Summer Theater Act 2: Enter Madge Skelly

A multi-faceted person, Madge Skelly was not only the Managing Director of the Manistee Summer Theatre, but also performed in many of the same plays she was directing. Pictured with other cast members of the Manistee Summer Theatre troupe is Skelly (far right) in the production of “Ah, Wilderness” in 1958. (Courtesy Photo/Manistee County Historical Museum)


Manistee County Historical Museum

In most dramatic productions, Act 2 is the point in the plot when the characters and their obstacles begin to collide in what is traditionally called, “rising action” or, to put it in simpler terms, “when things start getting good.”

The same holds true in the case of the Manistee Summer Theatre as when the curtain rose on the summer of 1952, a new addition to the direction and management of the relatively new operation set the stage for many more years of what was to become a popular, seasonal tradition at the Ramsdell Theatre.

After a successful first year, which saw a reported 9,000 people attend the Manistee Drama Festival, the board of directors, along with managers Mitchel Polin and Rob Henderson, made a few changes to what was hoped would be an even better year for 1952. The first change was to modify the name from the Manistee Drama Festival to Manistee Summer Theatre, providing a more permanent sounding title to what was hoped would be an annual occurrence.

However, the biggest change was the hiring of an assistant director by the name of Madge Skelly. A talented actress as well as a skilled director, Madge grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa., where she was bitten by the acting bug at the age of three. Over the years she performed on radio programs and in various theatrical productions across the country. An article published in the Manistee News Advocate on May 23, 1952 announced the arrival of Madge Skelly in Manistee:

“Miss Madge Skelly, director of the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, has been engaged as associate director of the Manistee Summer Theatre for the 1952 season by Rob Henderson, director of the summer theatre company.

“Miss Skelly will direct the opening play, “A Play for Mary”, a new comedy by William McCleery beginning Tuesday, June 24, and running for six evening performances at the Ramsdell Theatre.

“A professional director and actress of wide experience in New York and Boston, Miss Skelly has appeared as a featured actress with many outstanding players.

“She was featured as Abby in the road company of “Arsenic and Old Lace” and played with Bela Lugosi. She appeared with Fred Stone as Penny in “You Can’t Take it With You,” and also many other plays.

“Miss Skelly was director of the professional Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., for three summers, and last year she was the London representative for “Collector’s Item,” a new play that had its premiere in New York last season.

“For the past two seasons, Miss Skelly has been director of the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre in Kalamazoo, and has been re-engaged for the third season beginning next fall. She has been greatly responsible for maintaining the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre among the leading theaters in the country.”

While Miss Skelly was initially hired as Assistant Director she ended up directing nine out of the ten plays during the summer of 1952: “A Play for Mary,” “The Vinegar Tree,” “Harvey,” “Present Laughter,” “The Happy Time,” “Night Must Fall,” “Angel Street,” “Miranda” and “Yes, My Darling Daughter.” Additionally, she also acted in many of the same plays she was directing.

A year later, with Polin and Henderson gone, Skelly was named managing director, a position she continued to hold for the next nine years in productions ranging from “Anastasia” to “You Can’t Take It with You.”

To include the titles and write-ups of the over 65 plays directed by Madge Skelly would be exhaustive, but throughout her tenure as managing director, Skelly and the board of directors incorporated other things into the program including a series of children’s theatrical productions that became a staple of Manistee Summer Theatre. Additionally, Skelly began an affiliation with Century Michigan University in which off-campus drama workshops were taken by students for college credit.

It was also under the skilled eye of Skelly that a young actor by the name of James Earl Jones started his career at the Ramsdell Theatre. While Jones began work as a stage manager, he eventually honed his craft on the Ramsdell stage appearing in numerous productions.

As the years passed by, the summers of the 1950s elapsed into the summer season of 1961, which would be Skelly’s last as managing director. After leaving Manistee, Skelly embarked on her own “Act 2,” earning her doctorate in speech pathology.

She became chief of audiology and speech pathology services at Veteran’s Hospital in St. Louis, Mo. and also was a professor of community medicine at St. Louis University’s School of Medicine. Additionally, she invented a new form of sign language for those who could hear but could not speak.

In 1974, the Manistee Civic Players honored Skelly by dedicating the theatre’s tower as Madge Skelly Tower. At the age of 93, Skelly passed away in July 1993, leaving behind a tremendous legacy that included the longest, and perhaps the finest, Act 2 of the Ramsdell Theatre.

In the coming weeks, we will take a look at the concluding season of the Manistee Summer Theatre and hear from one of the actors who appeared in productions throughout that final summer.


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