Inside the book
The English-born Doer of Miracles
“Albert Bell is an unlettered man, as pedants measure learning. He has had not much formal schooling. But he has read widely and profoundly and with great reverence, in the while that he has worked wondrously with his hands, making things to live and to grow and to become.” — Ben Dixon MacNeill, June, 1946
On April 30, 1894, the Roanoke Colony Memorial Association purchased 10 acres of land on the northeast side of Roanoke Island. All archaeological evidence pointed to this area as the site of Sir Walter Raleigh’s fort/village and, ultimately, the Lost Colony. The association bought the land “for memorial purposes,” although it would be decades before any memorial was built. In 1896, the memorial area was extended to 16.45 acres, and the association commissioned the Virginia Dare monument.
As decades passed, community leaders, including newspaper editor W.O. Saunders, Bradford Fearing, Martin Kellogg and Frank Stick, wanted more than a static monument. They wanted a lively interpretation of “Fort Raleigh.” In 1932, the Roanoke Island Historical Association was formed to make this happen.
By 1933, Frank Stick received approval to begin building a replica of Fort Raleigh and the project was slated for Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and Civil Works Administration (CWA) funding. (Both agencies would be replaced by the broader Works Progress Administration, or WPA, in 1935.) The CCC would provide the labor.
This was especially good news for Stick since he had purchased those large tracts of barrier-island property in Dare County.
The income potential of his land depended on development activities. Stick knew that would depend upon their ability to attract tourists. But Frank Stick deeply loved the Outer Banks and wanted to see the area prosper. He was one of the donors of the land where the Kill Devil Hill Wright Brothers Memorial stands to this day. And it was Frank Stick who conceived of the idea for a vast national park on the Outer Banks – and idea that resulted in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreation Area. I firmly believe his intentions were completely honorable.
North Carolina Governor J.C.B. Ehringhaus appointed Stick and Manteo resident R. Bruce Etheridge, who was head of the state’s Department of Conservation and Development, to watch over the entire project. When the CCC boys began to arrive on the island in 1934, they were assigned to work on beach improvement projects, to work on the Wright Brothers Memorial, and to work on Fort Raleigh.
My father assumed his roll as superintendent of construction at Fort Raleigh, which included helping Stick research and design the village. In “Preserving The Mystery,” a little book on Fort Raleigh’s administrative history composed by the National Park Service, Stick is quoted as saying he wanted to restore the area “to a condition of primitiveness and beauty” while building “the type of picturesque structure” he believed must have existed there. He wanted visitors “to be transported back over those 350 years which have lapsed since those first English colonists settled upon our shores.”
Throughout the planning stage, Frank Stick and his son David, Bradford Fearing, politicians Lindsey Warren and Washington Baum (a judge who later became chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners), engineer Harry Lawrence, and a roster of other notables were consistent visitors in our small home. Stomping the dust, mud or snow off their shoes, they removed their hats and filed in while my mother hurried to prepare coffee, tea and, often, a full dinner. To my memory she never complained. I think she was quite pleased to have such dignitaries in her home.
The men spent hours brainstorming ideas and consulting on plans. Cigar, cigarette and pipe tobacco filled the air inside our home as they worked, throwing out ideas, making sketching on paper. On January 14, 1934, Mom noted in her diary, “Mr. Stick, Harry Lawrence and David Stick were out a little while to get some prints of thatched roofs for the plans Mr. Stick is making for Fort Raleigh.”
So at an early age, I was exposed to many fascinating people, thanks to my father’s involvement with Fort Raleigh. I took it for granted then, but I look back on it and marvel that a boy in a family that could barely pay its bills hosted some of the finest minds in the state. And they treated us as respected equals – a fact that would continue throughout my formidable, growing-up years.
My father was in his prime during this period. And I can’t imagine a more perfect project for my father than the resurrection of Fort Raleigh. As an immigrant from England, he could well imagine how the first immigrants to this land felt when they saw the natural environment laid out before them. He could imagine them planning how they would cope with this environment and how they would use its bounty to their benefit.
