Growing up with ‘Peter Pan’ on Shelter Island

The brick water tower at Westmoreland Farm features a clock at the top. Its height of 110 feet made it ideal for the flying scenes the first time the play “Peter Pan” was performed on American soil, in the summer of 1905, plein-air style. Bridget LeRoy

    It seems only fitting that Margaret Kestler is directing a production of “Peter Pan” at the Ross School this weekend. Ms. Kestler and her extended family live on Shelter Island at Westmoreland Farm, nicknamed Never-Never Land Farm for the past century, and for good reason.
    It is the very first place in the United States where the timeless production of Sir J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” was read aloud and rehearsed by Mr. Barrie and Maude Adams, the actress who brought the part to life in the Broadway premiere and was associated with it until her death.
    In the early 1900s, when James Barrie and Charles Frohman, the Broadway impresario, wanted to workshop a New York production of Mr. Barrie’s London stage sensation, they ended up at Westmoreland Farm. The gentleman’s plantation was owned by Capt. Thomas Morgan Turner, an heir to a cotton-duck textiles fortune who was known as a theatrical gadabout and was on very friendly terms with Mr. Frohman and other Broadway luminaries. He frequently dined with William McKinley, and his brother worked for the cardinals in the Vatican.
    “He was connected with every social circle you could imagine,” Ms. Kestler said Monday. However, it was his theater connections that led to the famed meeting.
    It was Captain Turner, whose property contained chimneys and towers high enough for the flying scenes, who suggested that Mr. Frohman and Mr. Barrie, along with Miss Adams, use his property for an outdoor staging of the play. And so it was, at the end of July in 1905 that — for an invited audience of theater folk and locals — magic was born on Shelter Island.
    Ms. Kestler’s mother, Frances Roe Kestler, chronicled the events before, during, and after in great detail in her book, “Never-Never Land: The Saga of Westmoreland Farm.”
    Here is what happened the day of the show: “There were no mishaps with the flying scenes or with anyone falling out of trees. Crowds seemed to appear from nowhere and sat on camp chairs or on blankets on the lawn. At the end, all concluded smoothly, like fine wine, and they were confident then that their November opening would be a success.”
    Ms. Kestler’s version of “Peter Pan” can be seen at the Court Theatre at the Ross School on Goodfriend Drive in East Hampton, with a performance tomorrow at 7 p.m., and another on Saturday at 2 p.m., featuring two different casts of children in first through fourth grades. Tickets are $12 for adults, $8 for students, and all will be welcomed.
    What happened to those who organized that historical event? J.M. Barrie continued to write, as he had prior to his success with “Pan,” and before his death in 1937, gave the rights to “Peter Pan” to the Great Ormond Street Hospital (previously known as the Hospital for Sick Children), which benefits, thanks to Sir Barrie, to this day.
    Maude Adams, from a very young age, was known as one of the greatest talents of the Broadway stage, including five years she spent in John Drew’s theater company acting opposite Mr. Drew in numerous productions. The part of Peter Pan, according to letters from Mr. Barrie, was purportedly written with Miss Adams in mind. After starring in the play, she continued acting for another decade or so, retiring in 1916, and teaching theater at Stephens College in Missouri after that. She died in 1953 at the age of 80.
    Captain Turner of Shelter Island was eventually done in by alimony, child support, and living beyond his means, and died in 1915 following a sudden bout with pneumonia. His estate was fought over, and eventually went on the auction block in 1919, when it sold to the Brander brothers, who then lost the farm during the stock market crash of 1929. The property was picked up by Ms. Kestler’s grandfather, James Roe, in the 1930s, and has remained in her family since then.
    Charles Frohman was making one of his many journeys to London’s West End on May 7, 1915, when his ship, the Lusitania, was struck by a German torpedo off the coast of Ireland. Possessing a cane and unable to walk well, it was apparent to survivors that Mr. Frohman accepted his demise as inevitable. Along with his friend, Alfred Vanderbilt, the millionaire businessman, he spent his last few hours on earth attaching life preservers and other flotation devices to infants’ Moses baskets.
    According to Rita Jolivet, an actress and the only member of Mr. Frohman’s party who survived, Mr. Frohman chose a quote from “Peter Pan” as his last words.
    With water sloshing across the deck, he was heard to quote the line Peter Pan uttered when it seemed that he was about to drown. “Why fear death? It is the greatest adventure life gives us.”


Comments

Very interesting story. A bit unfortunate from my perspective. Capt Doug Brander, Hull, MA