Music and Theater: The Maine community I know

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Andrew Harris said the last time David Mallett performed at DeerTrees Theatre in Harrison was about 20 years ago. Mr. Harris, DeerTrees’ Artistic and Executive Director, was speaking to the July 21 audience — including me — waiting to hear a live concert from “David Mallett and Friends,” with Michael Burd (bass), Robby Coffin (guitar), Roy Clark (keyboard) and Susan Ramsey (violin, viola, background vocals).

DeerTrees is among unique theaters, movie houses, Grange halls, and churches throughout Maine, given facelifts and renewed purpose for showcasing quality performing artists. In my experience, hearing of these places is mostly through word of mouth, social media, and weekly newspapers.

I spoke by phone this week with Andrew Harris. He said DeerTrees was a dream fulfilled in 1936 for “prominent opera singer Enrica Clay Dillon.” Built “on an old deer run,” using local timber, the 350-seat theatre was the acoustic equal of the best theaters in New York City. Ethel Barrymore, Tallulah Bankhead, Edward Everett Horton, Dame Mae Whitty, and Rudy Vallee are among the distinguished artists appearing at DeerTrees.

“All [Ms. Dillon’s] friends were from the acting world, or Broadway, or Hollywood,” Harris said.

In the 1954 Bing Crosby movie, “White Christmas,” a barn in Vermont becomes a playhouse. The barn door is slid open to reveal snow falling outdoors. DeerTrees had something to do with that.

DeerTrees has a sliding barn door backstage “so you didn’t have to paint any scenery,” Harris said. “You could just look out at the Maine countryside. Word traveled from DeerTrees to the west coast — where a film studio was making “White Christmas” — that there actually did exist a theater in New England that had this feature, and therefore, the making of the film was justified,” Harris said.

Decades passed. DeerTrees fell dormant. The Town of Harrison took ownership. In the 1980s, word spread of local officials torching the old theater for firefighter training. Dr. Allan Mills stopped it. Afterwards, a nonprofit was formed to restore DeerTrees to its full glory.

Andrew Harris joined DeerTrees 2011 when, he said, “very little had been done to maintain the building. The theater was in debt and in a bad financial way. It was my responsibility to get it back on track. We’ve managed that, and to improve and expand programming every year since 2011,” he said.

In addition to fine music, DeerTrees has a robust theater production schedule.

“Maine is full of great visual artists, great musicians, and richly strong professional actors and theater practitioners,” Harris said. “We create theater from the community I know.”

A Professor and Chair of Theater at the University of Southern Maine, Harris said, “I get access to students, and colleagues who are professionals, and students who want to work in the theater. We use [DeerTrees] as kind of an informal training ground for the theater degree at USM.”

What would Andrew say to a potential Piscataquis County audience?

He said, “Everyone’s busy. I’m a great believer that you don’t have to travel great distances to have a complete break. You can drive 100 miles and stay at a bed-and-breakfast, enjoy a nice restaurant, and hear some live music. A two-night stay could give three really enjoyable days. A lot of people don’t know what Maine’s western mountains area is like.

“I’ve been up to Dover-Foxcroft,” continued Harris. “There’s different features, different looks. I think everyone, perhaps, gets a little complacent about what they’ve got. But you can be someplace completely different [and] find a new restaurant, a new pub, and at DeerTrees, experience a concert” inside or outdoors on a Maine night.

Harris dismisses the idea of live streaming a DeerTrees concert.

“I think we all got too used to: ‘You can watch it on a DVD.’ For a little effort you can get an even bigger reward,” he said.

I can’t argue with that.

Learn more about DeerTrees at http://www.deertrees-theatre.org

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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