The project also gave Dad a reason – beyond mere fascination – for poring over whatever books he could find on 16th century indigenous English structure and building techniques. Then he and Frank Stick translated what he learned into conceptual drawings.
Both Stick and my father knew they could not be certain their project was a true replica since there was little information to support an accurate reconstruction of the “Cittie of Ralegh” [sic] built in 1585 under the supervision of Ralph Lane, a soldier in Richard Grenville’s North American Expedition. (The first archeological dig at the Fort wouldn’t be attempted until 1950).
But Dad knew 16th century Englishmen were familiar with log construction and he knew they would have used whatever building materials were available on the island – namely, vast forests of heart pine, juniper and cedar. He had no doubt that they would have built log structures.
Stick produced working sketches for a log palisade that would be set into a reconstructed earthen parapet wall. The tops of the logs would be carved into points since that’s what the colonists would have done to discourage attacks from outside. And with the walls they would need guardhouses and a heavy gate. Dad would soon covert a pair of stone gates, placed there by the Roanoke Colony Memorial Association in 1930 to protect the site from encroachment, with logs to suggest the sort of towers a pioneer colony might have erected.
Within the walls, Frank Stick and my father devised a stockade, chapel and three cabins — all with log construction (pine and white cedar), stone foundations and chimneys, and primarily thatched roofs. One cabin would be about eight feet wide and 12 feet long. A larger cabin – for the colony’s Governor John White – would measure 16 feet wide and 20 feet long. The thatched roofs would be made of reeds gathered from the marshes of Wanchese. They would also build a museum for displaying history and historic artifacts, constructed in the same manner as the other buildings.
Dad dearly loved exercising his expertise in Elizabethan construction. He loved the act of construction in general. And he loved working outdoors, both in his gardens (which he kept up during this time) and at the fort. But the outdoors didn’t always love him. Through the cold winter months, hot summers, and Roanoke Island’s incessant rain, his health suffered mightily. He was plagued by colds and other respiratory ailments. Time after time, Mom wrote in her diaries, “I wish Bert could feel well again.”
By 1934 the fort and chapel were finished. Robert Atkinson, Manteo High School’s principal, became caretaker. And just as Frank Stick had predicted, visitors began flocking to the site to see a replica of the village that might have existed before Sir Walter Raleigh’s brave pioneers disappeared forever. The chapel even became a favorite destination for wedding ceremonies.
With its goal achieved – preserving this invaluable site – the Roanoke Colony Memorial Association turned the property over to the North Carolina Historical Commission.
Besides drawing tourists’ attention, Fort Raleigh drew attention from the media. Newspapers and magazines around the country came to take pictures and to write about this little fort. This would lead to many exciting developments in the near future…
In 1935, Dad still had more work to do at Fort Raleigh but the National Park Services had begun cutting money for all of its projects. This was a tough, tense time for my parents as they worried from day to day about how they were going to get by. It didn’t help that my mother was pregnant again and Dad was suffering from one cold to the next.
But the Outer Banks politicians prevailed. They brought a large, new CCC camp to the island. And since Dad was able to draw plans as well as construct projects, he was given the job of designing and building the Roanoke Island Civilian Conservation Corps facility. Night after night, I watched in fascination as he studied military camp plans he’d had sent to him.
Then one night in October, Dad had to put his plans away. Someone else was about to arrive on the island: my brother Quentin.
On October 1, 1935, the only doctor in Manteo, Dr. Weeks, came to our house to give my mother quinine and castor oil to bring on labor. At 10:30 p.m., it started.
Roger and I were born in the Albemarle Hospital in Elizabeth City, but Manteo had no hospital and only the one doctor, so Mom would have to deliver this baby at home. When Dad told me Dr. Weeks would be the one to do it, I had major misgivings. Not only had I had a bad experience with him pulling a tooth of my own, I’d witnessed a horrific incidence when he’d pulled someone else’s tooth. In my mind, the man was a sadist of the first order.
