July 6, 1959
High above the Delaware River shore, spotlights glowed dimly through the green-and-orange striped canvas tent. Inside, the audience of 1,500 foot-tapped to some sassy songs. Bells Are Ringing jangled tunefully onstage, and for the Lambertville, N.J. Music Circus, the box office kept ringing up boffo business.
Across the land, summer stock plunged hopefully toward a bull market, with its youngest, sprightliest offshoot clearly leading the way—musicals under canvas. By season's end, almost 5,000,000 Americans will have bought $12 million worth of tickets to the nation's 29 tent theaters. Few of the big-top producers will do better than a sometime carnival fire-eater named St. John (rhymes with Injun) Terrell, 42, who celebrates Christmas by donning colonial garb and boating the Delaware in memory of George Washington's 1776 Trenton victory. A mere Mike Toddler among impresarios when he first hoisted his Lambertville tent in 1949, Terrell now owns or has a hand in four more (at Brandywine, Pa., Neptune, N.J., Rosecroft, Md., Rye, N.Y.), and clearly ranks as a Belasco of Straw Hat.
All-American Boy. Chicago-born—as George Clinton Eccles—Terrell was raised by a grandmother (his parents had separated) who gave him his grandfather's name. Struck by theater magic at Chicago's Francis Parker School (recalls Fellow Student Celeste Holm: "He always seemed to be understudying John Barrymore"), he prepped vaguely for his mother's perfume business at Columbia University, spent more time on Broadway than Morningside Heights. Even before college he was radio's first Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy (salary: $125); as a sophomore he wangled a part in Maxwell Anderson's Winterset.
After leaving Columbia, Terrell wintered in perfume, summered in stock, with friends' money opened the famed Bucks County (Pa.) Playhouse in 1939. During World War II he piloted transport planes until injured in a crash, then managed U.S.O. troupes through the South Pacific. In Manila once, he found no theater available, asked to use a tent. The Army said no; but the idea lingered.
After the war, Terrell tried his hand at a twelve-minute film called Smellodrama—an odorously unsuccessful precursor of Mike Todd Jr.'s untried Smell-O-Vision (TIME, Nov. 17). Then in 1949, Terrell opened the nation's first musical arena-theater tent at Lambertville, although 'tent' was one of the few four-letter words you didn't use in the theater. To Broadway's surprise, he cleared $20,000 his first season. This year the Terrell tentacles will scoop in $900,000, net him $100,000.
Half Impresario, Half Human. With that kind of change, Terrell loafs through the off season in an 18-room, 220-year-old mansion five miles from Lambertville, cruises about in a 1940 Rolls-Royce. Once the tents go up, Terrell haunts tryouts in blue jeans and Texas hat, exhausts a 250-man staff. "Half the time he's the impresario," says a friend. "The rest of the time he's human."
Relying on easy-to-take prices ($2.75 average), Broadway hit musicals and a casual, carnival atmosphere, Terrell plans to open two more Music Circuses next summer, argues that the theater's future profits will crop up far off Broadway, in suburbs rather than cities. Says he, with prophetic zeal: "In ten years there won't be a top legitimate theater in any U.S. city, except ten or twelve in New York. But the big shopping centers—in places like Flint, Akron, Fond du Lac—will all have top legit theaters."