High Tide

The CapeMay.com blog

Cape May Capers

Text by Joyce Cabots Newbegin. Photographs appear courtesy of the author.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Cape May Magazine.

Joyce Cabots

Some consider the exciting send-off – The Fourth of July – as the highlight of the summer vacation season. To others, especially members of the Cape May Cottagers’ Association, it remained Labor Day weekend. In theater parlance, the Fourth could be called a “curtain raiser,” while the bittersweet Labor Day holiday is considered the “final curtain.”

The annual July Fourth cocktail party during the post World War II years welcomed Cottagers to Cape May for the season. A musical variety show, at first known as The Pennywise Revue, named for the late Joseph P. Barker’s snappy, newsy gossip sheet, was always held at Congress Hall. Later, from approximately 1946 to 1962, the show called The Cape May Capers closed out the season at The Green Mill Club of Cape May. The Howard Street building tragically burned in 1965.

Younger members of the cottage colony performed lively and sophisticated musical numbers in the original Capers revues, coached and directed by Philadelphia dance instructor, Miss Ursula R. Naughton.

Naughton assembled an appealing but neophyte group of juveniles and emerged with a dazzling show at season’s end. These productions packed the house with Cottagers and their guests and often earned thunderous applause.

Joyce Cabots, solist, singing "Tea for Two"

One such summer show comes to mind with vivid clarity. On this, the 70th anniversary year of the Cottagers, it seems apt to take a backward glance.

It was a balmy July morning. A cool sea breeze tempered the hot sun. The deep blue sky was cloudless. The ocean glossy, except for ripples made by sailboats skimming across its surface.

A short, blond teenager in blue polo shirt and chino pants casually strode along the boardwalk, hands in pockets. He stopped for a moment to gaze at the seaside vista. Then, he sauntered down the exit ramp at Howard Street and crossed Beach Drive. As the youth approached the Green Mill Clubhouse, his round face broke into a wide grin. The sound of music from a rehearsal piano filled the air. The tune, There’s No Business Like Show Business, with its upbeat tempo made Jim want to skip along in cadence.

He entered the clubhouse through its double screen doors and surveyed the group gathered in the large building.

“Hi, Jim. How’s it going?” asked a member of the male octet.

“Hi there, Jim,” said a tall brunette in pink shorts set and black tap shoes.

“Hi everybody,” he answered. “Where’s Miss Naughton?”

“Right behind you,” said Deedee, featured solo dancer.

Jimmy whirled around to be confronted by a frowning Ursula Naughton.

“It’s about time,” she said.

“You mean I’m late?” Jimmy’s large blue eyes showed genuine concern.

“What time is today’s rehearsal, girls?” She turned to a group of her dancers.

“Ten o’clock,” they chorused.

Naughton stood with hand on hip, smiling smugly at Jim Bateman.

“Oops, sorry,” he said. “But I have my script ready. Here it is.”

She scanned it quickly, then returned it. “Fine. Let’s hear the opening monologue right now. Then we’ll bring on the tableau followed by the pony chorus line.”

Ursula then addressed her pianist.

“Okay, Vince, I want A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody as background. Then, swing it to bring on the Ziegfeld girls.”

“You want the opening pianissimo? Just work behind him nice and quiet?

“Right. Afterwards, forte – when the Ziegfeld tableau comes onstage.

“Got it,” said Vince.

Vince Bruno, an accomplished musician often featured at Arnold’s Café on Beach Drive, along with his partner, Vito La Monica, showed great patience.

Rehearsal began when Jimmy Bateman stepped up to the microphone on behalf of The Cottagers’ Association of Cape May to welcome the audience to The Cape May Capers.

The era was the late 1950s, long before Bateman, then appearing with The Children’s Theatre of Philadelphia, became Henry Gibson of stage, film and television renown.

Beach Club Cottagers Association party, early 1960s. From left, Mr. & Mrs. Bert Euler, Dr. & Mrs. H. Chandler Bernard, Dr. & Mrs. Joseph C Cabots

Ursula Naughton rushed toward the stage. “Whoa, hold it.”

“What’s the matter?” asked Jim.

“Too subdued. Give it more punch. We’ve got to get the audience’s attention. Wait a minute! I’ve got an idea. We’ll have the Ziegfeld showgirls in place, rather than parading on. Everyone understand?”

“Then, Jimmy walks onstage and steps up to the mike. Once the whistles quiet down you’ll be able to deliver the welcome. At least we’ll have their eyes focused on the stage.”

“Miss Naughton, you’re destroying my self confidence,” he said jokingly

“Nothing personal,” she grinned. Then, to Vince, “Hit it.”

She raised her hand as a signal to the pianist. Ursula pointed to Jimmy and then sang the words: “A pretty girl is like a melody…” Six opening bars and then you come in. Ready, GO!”