A large black man from a chain gang working on the island had a terrible toothache, so the guards brought him to the doctor to have it pulled. It was my misfortune to be there that day and witness this event. The doctor grabbed a regular pair of steel pliers and, with his foot planted on the man’s chest, tugged as hard as he could on that painful tooth while the guards, one on each side, held the man down. It was a terrible sight to see and hear as the man screamed in pain. Finally, the tooth came out, along with a spew of pus and blood. The doctor merely shoved a clean white rag in the man’s mouth and the guards pulled him up out of the chair. As far as they were concerned, he was ready to return to the chain gang. I could hear him moaning all the way out and down the street.
Of course, my baby tooth had been a lot easier to pull. But I got the same pliers and the same white-rag treatment.
Neither Roger nor I knew anything about childbirth as Mom’s delivery approached. We were not raised on a farm so we’d never seen animals mating and giving birth, and our parents certainly hadn’t explained the mysteries of sex to us. Nonetheless, there we were, in our small bedroom immediately adjacent to the living room where Mom would deliver. I was eight years old and extremely curious about the reproductive process, so I watched and listened to everything.
The doctor arrived (I literally shuddered when he walked in the door) with his assistant, a local midwife. They got hot water boiling on the woodstove and laid out an abundance of clean linens. Then they set up Mom’s heavy wooden ironing board and placed her on it. Soon she began to scream in pain, which became worse as the hours passed.
Roger and I weren’t allowed to watch the actual birth, so we were sent to bed. Somehow, miraculously, we fell asleep. But as we did, I put a lot of myths surrounding birth behind me. I now knew for a fact that storks did not bring babies. There was no long-legged fowl in the living room with a baby dangling in a cloth sling. My mother, father, the doctor and midwife were in there, and Mom was going to have a baby right there on her ironing board. At 1:30 a.m., October 2, the doctor and midwife helped her bring that baby into the world.
The next morning Roger and I learned we had a baby brother named Quentin, and that he and Mom were recuperating from the ordeal. I went on to school, but rushed home afterwards to see my new brother. (My mother never said this to us, but she confided to her diary that she was very disappointed that her new baby wasn’t a girl since she already had two boys. Quentin was not permanently scarred to learn this fact years later!)
I was still left to piece together the mysteries of sex – of how the baby got there in the first place – by myself. Believe it or not, I was able to do that by reading the Coastland Times, particularly the courts section. The editor was also the Dare County sheriff, and he published all the assaults, arrests, rapes and other shocking local events to sell newspapers. Somewhere in all that, I surmised that a man coupled with a woman — for love or violence.
Since I didn’t have a sister, I had no idea what female body parts looked like, either. Watching my mother breastfeed my new brother answered some questions. Oddly, the crabs I caught on the beach answered others. While catching soft-shell crabs, I could see that the hard-shell crab was on the top to protect the soft-shell, who was upside down under him, and to fertilize her eggs. Occasionally, our pet dogs and cats would go at it when the female was ready. Sometimes I saw our male cat try to mount our female dog and I’d wonder what the offspring would look like!
About 10 days after Quentin was born, Mom was up and about. Shortly thereafter, my parents resumed their regular and frequent bridge games with various friends. But while she played, Mom listened for Quentin’s cries.
While Dad played, he kept his ears trained to the radio for news of impending war. Mussolini, the new fascist dictator of Italy, had invaded Ethiopia and Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor, was appealing to the League of Nations for help.
By 1936, when I was ready to start third grade, my mother faced a difficult fact. Dad’s work on the island was coming to an end. We would be better off back in Elizabeth City where both she and Dad had potential job opportunities — he at the shipyard, she at Culpepper’s Hardware. They could also help tend the nursery there.
