Equity to hire its member actors for productions. That same year, he staged Cape May Stage’s first official production, “Sea Marks,” at the Chalfonte Hotel and Cold Spring Village. The play made $1,200 over its four-day run, but, more importantly, introduced the new theater company to the community.
Laird rented performance space at multiple locations for plays during the theater’ first few seasons, typically producing three shows yearly. When audiences became too large for the Chalfonte in 1991, he moved over to Congress Hall. He was always looking one move ahead, however, hoping to find a permanent base.
One potential prospect was the former Cape Island Presbyterian Church at Lafayette and Bank streets that the city had bought in 1952 for $2,000. City officials had wanted to tear it down, pave over its once- hallowed ground and build a parking lot. Fortunately, early preservationist Tom Harris convinced them that the town would be better served by a community center, which he subsequently ran for the next 17 years. When it closed in 1974, the city turned it into the town’s Welcome Center.
In 1993, Laird persuaded City Council to let the theater perform at the Welcome Center after hours and, in the fall of that year, Cape May Stage presented “The Dorothy Parker Story” at its new shared quarters. The theater juggled shows between its new location and previous sites until 1995, when it signed a three-year lease with the city.
The air of permanency fostered a strong wave of productivity at the theater. It ramped up to a seven-month season, launched cabaret shows at the Chalfonte and offered workshops and classes at area schools and community colleges.
Moffatt joined the theater’s board in 1995, and quickly rose to president, heading the organization from 1998 to 2001. He had recently retired as a management consulting partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Philadelphia, where he also served on the board of the Walnut Street Theatre.
“Michael was P. T. Barnum; I’d never met anyone like him,” Moffatt said. “He was very dynamic, almost bigger than life.”
“We got along really well,” he said. “We were pretty much opposites. I was a businessman and he had zero business sense, but he recognized that. Usually, he would just throw problems at me, and tell me, ‘Take care of it.’”
Their collaboration greatly benefited the growing theater, which expanded to an eight-month, six-show season, added film shorts to programming, and mounted high-quality productions such as “Love Letters” in May, 2000, starring theater legends Robert Prosky and Estelle Parsons.
Tragically, that trajectory faltered that fall when Laird was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died January 9, 2001. Laird’s sudden death was a severe loss for the community, and Moffatt and others initially struggled to maintain continuity at the theater. Their first priority was finances.
“Michael ran Cape May Stage out of his pocket,” said Moffatt, “but he never lost any money. When he died, no one but me really knew much about the operation so I stepped in and made it run more like a business.”
He immediately plowed into the task of putting the house in order. Tripling as volunteer interim artistic director, administrative director and board president, he organized the financial records, appointed a search committee to find a new artistic director, and started planning the 2001 season.
The board named Michael Carlton, who had directed plays at the theater under Laird, artistic director that spring. It hired Joe Pannullo as administrative director later that year.
“Jim Moffatt kept alive the whole concept of Cape May Stage back then,” said Dave Clemans, who would play an important part in the theater’s evolution. “He gave it a transfusion and kept the needle in the entire time.”
Cape May Stage faced a daunting opportunity when the Welcome Center left the mixed-use church and moved to the town’s old train station in 2000. While the building had been a godsend for the young theater, its secular years had exacted a heavy toll, and the building was badly in need of repair.
Clemans remembers sitting at performances at the Welcome Center and fearing for people’s safety. “I’ll never forget how frequently ceiling tiles would just drop on members of the audience,” he said.
“The city didn’t know what to do with the building, and didn’t have the money to fix it,” said Moffatt.
Cape May Stage knew what to do with it. It just needed to figure out how to raise funds to repair it and turn the interior into a professional theater space. In 2002, Moffatt, who had finished his term as president; his successor, Connie Felicetti; Carlton and Pannullo began to explore the feasibility and estimated cost of restoring the structure. Moffatt offered to lead the project and report to the board.
“First, we needed to see if the city was willing to give us a long-term lease,” Moffatt explained. “No one was going to give us money if we only had a year-to-year lease.”
Moffatt enlisted two experts highly experienced in historic preservation: Tom Carroll, longtime chairman of the New Jersey Historic Trust, and Clemans, a member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and county’s Open Space review board. Clemans also leads Sea Grove Associates that works exclusively with historic preservation projects.
