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One man's plans keep summer pleasures in Dennis

DENNIS -- For 34 miles, from Bourne to Orleans, the Old King's Highway, also Route 6A, parallels the shores of Cape Cod Bay, winding up and down hills past woodlands, salt marshes, and inland ponds. One of the most appealing aspects of this stretch -- originally a Native American trail -- is the 19th-century architecture along the way that has remained remarkably true to its origins.

This is thanks to the Old King's Highway Historic District Commission, charged with maintaining the route's character and charm. The organization does not allow unconventional restorations, and has strict regulations about signage.

Small prices must be paid in the name of historic preservation, however. Take, for instance, the original sign for the Cape Playhouse in Dennis. The old and weathered wooden sign has been there for the better part of a century and is easy to miss, even when you're looking for it.

''The sign is grandfathered in," said Kathleen Fahle, managing director of the playhouse. ''It's too big by the commission's standards. If we ever touched it, we would never be allowed to put it back up again."

Once you do spot the sign and find your way to the 26-acre arts complex beyond it, you'll want to stay for a while. On the grounds are the playhouse, a single-screen movie theater dating from the 1930s, and the Cape Cod Museum of Art.

The Cape Playhouse is the nation's oldest professional summer theater, about to begin its 79th season. It was the vision of a young California producer and playwright, Raymond Moore, who, according to Fahle, wanted to bring the best theater to Cape Cod.

''He had quite a vision back then," Fahle said. ''He wanted to create one of the first centers for the arts. He wanted to foster music, drama, horticulture, and fine art. He thought it would draw people from all over."

Moore originally hoped to open his sophisticated theater in Provincetown, but he found the location too remote. So he chose the more central Dennis, where he bought a former Unitarian Meeting House for $200 and had the 19th-century building moved to three acres of farmland fronting the Old King's Highway, then converted it into a theater. The original oak pews, now with cushions, still serve as seats, and all 600 of them are regularly packed on summer evenings.

Basil Rathbone, legendary for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, starred in the playhouse's first production, ''The Guardsman," in 1927. It wasn't difficult for Moore to persuade actors that a summer job at the playhouse was preferable to spending the season in hot, humid New York.

Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Ginger Rogers, and Lana Turner all honed their acting skills on Cape Cod before taking Hollywood by storm. Bette Davis first worked here as an usher. In the past decade, Jean Stapleton, Julie Harris, and Gavin Macleod have performed here. Jerry Stiller frequently graces the stage and on July 10, he will give an afternoon performance.

''It's kind of amazing whose footsteps you're walking in around here," said Fahle. ''We have photos of all our past performers [many of them of the actors enjoying their leisure, nonworking hours, on the Cape], and backstage there are posters from every production we've done. That's one of the things the actors love. They like to see the legends who have performed here before them."

The playhouse puts on six shows each season, a combination of musicals, comedies, and dramas. This year's schedule begins June 20 with ''Ambassador Satch: The life and music of Louis Armstrong," and ends with ''Don't Dress for Dinner," which runs through Sept. 10. Weekday mornings, the playhouse also hosts Children's Theatre, showcasing classic tales such as ''Pinocchio" and some goofy, contemporary shows. Free weekly tours of the playhouse are also offered.

When Moore opened the playhouse, he had more than 9,000 flowers planted on the grounds.

''Pictures from back then show that the grounds were just a field of color," said Fahle. Although the grounds remain extremely lush, the abundance of flora no longer exists. Fahle said she is trying to find financial backing to recreate Moore's horticultural haven.

As a companion to the playhouse, Moore opened the Cape Cinema in 1930. According to Kathleen Maguire, the cinema's manager, he wanted the design of the building to be intelligent and artistic, and the result was a true architectural gem; the façade was modeled in the Colonial Revival style, based on a nearby church, and its sides were given the appearance of a cow barn. The spacious interior of the single-screen theater originally was equipped with 300 individual arm chairs of black lacquer frames and tangerine-colored suede seats.

''The chairs are still there today," Maguire said, ''although in the 1950s they were lacquered to a reddish tone, and white seat covers hide the faded tangerine suede."

The true gem of the theater is the mural, covering more than 6,400 square feet of the curved ceiling. When it was installed, the mural was claimed to be the largest single mural in the world. The work by American artist Rockwell Kent depicts a modernistic concept of the heavens. It shows the sky in various shades of blue, gold, and orange, as well as the Milky Way, comets, galaxies, and constellations. Floating through all this are free-flying individuals who seem to be on their own personal space odysseys.

The cinema has a star-studded history as well. In 1939, it hosted the world premiere of ''The Wizard of Oz." Margaret Hamilton starred as the Wicked Witch of the West, and her affluent acquaintances were treated to an exclusive preview. According to Eric Hart, cinema president, the cinema has been run as an ''art house" since the 1970s when George Mansourbecame the programmer.

''Mansour is basically the founder of the art house genre," Hart said. ''He was the first in the industry to play art films outside of New York as well. It's because of him that the cinema is able to offer the highly specialized films it does."

April through October, the cinema is the Cape's only single-screen theater specializing in independent films, fine art films, and foreign productions. It's not open year round because, according to Maguire, heating the building in winter is difficult because of the high, vaulted ceiling. In summer, the cinema has a new film every week.

According to Fahle, Moore over the years acquired more and more land along Route 6A for his center for the arts, ultimately amassing 26 acres. When he died, his will stipulated that no one person would ever own the property, that it would be a self-sustaining complex.

''He wanted to ensure that the center lived on after his death," said Fahle. ''He didn't want one person to own it because he feared the property would be mismanaged or sold off to make way for condos or something."

The Raymond Moore Foundation oversees the 26 acres, which now include the playhouse, the cinema, and the Cape Cod Museum of Art, which opened in 1985. At the museum, Cape artists, both living and dead, are represented by more than 2,000 works on paper, canvas, and in sculpture.

The museum sponsors trips to artist studios, classes for adults, children's workshops, and lectures. It also houses a 92-seat digital screening room that serves as a companion to the Cape Cinema, where shorter films and documentaries are shown. Unlike the other two venues on the grounds, the museum hosts exhibitions and special events year round. This summer, ''The Home of Edward Gorey" features photographs of the Cape Cod home of the late author and illustrator. On June 20-26, the museum hosts its annual ''Garden Party," a weeklong event featuring home and garden talks, exhibits, and tours.

Contact Jaci Conry, a freelance writer in Falmouth, at jconry77@aol.com.

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