Once again, my mother’s pragmatism won the battle between what she wanted to do – which was to stay as far away from her in-laws as possible — and what she felt she had to do. Fully aware that she was returning to the misery she’d left behind when we moved to Manteo, she packed us up and we headed to Elizabeth City. Dad still had a few things to do on the island so he stayed behind for a while.
When we had to move, we always did so in the summer to keep from interrupting our schooling. At that time, the eight-month school year was determined by the fact that our state was agrarian. The students from farming families – and they were in the majority — had to help during the growing and harvesting season that took place from June through September. That gave us four months off in the summer.
So I began third grade in Elizabeth City Elementary School. Happily for me, I was placed in a classroom with some of my old friends: Eddie Paul Owens, Beverly Markham and Charles Haskett. I settled in comfortably with them.
Unlike the school in Manteo, where the second grade consisted of only 20 kids who shared one classroom, there were three third-grade classes of about 25 students each in Elizabeth City. During my first month, I was pleased to see that what I’d learned about reading, writing and arithmetic on the island was as good as that of the Elizabeth City school. I missed the combined classroom, however, which had made it easy for me to make friends with kids both younger and older than myself. For different reasons than our mother, Roger and I were both happier in Manteo.
I was happy, however, to return to Nanny’s “school of etiquette” and to go back to working with my grandfather in the “Carolina Gardens” greenhouse and nursery. He taught me how to mix water with the abundant manure provided by his cow to make an excellent fertilizer for the perennials and annuals. (All of the cow’s manure went into a pile for this purpose.) Then he taught me how to milk the cow.
Granddad also kept a pig each year, which he fed and cared for until it was time to turn it into a year’s worth of pork for his and our tables. One pig did provide an abundance of meat, a welcomed addition to all the chicken, fish and vegetables we regularly consumed.
Roger was five by then and full of energy. He was always on the move and took great pleasure in messing up my routines. I learned to hide my drawings and paints from him because he delighted in turning over the bottle of water I used with my watercolor tray, often destroying whatever piece I was working on at the time.
Dad came home every two weeks to be with us. He hated the long trip back and forth, but he had to finish the new CCC camp. Mom missed Manteo, but she enjoyed being close to her parents and siblings again, and Grandmother Price was a big help with us boys. I returned to spending hours in Papa’s work shed, watching him tinker with, repair and even invent all sorts of things.
Soon after we moved, however, a terrible thing happened.
My Uncle Carroll had graduated from high school. He was 18 years old and an avid tennis player, but he had to seek employment. So he started working with Papa in his house-moving business. And Papa needed the help. Farmhouses had to be relocated off of the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s road developments in Pasquotank, Currituck and Dare counties as tourism increased and the narrow roads needed to be widened.
Papa used hand-operated jacks to crank up the houses before settling them down on long wooden beams, on which they would be painstakingly rolled away from the DOT’s right-of-way. One day, while Carroll was hammering the rollers under the house, a shard of steel broke off and flew into his right eye, lodging near his brain.
The medical technology did not exist at that time for saving an eye through surgery. So my young Uncle Carroll lost permanent use of his right eye. Besides being a sad disability in general, it meant he could no longer pursue his passion for tennis.
On a much brighter note: Just when we thought it was time for Dad to join us permanently in Elizabeth City, the funding came through to build The Lost Colony Amphitheater at Fort Raleigh – something the civic leaders had been working towards for years. My father had made preliminary plans for it while he was working on the fort. D. Bradford Fearing, among others, had been determined back then to produce a major pageant commemorating the discovery of Roanoke Island by the summer of 1937, so Dad had gone ahead and started planning for it.
A few years before, in 1934, Mrs. Mabel Evans wrote a script for a pageant that took place during a two-day festival, held August 17 and 18, to honor the discovery of the island and The Lost Colony. The islanders had scraped together what funds they could to make this simple production possible. Approximately 2000 people came from the mainland to be a part of it. But the script was weak, there was no structured place to present the play, and there was no press attention to promote it.