“Adaptive-use of properties in one of the best ways to save historic structures,” said Carroll. “Just look at Cape May’s B&B industry. It’s been very successful at saving many of the town’s old sprawling cottages.”
Moffatt’s team brought in architects, engineers and contractors to kick the tires of the concept of resurrecting the church. He also solicited input from local business leaders. After months of meetings, the consensus was to move forward, and the board voted in favor of the project.
On January, 2, 2004, Cape May Stage signed a 25-year lease with the city, with the option to renew for another quarter-century. Shortly afterwards, it formally launched Project Encore, a three-year campaign to raise $1.2 million to fund the restoration of the theater’s historic new home.
In contrast, it took six months to build the former church in 1853 at a cost of $7,000. The builder, Peter Hand, a descendant of one of Cape May’s founding families, borrowed liberally from vastly different architectural styles in designing the structure. Latter-day historians would call it “Georgian Vernacular.” Clemans would call it “Victorian Exotica.”
Hand topped off his church with a bit of whimsy—an onion-shaped, cupola—or belvedere—on the roof. “Victorians were obsessed with European architectural affectations like Moorish domes, things they might have seen in books,” said Clemans.
Clemans and his associates, Lew Thomas and George Lowry, oversaw all phases of the construction. The project was task-specific for each year, and major work was confined to the off-season.
The first year focused on fixing the belvedere, which was leaning heavily to the side. “Rain water had damaged the heavy beams underneath it,” Clemans explained. “The largest timbers in the church’s timber frame are massive, nearly 16-by-16-inches thick, and they primarily support the belvedere.
“It’s unusual that Hand would use such an antiquated form as post–Medieval timber framing when he built the church but if he hadn’t, the building would be a pile of dust now.”
The second year centered on backstage facilities: actors’ dressing rooms and the addition of a private bathroom. The third year concentrated on windows, public bathrooms, tiered stadium seating and the lobby reception area. Work progressed on the outside fountain, piazza, brick walkways and landscaping whenever good weather allowed it.
Project Encore officially wound down in 2006, but the team’s wish list pushed some unanticipated work over to future years. In 2012, for example, the choir loft was converted into a 26-seat mezzanine and a state-of-the-art sound booth. Brick steps, hand railings, a wheelchair ramp and ticket booth were also added out front. The booth is replica of the roof-top belvedere, only it’s a quarter of its size.
The theater raised another $200,000 to pay for post-Project-Encore work, bringing the total raised to an impressive $1.4 million, a tribute to the community’s generosity. Admirably, several vendors involved in the project, including Sea Grove Associates, donated labor, and, in some cases, materials.
One extended family, the Shackletons/Martels, made a large gift to the theater in honor of the family patriarch, Robert Shackleton, a popular Broadway actor in the ‘40s and ‘50s who vacationed in Cape May as a young man. Today, his daughter, Leslie Shackleton Martel, and her husband, Myles, are summer residents of Cape May. Cape May Stage dedicated the theater to the thespian on August 11, 2007, following a performance of “Moonlight and Magnolias.”
Who was Robert Shackleton?
Robert Shackleton is the deceased father of Leslie Shackleton Martel, a seasonal resident of Cape May along with her husband Myles. Thanks to introductions made by former Board President Tom Cutler, the Martels have become avid fans of Cape May Stage, enjoying both the theatre productions as well as the gala fundraisers. Myles Martel contacted Project Encore chairman Jim Moffatt about the family’s idea of naming the building after Mr. Shackleton. The details were worked out in a series of phone conversations. Happily, Cape May City Council, owners of the building, gave their approval in February 2007. As a young man in the 1930s and early 40s, Mr. Shackleton visited his brother, Jack Shackleton, numerous times in Cape May. Jack’s family owned a house on Beach Ave. – the Griscom House. It is still owned by the family.
Mr. Shackleton was raised in suburban Philadelphia and attended Lansdowne High School and Blair Academy. He graduated from Temple University in 1936, earning varsity letters in wrestling and tennis. After graduation Robert appeared in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with the Savoy Opera Company. He then moved on to the Broadway theatre.
