Victoria Crandall takes a bow after a production of “Mame” in 1959. Courtesy of Maine State Music Theatre

When Victoria Crandall discovered the Pickard Theater, she fell in love. When she realized it wasn’t used in summer months, she had an epiphany, one which has grown into a true Midcoast legacy.

Crandall had spent 12 years on Broadway, working as a concert pianist and an accompanist, with stage legends such as Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante, and alongside composers such as Lerner and Loewe, where she earned the moniker “Operetta Girl.”

By 1942, Crandall’s parents had moved to a small cabin, located alongside the Sheepscot River, in Wiscasset, while their theatrical-minded daughter Victoria toured Europe with the USO during World War II.

By 1951, Crandall was earning her wings as an associate producer on Broadway before being promoted to producer with a touring company later that same year.

Between 1954 and 1959, Crandall fell in love with the Pine Tree State while she spent summers working at the Ogunquit Playhouse as well as the Lakewood Theater in Skowhegan and spending her off time visiting with her parents in Wiscasset.

In 1959, Crandall saw an opportunity to bring Broadway-quality summer-stock theater to the Midcoast. She quickly struck a deal with Bowdoin College allowing her to lease the Pickard Theater, and thus began the Brunswick Summer Playhouse, which soon after became the Brunswick Music Theater.


Victoria Crandall and Larry Brooks in front of the Pickard Theater at Bowdoin College. Courtesy of Facebook group Courtesy of “We the people of Brunswick/Topsham Maine”

Over the next decade, Crandall’s summer productions became a huge hit with musical-hungry audiences who rushed to fill the 600-seat theater each season.

In August 1969, after a decade of successful and popular productions, Bowdoin College suddenly announced they would not renew their lease with Crandall for the 1970 season.

One green-eyed vocal critic, Bowdoin’s Assistant Dramatics Professor Richard Hornby, had begun a jealousy-driven brouhaha over the “very poor quality” of the productions Crandall produced, and he strong-armed the college not to renew business dealings with “the Crandall outfit” and their “cut-rate operation.”

In fact, in an August 1969 article, Hornby was also quoted as assailing Crandall’s productions as a “disgrace to this college.”

An immediate public pushback began within days as a “storm of protest” played out in area papers. By mid-September, even staff and faculty at Bowdoin were coming to Crandall’s aid with public statements of support, urging Bowdoin to reconsider.

By Sept. 15, crisis had been averted when the melee ended. Bowdoin College, responding to public pressure, renewed Crandall’s lease of Pickard Theater.


And while Crandall produced the 1970 season at Pickard Theater, a perturbed and deflated Richard Hornby left Bowdoin and the United States, and took a job with the University of British Columbia, in Canada.

Renamed the Maine State Music Theatre in 1988, the enterprise has operated each summer since the 1969 controversy, except for the 2020 season which was missed due to the COVID pandemic.

Victoria Crandall at Pickard Theater. Courtesy of Maine State Music Theatre

In 1986, while producing “A Chorus Line,” “On Your Toes,” “My Fair Lady,” “Little Me” and “Tintypes,” Crandall explained that a Broadway musical cost about $4-$5 million while her productions cost $25-$50,000 to produce.

Curt Dale Clark, an 18 year veteran thespian and current MSMT artistic director for the last 11 years, puts today’s costs closer to $800,000 to $1 million per production, and he explains that today’s greatest impediment is in meeting higher salaries and finding ample summer housing for cast and crew, which Clark says totals about “150 people … the smallest we have been as a company since I became artistic director.”

Even in her third successful decade of operation, Crandall had faced tough obstacles. On Monday, May 31, 1982, just two weeks before the season opener, a fire raged through the theatrical company’s rented warehouse on Cedar Street, where all of the “costumes, sets, tools and other equipment” were stored.

However, Crandall, who had staged over 186 musical productions and was described as a “tough, unforgiving perfectionist,” rallied her troupes while many residents of Brunswick, Portland and surrounding towns all rushed to aid the Maine State Music Theatre.


An emergency benefit performance and cocktail party and reception were scheduled to raise cash. Meanwhile donations of “tools, lumber, fabric, sewing machines, canvas and curtains” as well as labor all flooded in from residents.

By opening night on June 15, 1982, the crisis had abated when the curtain went up on the toe-tapping Musical “Cole,” based on the life and music of Cole Porter. Tickets were just $20.

Then on Sunday, March 25, 1990, many once again were worried that the Maine State Music Theatre might not continue. While scouting talent in New York City for the upcoming season, Victoria Crandall suddenly took ill and died; she was just two weeks shy of her 82nd birthday.

The vacuum was quickly filled when the old adage “the show must go on” was heeded. Today, as the 65th theatrical season opens, Crandall’s amazing legacy of the Maine State Music Theatre lives on as a renewable gift of love and labor which remains one of the most dramatic and melodic of our enduring Stories from Maine.

Lori-Suzanne Dell is a Brunswick author and historian. She has published four books and runs the “Stories from Maine” Facebook page.

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