Up stepped Bradford Fearing, a Manteo native who, from 1934 to 1936, actively promoted the concept of a larger, better pageant. W.O. Saunders, editor of the Daily Advance in Elizabeth City, joined him. Under their leadership, plans were made and work on the project began. Fearing became the executive director, and Dad always said he and Saunders were keys to the success of the effort. Other leaders on the island — all close friends of Dad’s — included Bruce Etheridge, Chauncey Meekins, Melvin Daniels, and Mrs. Mabel Evans. And they were all excited by the prospect.
Mrs. Evans’ crude little pageant of 1934 did accomplish one very important thing: It reignited interest in the story from dramatist, teacher, and author Paul Green, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his drama In Abraham’s Bosom.
Green was already enamored with the area. In Angle Ellis Khoury’s Manteo: A Roanoke Island Town, she notes that, 16 years earlier, Green had visited the “hallowed spot where Sir Walter Raleigh’s tragic colony had become lost to history” to witness the making of a film that Mabel Evans spearheaded – a film she wrote, produced and starred in with a grant from the State Board of Education.
Green was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when this took place, and he went to great lengths to get to Manteo to watch the filming, witness the site, and to walk along the beach. Khoury relates that after his first day there, he wrote to his wife:
“I went out to the place where the Spirit of the Renaissance first built its altar in the New World… I measured off the ground of the ancient site…and there alone for one tiny minute I felt a passing breath of the dreadful story. Oh, if I only could give expression to it.”
He would get the opportunity.
Determined to have a first-class playwright to produce a world-class outdoor drama, Bradford Fearing and the Roanoke Island Historical Association brought Green, along with Dr. Frederick H. Koch, to the island. With W.O. Saunders’ help, he convinced Green to accept the task of writing the script. He believed it would be “the biggest thing ever to hit North Carolina.”
According to Dad, when Paul Green arrived at Fort Raleigh, he was overwhelmed by the fact that he was standing on a place where civilization in this nation had begun. He was anxious to create a drama that he felt would make a difference in American social life, and he was fascinated by the concept of a “symphonic outdoor drama” that would combine the theatrical elements of dance, literature, music and lighting.
Samuel Selden, a teacher, scholar, writer and the director of the Carolina Playmakers since 1927, was hired to direct the play. (Selden subsequently received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on “The Lost Colony.”) My father was to design the stage along Roanoke Sound and the seating area above it. The finished product would be aptly named Waterside Theatre.
The Fort Raleigh folks had given Dad the nickname “Skipper” by this time. So Skipper Bell began his tasks immediately and with great gusto. Since Dad was the master planner and builder, he could move his men, equipment and supplies from task to task very quickly. He quickly drew up master plans, grading plans, and details for the seating, staging area, and support facilities as he went along. The latter would be an assortment of permanent buildings, tiers and ramparts.
Key to my father’s approach to this work was his belief that grading – changing the natural lay of the land — and tree cutting should always be kept at a minimum. He firmly believed, and impressed upon me, that new construction should blend into the natural surroundings and that grading should respect the natural ground forms. Under his guidance, no elements of the finished product would stand out as a monument to his abilities but instead rest peacefully and harmonious on the land. Therefore, any area that didn’t have to be graded was left in its natural state. And only the direst need would solicit a tree’s felling.
When Dad was given the go-ahead to start construction, there was nothing at the theater site but gnarled, wind-whipped trees, a vast sand dune, and a fitful body of water. Yet in less than six months, Dad and a team of WPA workers had constructed an amphitheatre. Yet nothing could have been done if not for the efforts of Dad’s crew of workers who used a cantankerous mule and a scoop to level that bothersome dune so work could commence.
