Arts & Entertainment
Music, art, crafts, dance, theater, and other forms of art and entertainment have graced the lives of residents for possibly the town’s entire history. These pages pick up the story in the nineteenth century when known artists were active, residents were coming together to form musical and dramatic societies, and social clubs, such as the Adelphian Club, were producing their own entertainments.
The history of music in New England generally began with its churches, around which villages and towns were organized and which served not only as houses of worship but also public meeting halls. Before Winchester was incorporated, area residents attended church in Woburn, Medford, and Charlestown. Yet, before any church was organized within Winchester’s present boundaries, South Woburn had already established the practice of community singing through its singing schools. Choir director David Youngman recalled them in Woburn as early as 1833 and reported that "there being no lectures, no theatres, or other sources of public amusement, the singing-school was attended by large numbers of almost every age and of every condition."1
(Isaac Kendall, pictured above, played flute with the church choir.)
After the singing schools disappeared, interest in community singing persisted. The first choral societies were usually small and often short-lived. But while they lasted, they were enjoyed, and the demise of one was usually followed within few years by the birth of another. [Read more: Choral Societies]
Before Winchester’s incorporation, area residents had the opportunity to play with the Woburn brass bands. The first Winchester band formed about 1850, the first in a series of bands which performed in town. [Read more: Bands]
For eight seasons during the early twentieth century, Winchester had a resident amateur symphony orchestra, the Winchester Orchestral Society, which gave concerts in Town Hall beginning in December 1909 and ending in 1917. The concerts were gala occasions and evidently much enjoyed, though ultimately public fiscal support was not strong enough to sustain the life of the orchestra. The next resident orchestra, essentially a dance band, was the Winchester Laundries Orchestra, formed in 1920 as part of the company’s social welfare work. [Read more: Orchestras]
In the late nineteenth century and continuing through the twentieth, musical entertainments became a popular way of raising funds. The Visiting Nurse Association, for example, held annual Pop Concerts at Town Hall, as well as other special performances to benefit its hospital. Other musical evenings were arranged for fun and for the sheer enjoyment of music, whether in churches, public halls, or even private residences. [Read more: Minstrels]
Local musicales often featured local talent but also many stellar visiting artists. The professional guest artists–ranging from one-person singer/whistler/elocutionists to vaudeville troupes to the finest classical artists–who have performed in Winchester have been numerous.
Before Town Hall was built, Adelphian Hall, Lyceum Hall, and Harmony Hall in other buildings were used for musical and dance evenings. However, Town Hall, built in 1887, contained the largest auditorium and from its opening became a popular concert site (still in use today). On December 17, 1888, for example, A Grand Popular and Classical Concert was given by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, assisted by eminent vocal artists. On November 7 of the next year, under the auspices of the Music Committee of the Unitarian Church, a Grand Symphony Concert was given by the "Boston Populars" Concert Company, composed of members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.2
Several concerts were held in Town Hall from 1890 to 1900 as part of the YMCA Entertainment Course.3 The Grand Opening Concert was given on October 20, 1890, by the Adamowski Quartette of Boston, assisted by Minnie Stevens Coffin, soprano soloist of Winchester. Two programs in November included readings, impersonations, whistling, humor, as well as musical selections, highlighted by a performance from noted Boston soprano Mrs. E. Humphrey-Allen. The two programs given in December were a Wagner Concert, presented by a contralto, violinist, pianist, and reader, and a performance by the Ladies’ Schubert Quartette of Boston. The tenth anniversary year began with the Royal Tyrolean Concert Troupe from Austria.4 An anniversary service held in November included music by its own chorus, directed by Joshua Phippen.
Generally, the large halls of downtown Winchester, along with its churches and school auditoriums, were its concert halls, but there were exceptions. For most residents, music in the home meant a piano or harmonium in the parlor. For those who could afford it, it sometimes meant having a music room large enough to entertain a fashionable company after the style of the social leaders in Boston. Edwin Ginn had the grandest music room, in fact, a music hall. After building his home on Bacon Street in 1896, he added, in 1912, a Music Hall. The walnut-paneled hall contained a Carrara marble fireplace and 30-foot by 30-foot Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. After the house was torn down in 1946, Music Hall continued to be leased for meetings, receptions, and concerts until its demolition in 1960. The Hall was used by the town, as well as the Ginns, for a variety of functions, including meetings, receptions, and also musicales or concerts. At the time of demolition, the outstanding musical event recalled by the press was the 1928 performance of The United States Marine Band on its terrace, presented by the Winchester Rotary Club as a benefit for Winchester Hospital.
