Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Six-Decade Legacy of the Cape Cod Melody Tent

Brian Morris/WCAI

The Cape Cod Melody Tent begins its summer season in mid-June. Most people think of the Melody Tent as a summer music venue, but it started out nearly 70 years ago in a different location. The idea originated with British actress Gertrude Lawrence, who spent a lot of time on the Cape with her husband Richard Aldrich.   

“She saw a tent in Miami, and thought it would be a really good idea to bring a tent theater to Cape Cod. And she bought a tent and set it up in 1950 down on Main Street in Hyannis,” said Tony Raine, who’s been the Melody Tent’s Production Manager for 25 years.

Credit courtesy the Cape Cod Melody Tent
The Cape Cod Music Circus at its original location on Main Street in Hyannis.

Originally, the venue was a square-shaped tent called the Cape Cod Music Circus, producing mainly summer stock versions of Broadway shows. In 1953, after Gertrude Lawrence bought a new plot of land, the tent moved to its present location just off the west end rotary. The name was changed to Melody Tent the following year.

“When they moved here in ’53, it continued that tradition all the way up through the 60s, of doing summer one-week runs,” said Raine. 

The tent eventually switched over to the present day in-the-round format. Sundays were 'change-over days,' when the week-long runs ended, the sets were struck, and the productions moved on to the next venue on the circuit.

Credit courtesy the Cape Cod Melody Tent
A 1951 flyer for the Cape Cod Music Circus.

“So they started booking Judy Collins, Richie Havens, solo acoustics and a lot of those 60s acts to fill the dead night. That’s how it integrated into a music venue,” said Raine. 

Countless performers have played at the Melody Tent through the years: Tony Bennett, Frankie Valli, Johnny Cash, and Judy Garland, who used to bring along her teenage daughter Liza Minelli. Liza worked one summer as a lighting apprentice. She came back another summer and joined the dance troupe, and made her stage debut at the Tent as a dancer. 

Performers used to rehearse in a small barn on the far side of the property, which has markings on the floor - still visible today - that replicate the dimensions of the round stage. Minelli re-visited that barn the last time she performed at the Tent about six or seven years ago.

Credit courtesy the Cape Cod Melody Tent
This photo of Judy Garland and her teenage daughter Liza Minelli was taken inside the former rehearsal hall at the Cape Cod Melody Tent.

“She was walking around one afternoon, and I saw her looking over the fence and having a cigarette,” said Raine. “And I said ‘Are you looking for the rehearsal hall?’ And she said ‘Yes. It’s still there?’ And I said ‘Yeah, come on, I’ll take you over there.’ We walked over there and opened the door, and she said ‘I haven’t been in here since I was fifteen.’” 

Raising the massive tent itself is a day-long operation,

“It takes about 16 guys. And there’s six bundles. Each one is about 900 to 1,200 pounds,” said General Manager Keith Bellevue. “So we get ‘em out in a bundle, roll ‘em out down the hill, and then it takes all those guys to stretch them out. Then we lace them all together, and we use the grid motors to actually hoist it up in the air.”

Credit Brian Morris/WCAI
Melody Tent Production Manager Tony Raine (l.) and General Manager Keith Bellevue (r.)

Theater in the round is generally considered a dying breed. But many performers love it.

“A lot of them really embrace it. You know, it’s a real intimate feel for them to be able to be in touch with their fans no matter where they look,” said Bellevue. 

One holdover from the old days is the Tent’s commitment to children’s theater productions, which are held on Wednesday mornings. 

The Tent just installed a new sound system, with massive banks of speakers facing out in every direction above the round stage. It’s a symbol of how far the Melody Tent has come in the 69 years since that first square tent went up about half a mile down the road.

Credit courtesy the Cape Cod Melody Tent
A Cape Cod Melody Tent program from 1974.

“We have the state of the art sound and lights, so it’s a mixture of the new and the old – some of the new technology and some of the old tradition that we’re trying to honor,” said Bellevue.