As the frothy waters of Roanoke Sound slapped against the shoreline in the background, Dad and his crew trucked in piles of juniper logs and built the theater stage and service buildings, patterning them after the buildings at Fort Raleigh. He laid out a sand floor that would later be replaced by concrete. The walls around the theater and the stage cabins themselves were also made of juniper logs, topped by Dad’s signature thatched roofs.
All of the side stages were built around the live oaks and other trees on the site. My father wove the theater’s wing walls and satellite stages into nature so effectively that, by opening night in June, the newly built structures looked as if they were at least three or four years old. They looked at home in their place.
Dad’s correspondence courses in landscape architecture paid great dividends that summer. And his attitude towards nature, preserving natural forms, and inconspicuous construction has remained a guiding force in all of my work. Whenever I’ve left a tree on its roots or refused to bring in a bulldozer, preferring to work with the natural lay of the land, I know I’m reflecting the lessons taught to me at a very early age.
As soon as school was out that spring, Mom, Roger, Quentin and I moved back to the island – much to our delight. But before we moved, Mom completely repainted the interior of our Elizabeth City house so it could be rented out. When we were settled again on Roanoke Island, she wrote in her diary, “It seems a shame, really, to have to leave it after [the house] looks so nice… However, it seemed best to come here for the summer so the children would have the benefit of the sea, air and bathing. We are indeed feeling at home and enjoying life at present.”
And once again, she accepted her role as hostess for whomever Dad brought home with him. Leading up to opening night, Paul Green became a very good friend of my father’s and he and his wife, Elizabeth Lay, came to our house for dinner many times, often without prior warning. So my mother became a magician with leftovers. At a moment’s notice she could manufacture a mélange of soups, stews, curries, fresh vegetables, bread and biscuits, hot coffee, iced tea and homemade desserts. Everyone enjoyed her cooking – even the esteemed Mr. Green, who had been seated at many a Hollywood soirée before he placed his feet under my mother’s humble table.
Mom liked Paul Green immediately for many reasons, especially because he was an outspoken advocate of civil rights. Roy Parker Jr., retired Editor of the Fayetteville Observer-Times and a trustee of the Paul Green Foundation, once wrote that “nearly all of [Green’s] earliest work, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, In Abraham’s Bosom, turned either directly or in some measure on the shame and outrage that he felt for the atrocities of the gas chamber, of the chain gang, and of the discrimination that race and poverty visited on common people.” In Abraham’s Bosom was set on a sharecropper’s farm.
Ben Dixon MacNeill (1889-1960), North Carolina newspaperman, author, and authority on the North Carolina Outer Banks, was another frequent fixture at Mom’s table when we returned to Manteo. He was also a key player in the development and success of “The Lost Colony.”
Ben Dixon had worked at the Raleigh News & Observer for many years before moving to Manteo, and he was famous statewide for weaving great stories that captivated readers’ attention. Josephus Daniels, the paper’s founder, once said, “I send Ben Dixon and Joe [Daniels’ son] out on an assignment because Ben comes back with a story and no facts, whereas Joe comes back with the facts and no story.”
Ben was thin, wiry, and openly homosexual. When he arrived on Roanoke Island in 1935 with no place to stay, Dad set him up in the tiny John White house inside the fort. It was a mere box of a space, but Ben Dixon didn’t require anything more than a place to sleep and a place to set up his typewriter and store his camera.
From those close quarters, Ben Dixon MacNeill spun tale after tale of Fort Raleigh, its history, the people reconstructing it, the CCC boys, the amphitheater’s design and construction, the actors and actresses, the play itself, and much more. His stories were of such a poetic quality that newspapers up and own the eastern seaboard published them, including the Raleigh News & Observer. In 1939, he opened an article entitled “When You Come To Dare” this way:
When you have come to Dare, as some day you will, where yesterday is tomorrow and tomorrow is yesterday, and today is compounded of them both, where the wind and the sun and the sea have laid an enchantment upon the earth and Time looks inscrutably beyond to not-yet generations and backwards past a generation not remembered and is not fretted by trifling things that do not over-much matter…
Later in the same article, he writes of the play:
With the help of Paul Green, they have made the story of the Lost Colony live again. They have borrowed from the theatre all that stage-craft has to lend, and the result is a repossessed past, done with all its sheer dramatic power, accentuated but never overshadowed by dramatic technique.