There have also been open-air concerts, such as the old Metropolitan District Commission band concerts on Manchester Field and the current summer concert series on the Common. Once upon a time, when David Nelson Skillings Jr. lived opposite the Town Hall and had a habit of hiring a band to play on his lawn three or four times a summer in the years between 1900 and World War I, crowds of people turned out to listen.5
Over the years, many concerts have been given either by local talent or guest artists. Concert series have been arranged, including the Community Concerts series sponsored by the Smith College Club. Beginning in 1947 with three concerts–pianist Jesus Maria Sanroma, the Saidenberg Sinfonietta, and Todd Duncan who had achieved renown playing Porgy in its original production in 1935–the series last for seven seasons. More recently, the Winchester Concert Series, begun in 1990, presented a diverse mix of both local and guest artists for nine seasons (including the pictured dancers of the Wampanoag Nation in 1992).
Eminent figures in music history who have lived in Winchester include composer and educator James C. Johnson, pianist Joshua Phippen, soprano Elizabeth Phinney, composer T. J. Anderson, clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, violinist Lucy Stoltzman, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.6
Winchester also played a role in the manufacture of keyboard instruments and was home to Emmons Hamlin of the Mason & Hamlin Organ Company and Hamlin Pond of Ivers & Pond Piano Co. [Read more: Keyboard Business]
Dances and dancing have permeated Winchester’s social life. The large halls formerly in the downtown were the scenes of public and private dance parties. Some social groups like the Calumet Club and Country Club had rooms for dancing. And the streets have also been taken over for dancing on the occasion of fairs and celebrations.
Many young people were enrolled in a dance school. Lesley Wilcox (1900-2002) attended two, one at Lyceum Hall “for two or three years with a lot of local Winchester boys” and then Miss Langley’s Dancing School on the second floor of Waterfield Hall.7
“We went to a dancing school where everyone showed up in white gloves and fancy suits,” Lane McGovern (1924-2014) related. “The school was in the top of the building that … used to be a men’s club called the Calumet Club. The men’s club occupied the whole building. For a while it was just on the second floor where the dancing classes were held by Mr. and Mrs. Champagne. You would go to the classes, everyone would be wearing white gloves, and the girls were always taller than the boys. We were junior high school students at that time. We learned how to fox trot and dances like that. I learned a few fancy steps from Mr. and Mrs. Champagne and that was the extent of my dance classes. There was no jitterbug then – that came in a year or two later. I never did learn how to jitterbug correctly.”8
Several dance and ballet schools have succeeded the early dancing classes down though the present time. For one example, Harriet Hoctor, who danced professionally on stage and in film, including the Astair-Rogers movie Shall We Dance, opened a branch of her Ballet School in Winchester in 1950 and taught classes personally.
It was reportedly quite a sight when the grounds of what is now the home of the Winchester Historical Society, the Sanborn House, former home of Rena Sanborn, a tireless fund raiser for the hospital, became a stage for a special dance performance. On the evening of June 19, 1911, the grounds were illuminated with lanterns. Scenery was loaned by the Castle Square Theaters. Electrical effects were in charge of a Boston Opera House employee. Screened by small fir trees, a platform had been built for the Winchester Orchestral Society, which volunteered to perform music from Gluck’s opera Orpheus for the dances.
The legend of Pandora was arranged by Mary Kellogg in a series of scenes and dances in three acts, each act beginning with a reading of the legend. Young ladies of the town appeared as Pandora, Epimetheus, Mercury, Diana, Minerva, Venus, Hope, Iris, and Vulcan. A group of maidens and children also performed.9 Hundreds viewed the performance and it may be presumed a handsome sum was raised for the hospital.
In 1912, Sanborn presented another fete, this one composed of three unrelated dance episodes, again accompanied by orchestra. In 1913, Kellogg arranged a second performance of Pandora’s Box at the Boston Opera House, reportedly another success. In 1914, once again young ladies clad as Greek goddesses performed for charity, this time raising money for the child welfare work of the Fathers’ and Mothers’ Club. Presented at the Ginn estate, the program was composed of a series of dances and was followed by an organ recital on the Ginn’s Music Hall organ.
When the artist Edmund Garrret came to design the Town Seal, he chose colors and symbols to represent the waterways and fields then characteristic of the community. Throughout much of its history, Winchester was a rural, spacious suburban community, and, according to nineteenth-century reports, it was not uncommon to see certain local artists en plein air committing various Winchester scenes to canvas or paper [Read more: Town Seal]
Winchester is no longer the rural community depicted by its artists in the nineteenth century. However its outward appearance may have changed, modern Winchester, like the nineteenth-century town, is still the home of artists. The tradition of artists living and working in Winchester–and preserving aspects of the town in their artworks–continues.