Broadway and London stage credits for Mr. Shackleton included: “Where’s Charlie” with Ray Bolger: “Keep Off the Grass” with Jimmy Durante: “Three After Three” with Simone Simone: “Set to Music” with Noel Coward and Beatrice Lillie. His screen career included lead roles in “Where’s Charlie” with Ray Bolger, and “The Wonder Kid”.
Mr. Shackleton’s theatre career was interrupted by World War II. He entered the Army as a private and attained rank of Major, serving as aide to General Omar Bradley. In 1941 he drew the first number out of a bowl in Washington, DC for the draft in World War II.
Tragically, Mr. Shackleton passed away at the age of 42 in 1956.
Other family members participating in the contribution to Cape May Stage include Robert Shackleton’s widow, Betty Shackleton Thurston, a resident of St. Simons, GA; and, Robert ‘Woody’ and Denise Shackleton, son and daughter-in-law of Robert Shackleton, residents of San Francisco, CA.
A Dedication Ceremony took place on the Playhouse grounds in May 2007.
Thanks to the generosity of the Martel/Shackleton family, The Robert Shackleton Playhouse is the new name of Cape May Stage’s theatre building at Bank and Lafayette Streets in Cape May. This 1853 historic structure is now a state-of-the-art theatre and is known to residents and visitors “as the jewel in the crown of Cape May’s architectural gems”.
Roy Steinberg had a purpose and a plan when he walked into the restored theater his first day of work in 2009. He had been hired as artistic director after Carlton left for another job.
Steinberg wanted to use the building more during the week than just for nightly performances and twice-weekly matinees. Within months, he started Second Stage, a diverse entertainment program on Monday nights when main-show actors were off, featuring musicians, magicians, poets, comics and clowns.
He also debuted the theater’s Broadway Series as a Second Stage offering. Headliners during the first few years included Liz Callaway, Ann Hampton Callaway, Karen Akers, Christine Ebersole, Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, and husband-and-wife team, Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry.
Always looking for new talent and material, Steinberg launched Cape May Stage’s National Playwrights Symposium in 2011. An attendee in 2015 and 2017, Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis applauded the initiative. “The Playwrights Symposium is an outstanding and highly nurturing setting for playwrights of all levels to meet, convene, learn, create, take risks, and hone their skills,” he said.
Guirgis also had equally high praise for the forum’s creator. “Roy Steinberg is a visionary artistic director who knows how to bring together a team of professionals, and encourage them to take bold risks and make imaginative choices,” he said.
Building from a strong base, Cape May Stage has attained a level of theatrical achievement today that pulls in bigger talent, larger audiences, and higher recognition. In 2016, Broadwayworld.com awarded Cape May Stage top honors for its production of “Disgraced,” a cultural drama by Ayad Akhtar that won a Pulitzer Prize. It cited the work for Best Production in New Jersey, Best Actor (Mark Geller), Best Director (Roy Steinberg) and Best Set Design (Raul Abrego).
The Dodge Foundation has awarded Cape May Stage several grants over the last few years. The theater received a 2010 grant on the heels of performing two challenging plays, “Top Dog/Underdog” and “Happy Days,” which the grantor noted when it informed the theater of the funds. While circumstances had restricted its grant-making that year, the foundation explained, it was awarding money to Cape May Stage because it was doing “important work,” plays that educated even if they addressed controversial issues.
“At the end of the day, I think my role at the theater is to give some meaning to people’s lives through our productions,” said Steinberg. “We’re all looking to find out what life is about and to celebrate the good things in it, and plays can often be the messenger. We’re honored and humbled to be able to do that here in Cape May.
“Cape May Stage is very important for Cape May,” said Tom Cutler, a patron and former board president, who headed the search committee that hired Steinberg. “It’s not a mom-and-pop operation. It’s a first-rate theater. This is a serious town, and this is a serious theater.”
As Cape May Stage enters its 30th season, it has much to celebrate: a welcoming community, an award-winning theater, a home in a lovingly restored building that is part of Cape May’s past, and a loyal following of supporters and volunteers. While Act IV is yet to be written, it is sure to be an exhilarating time for the theater as it continues to grow, innovate and explore. Cape May Stage invites you to join us in that future.