Director Naughton often worked 16-hour days as supervisor of The Green Mill Club of Cape May. The teenaged members respected and admired her understanding that a thin veneer of strictness covered a gentle, kindhearted nature.

She turned and faced the stage, clad in her favorite rehearsal outfit: beige overalls over a striped tee shirt with socks and sneakers. Her attention focused on the line which paraded onstage, then separated into two sections, exiting in opposite directions.

“Very good! How did you manage it? That’s the first time Joanne followed the others. Congratulations!”

The Ziegfeld showgirls, especially Joanne, beamed brightly at the compliment.

“Alright, pony line in place. Eight bars of intro to Nola then Zip, you’re onstage with the prancing step. “What comes after that?” she asked a tiny blonde

The girl paused briefly: “Step, slide, cross, step together?”

“Right, Stephanie. Good. Don’t forget it. I’m watching this one. Carefully.”

Image appears courtesy of Betty Steger

The pony line went through its paces. These were the ingénues, youngest and newest members of the company. Ursula Naughton watched for awhile and then covered her face as the ragged line undulated like a snake dance. One girl, eyes fixed on another dancer’s feet, still managed to turn in the wrong direction.

Naughton propped her left foot up on the seat of a Bentwood chair, bent her elbow and leaned on her fist, exasperation clearly showing in her face.

“That’s all for now,” she said as they finished their routine. Go behind the screen and PRACTICE! We’ll run through this number later.”

“Let’s have the octet next. Have you got the medley, Vince? They’ve changed their sequence. We start with The Lady Is A Tramp.

“Change noted, music ready in a few seconds,” the pianist said, leafing through music in his portfolio.

Naughton addressed young Bateman: “Jim, I want to see you before the big Top Hat number.”

“Now?” he asked, looking up from a card game.

“Yes. We have a lot to go over.”

As the two conferred, the male octet presented their medley of show tunes providing a smooth, mellow contrast to the preceding numbers.

“That’s coming along. Lead tenor could be a little stronger, but you’re doing all right. It’s a good sound,” Naughton said.

She then crossed the floor to a group seated near the Coke machine. “Quiet everyone” The buzz of chatter hushed suddenly.

“Roxy is going to coach some of you in the time step. Anyone who needs help, and you know who you are, go to the end of the hall and rehearse. That I Got Rhythm number is fast. You’ve got to know the routine cold!”

“All right. Top Hat, White Tie and Tails is up next. I want you all working with your canes today. They’re in the office, behind the desk. Put them back when you’re through.”

After a flurry of activity to gather the canes, the group lined up just offstage. Jimmy was featured in the number, backed up by eight dancers. It recalled dances made famous in films by Fred Astaire. The rat-a-tat-tat of canes and the click of taps hitting the wooden floor emphasized the persistent musical beat.

This rehearsal with its intense, precise drilling became typical preparation for the Capers. Although it precluded leisure activities, the fledgling performers flocked to auditions and regularly attended rehearsals.

Saturday night show time arrived midst great anticipatory excitement. Except for minor glitches, the performance evolved smoothly. The grand finale proved memorable with frequent audience applause.

Several of the engaged soloists performed swan songs, signaling final Capers’ participation. Some cast members, stirred with sentiment, wept. Others ebulliently waved to friends seated nearby. A surge of excitement passed through the ensemble who now stood hand-in-hand, swaying in time to the music.

A solo dancer ran to the wings and brought director Naughton onstage for a bow. The assemblage thundered an ovation, many of them rising from their seats. Miss Naughton bowed, then graciously nodded to the orchestra, led by Vince Bruno. Bateman gave his director a congratulatory kiss and bouquet of red roses.

Jimmy Bateman, aka Henry Gibson, made his broadway and screen debuts in 1963. He died in September 2009.

A coda: Ursula Naughton never married. In a way, her students, including Capers’ participants, were her children. She found coaching and encouraging young people among the most fulfilling aspects of her creative life and career. Her fondness was reciprocated. Fledgling performers flocked to auditions and regularly attended rehearsals.

This revue was supported by The Cottagers’ Association of Cape May for the benefit of the Ambulance Fund. For most young participants, it marked the end of stage performances, but for Henry Gibson it was merely a stepping stone. He changed from a song-and-dance man role, but continued to pursue a theatrical career. Soon he became a dramatic actor in New York City. In the 1970s his success included a featured spot on the television comedy, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Motion picture parts soon followed.

It seems the spark for some professional careers such as his was generated on a small stage in a private club at a South Jersey resort. The impetus for fame occurred at The Green Mill Club of Cape May, New Jersey.

The finale theme music proved apt: There’s No Business Like Show Business.