(The open-air view the Richardson Farm (above) was painted by an anonymous painter.)
Contributions to Winchester’s art heritage have been made by professional and amateur artists alike. Outstanding figures of the nineteenth century included Edward Brackett, a sculptor who also turned his hand to other professions to support his family and the eminent painter Joseph Foxcroft Cole. Around the turn of the century Edmund Garret, Gustave Bélicon, and Francis Getty moved to Winchester. [Read more: The Sculptore and the Abolitionist]
The most influential figure at that time in the town was Hermann Dudley Murphy, on whose account other artists came to Winchester and who formed a handicrafts society and was a charter member and leading light of the Winchester Art Association. [Read more: Art Association]
Artists active in the twentieth century have included Ettore Caser, Gerrit Beneker, Dana Ripley Pond, Otis Philbrick, and W.H.W. Bicknell.
Several remarkable women artists also lived and painted in Winchester during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Helen Pressey, Annie Nowell, Eva Cowdery, Esther Mabel Baldwin Williams, and Adelaide Cole Chase.10
When a new library was built in 1931, it included an art gallery and a collection of paintings by local artists. A year later, the library trustees and art committee organized the Winchester Art Association. A second artists’ organization, the Studio Guild, emerged in 1937 out of a Fortnightly Club painting class. Neither group survived into the twenty-first century. (Right, library art gallery when brand new)
In 2013, a Winchester School of Fine Art opened but soon closed. Nevertheless, Winchester still has artists and holds an annual celebration of Art in August.
There is but one public sculpture in Winchester, the War Memorial, designed by Herbert S. Adams.
In 1907, the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts, credited as the first arts and crafts organization in the country, celebrated its tenth anniversary with an exhibition in Copley Hall. Seven of the exhibitors were from Winchester (and one more was a teacher in its high school), which may not seem a large number but was greater than that from most other suburban communities. At that time, in fact, Winchester had its own Handicraft Society, with Hermann Dudley Murphy at its head.
At that time, arts and crafts were viewed not just as leisure activities but also as vocational training and as a means of attaining a higher standard in life. In fact, the Winchester Handicraft Society was formed at a time when Winchester was consciously improving its appearance, its amenities, and its society.
After the Society quietly disbanded, c. 1910, education in handicrafts was taken up by the schools, The Fortnightly (women’s club), and adult education. [Read more: Handicraft Society]
Winchester is a veritable museum of New England architecture, particularly graced with many outstanding examples of Victorian-era buildings, including its Town Hall. Winchester’s surviving architecture, in fact, records the development of the town, including Colonial and Federal farm houses, factory worker housing, grand and stylish businessmen’s homes, Depression-era affordable homes, post-WWII ranch houses, modern pattern-book houses, and condominium developments. [Read more: Winchester, Massachusetts: The Archi-tectural Heritage of a Victorian Town, Architects of Winchester, and Jordan Marsh House]
Several resident architects achieved eminence within their field and left examples of their work in town, including the Blaikie Brothers, Allen Boone, Robert Coit, George D. Rand, F. Patterson Smith 11, Royal Barry Wills, and Jerome Bailey Foster.
At the time the Handicraft Society was dissolving, photography was emerging as a new art worthy of a competition. Unlike painters, practitioners are not known to have banded together into a separate formal organization in the twentieth century.
Since 1992, however, photography has had its own home in Winchester through the Arthur Griffin Museum (pictured left as photographed by Arthur Griffin himself).
“Winchester is a highly educated town and has published authors at a high ratio to the general population,” bookstore owner Judy Manzo said in 1997.
In addition to a long and varied number of non-fiction works, stories, plays, and novels have issued forth from writers who at one time made Winchester their home. [Read more: Authors]
Before the era of films and television, amateur dramatics were common in Winchester. The schools and a variety of clubs put on shows, whether simple tableaux vivants, variety entertainments, or staged plays. During the late nineteenth century, minstrel shows were popular and were staged to raise money for sports clubs, as well as to be entertainment for members. The longest lived annual show has been the Winton Club Cabaret, staged for over a century in the Town Hall auditorium to benefit Winchester Hospital.
In 1896 a group called the Winchester Amateurs staged at least two shows, but the groups was apparently short-lived. Further clubs devoted to theater formed in the twentieth century. The longest running theater clubs were connected with the Congregational and Unitarian churches. The Parish Players presented its first season in the Little Theatre Beneath a Spire, the parish hall of the Congregational Church, in 1926.12 The Winchester Unitarian Players was organized in 1932, “to present good theater, to establish a bond between cast and audience and to enrich church life.” During the 1940s, it folded but was revived after the advent of its new minister, Robert Storer, in 1950. In the 21st century, the group, known simply as the Winchester Players, moved to the Congregational Church but dissolved at the end of its 2016-17 season.
In 1934, the formation of the Winchester Group Theatre was announced, its purpose “to develop and promote dramatics and its allied crafts in the Town of Winchester.”13 It had two classes of membership, active and sustaining, the latter paying dues which entitled them to tickets. Audiences were composed of members and their friends (the public having to apply to members for tickets). With the exception of hiring professional directors, all production details were handled by members and those desirous of becoming active members. For example, all scenery was designed and built by its member artists and architects. For example, the sets for the 1939 production of “First Lady” were designed by Jerome Bailey Foster. Feeling that the theatrical offerings in Boston had become meagre, “It is the ambition of the Group … to give its members a chance to see plays which have not come to Boston or which…have not run overly long in New York.”14 The group was active through 1942 when war-time conditions hindered its continuance.
Children (such as the unidentified trio to the right) have enjoyed putting on shows, in and outside the schools. A Children’s Theater was first organized by Carlene Samoiloff, daughter of the artist Hermann Dudley Murphy. Samoiloff studied theater and toured (as a student and observer) with Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theater. After marrying in 1928, she returned to the Murphy home on Highland Avenue. In 1956, she organized a Children’s Theater School as a branch of the Winchester Community Theater. Its successor is the Cooperative Theater for Children.
While movie houses were erected in surrounding towns during the early 20th century, Winchester actively, vocally, and determinedly resisted allowing a movie theater into the town for decades. It took several attempts, from 1918 to 1937, for residents to be able to see movies in their own town.
In the era before the Motion Picture Production Code, ministers, doctors, and groups of mothers protested exposing youth to the dangers of oversensationalism, among other complaints. But the number of residents in favor of movies in town gradually grew in numbers and strength. People were going to movies in neighboring towns; they wanted the convenience of doing so in Winchester.
The pro-movie element won out eventually. In 1934, Albert J. Locatelli, former operator of an Arlington theater, bought property on Main Street and proposed to convert the buildings into a complex of stores and a movie house. His application for a film license led to an article at Town Meeting, which rejected the proposal. Then the pro-movie group went the route of a referendum. On April 16, 1935, Winchester residents overturned the negative Town Meeting vote and recommended that the Selectmen grant Locatelli the license. But after the Board of Selectmen turned to the Planning Board for advice on the planning issues involved with locating a movie house and the Planning Board reported its preference for another site, Locatelli gave up.
In October, the first license to show moving pictures in Winchester was granted to E. M. Loew, whose chain planned a brick colonial structure on the old Whitney Mill site on Main Street (now site of the Winchester Savings Bank).15 The gala premiere was held in December 1937. [Read more: Movie Theater War]
Meanwhile, several young people from Winchester left town to enter the moving picture business, some making national reputations. Among those Hollywood stars, directors, and producers who lived in Winchester were Better Davis, Sonny Tufts, Louis and Richard DeRochemont, Dudley Murphy, Martha Tibbetts, Thurston Hall, and John Cazale. [Read more: Going Hollywood]
One form of entertainment which had all but vanished by the mid-20th century were the traveling hurdy-gurdies and hand organs. The former “were simply large music boxes that delivered considerable volume. Usually mounted on a pair of wheels and moved about by hand, they sometimes were mounted on four wheels and drawn by a pony. They played a number of lively tunes as the crank was turned.” As the music attracted people, they would open their windows and toss out some pennies or a nickel. The organ grinders “carried small hand organs that gave out rather wheezily music that definitely lack the joyousness of that of the hurdy-gurdy. Occasionally they had a monkey.”16
In the years before World War I, a circus came to town, run by Oscar Lowande, a professional showman and resident of Reading. The circus set up on an old cow pasture along Florence Street.
Formerly, the town held Fourth of July celebrations. Prior to 1946, there was a bandstand on Manchester Field next to the river. “At night they would have fireworks and then the band concert and the people used to come up the river in canoes from the Boat Club and listen to the music. That would go on for about three days.17
Various organizations have held fairs and carnivals. In 1921, for example, the local post of the American Legion held a carnival for the dedication of its new home on Washington Street next to Town Hall. It started with a parade, including floats, and featured booths. In 1923, the Legion held another carnival. Since 1935, the En Ka Fair has annually provided fun for all ages, with a parade, booths, rides, and formerly with dances. [Read more: First En Ka Fair]
A former annual treat in August was the Italian celebration of the Feast of the Assumption. In 1939, one of the most elaborate was staged, a three-day carnival celebration. On Sunday afternoon, headed by a police escort, a parade went from St. Mary’s along Washington and Mt. Vernon streets to the Center and then up Main Street to Swanton Street and through the streets of the Italian community in The Plains. The main feature of the parade was a large statue of Mary placed on wheels and drawn by “four stalwart men” through the streets, while girls and women dressed in white marched around it, followed by the Napoli Band and members of area Italian societies. In the evening, the band played at Manchester Field. On Monday there were rides and games on Leonard Field, followed by a baseball game and another concert. On Tuesday afternoon and evening the carnival attractions continued, the band played, and it all ended with a great fireworks display. “Especially spectacular was the dropping of Italian and American colors on parachutes from rockets, the band playing both the American and Italian Anthems while the crowd applauded.” The crowd was estimated to be in excess of 10,000 people.18
Among other town and organizational celebrations held over the years, one annual event still going on is Town Day. First held in 1974-1976, and revived in 1982 by the Winchester Jaycee chapter, the Winchester Town Day Committee continues the tradition of holding a celebration for the Winchester community. Since its beginning, it has featured musical and dance performances, road races, historical trolley tours, and other fun events for the whole town.
The town held great celebrations in 1890, the 250th anniversary of the first house, in 1936, the tercentenary of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (including the Christopher Columbus float pictured left), in 1950, the centennial of Winchester’s incorporation, in 1988, the 350th anniversary of the town’s settlement, and also marked the 150th anniversary of its incorporation in 2000.19 Parades, concerts, and other special events marked the occasions.
In 1916, the town celebrated progress. It was, The Winchester Star declared, “the biggest celebration Winchester ever had,” an Improvement Celebration. Over the course of a few years the town had invested in several capital improvements and, simply to draw attention to what it had achieved, townspeople celebrated. [Read more: Celebrations]
Over the centuries, residents of Winchester have organized themselves for a myriad of reasons–socializing and entertainment, town betterment, political causes, charitable support, study, sports and recreation, artistic appreciation and creativity, and other purposes. The churches had auxiliary groups which not only saw to charitable needs but also organized picnics, courses, and other social events. Non-sectarian clubs also offered many and varied opportunities for fellowship and entertainment, as well as good works, among townspeople. One of the earliest, the Sons of Temperance, sponsored concerts and other wholesome, sober social opportunities. The Young Men’s Literary Society organized lectures, debates, and an annual entertainment during the 1850s and 1860s. The Masonic Lodge, founded in 1864, also had convivial gatherings in the early years of the town. The clubs proliferated as the growing population found new reasons to band together. [Read more: click here for more on Sports clubs.]
1 The Winchester Record, Vol. III, p. 39
2. The "Boston Populars" Concert Company included Lafricain tr, Goldstein bass, Kahn vn, Heindl fl, Zach piano, with soprano and baritone assists by Frances Donton and S. Kronberg.
3. Winchester Press, Nov. 2, 1900.
4. Winchester Press, Oct. 26, 1900.
5. M. A. Davis, “A New Address - 109 Skillings Road,” typed address, July 1977.
6. Ma lived in Winchester from 1981 to 1993.
7. Interview of Lesley Brown Wilcox by Florence Hritzay, May 8, 1980.
8. Interview of Addison Lane McGovern by Charlene Band, February 2, 2005.
9. The dancers included Carlene Murphy who went on to a career in the theater.
10. For details on these artists, see Ellen Knight, Artists of Winchester, Massachusetts 1850-1950, Winchester Historical Society, 1992.
11. For George Rand and Patterson Smith, see two series by Maureen Meister published in The Winchester Star: "George Rand’s Winchester," May 23, 1991 - Oct. 10, 1991 and "Paterson Smith’s Winchester," May 12, 1994 - Sept. 8, 1994.
12. Among those who performed with the Players was Basil Beckett Burwell who went on to a professional career in theater as actor, author, and teacher.
13. Bylaws quoted in The Winchester Star, May 18, 1934.
15. The first Whitney mill site was at the Converse Bridge, but when the Town purchased the pond from the Whitneys, the mill moved to a new site further north on Main Street, where the theater was built.
16. Robert E. Sanborn, “Recollections of Winchester, Mass.," p. 21
17. Interview of Alexander (Sandy) MacKenzie by Marilyn Preston, March 18, 2003.
18. The Winchester Star, Aug. 18, 1939.
19. The two year difference between the dates of the events celebrated by the 250th and 350th is the result of the former being reckoned the anniversary from the first house and the latter from the 1638 record of land allotments for settlement.