It is not theater-by-theater people, but life by the natives themselves. There is no acting, as acting, but simply re-living, where native history has grown up into native drama – as you have seen, now that you have come to Dare.
Ben Dixon always had a story to tell about the Outer Banks in general and Fort Raleigh and “The Lost Colony” in particular. Many people believe – and I am one of them – that those stories were the primary catalyst for getting record crowds to the play in the early years. I have no doubt that, without Ben, the islanders’ efforts never would have captured the Congressional attention that led to the play’s federal funding.
Naturally, Ben Dixon was appointed public relations manager for Fort Raleigh and “The Lost Colony,” and he and my father became close friends. I believed Ben Dixon MacNeill was one of the finest people I’d ever met.
My mother did not share my sentiment. As quickly as she took a liking to Paul Green, she took a disliking to Ben. She could not understand why Dad brought him to our house so often. He was just too “eccentric” for my mother. She didn’t like the fact that he was homosexual because she worried that her boys would be his prey. Apparently, a mother’s protectiveness can overwhelm reason.
When Dr. Joseph Collins’ book “The Doctor Looks at Love & Life” was published 1926, most readers did not believe what it suggested: that homosexuals came from all walks of life and that they worked in every professions, even though their sexual orientation had to be keep secret. Homosexuals were much the same as other men, he contended.
My father never read that book, but he lived it. Besides Ben, Dad was around other openly gay men in the theater, and it did not bother him in the least. They were just other men. Homosexuality was simply a non-issue with him, so he ignored my mother’s protestations. And I want to make it quite clear that the man did not treat my brothers or me as “prey.” In our home, he was the perfect gentleman.
The blossoming of Waterside Theatre and “The Lost Colony” was a sight to behold. Boys from the CCC camp assisted in the project, as did staff members, townsfolk, and students from The Carolina Playmakers, UNC-Chapel Hill’s theater troupe. Paul Green himself even pitched in.
Meanwhile, Ora Mae Davis of the Playmakers designed the costumes with help from Dorothy Lacey of New York. WPA sewing rooms in Durham, NC, and Manteo turned them out.
President Roosevelt’s Federal Theatre Projects, a New Deal program, provided the actors for the starring roles. CCC boys and “locals” completed the cast of colonists and Native Americans. I was supposed to be one of them, but my mother wouldn’t allow it. She had her reasons, but I don’t remember what they were. She wrote that she and Dad “had quite a little controversy which ended in a fight about Sonny being in the pageant. But as the saying goes, all’s well that ends well. Bert sees my point of view now.” Eventually, I would be cast as the kid who wandered through the seats spraying the audience with mosquito repellent!
When Waterside Theater was completed, it provided simple, backless bench seating for 3500 with standing room around that. Dad called the main stage his “permanent set.” Proscenium walls softened his house-right and house-left stages so that the audience felt close to the performance.
A choir loft for singers and an organist were located on the house-right stage, as was the area Dad called the “Queen’s stage” where a more intimate scene in Queen Elizabeth’s chambers took place. The “Indian stage” was in the house-left area.
I enjoy Khoury’s description of the amphitheatre in her book, Manteo: “Beautifully sculpted into the shoreline of Roanoke Sound on the very site where the play’s story takes shape, Waterside Theatre was designed by Albert Q. ‘Skipper’ Bell and constructed by men from the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps headquartered on Roanoke Island.”
According to my mother’s diary, Dad was “so busy getting ready for the pageant that he hardly knew where he was.” But when opening night, July 4th, arrived, Waterside Theatre was ready to receive its actors and audiences.
A good crowd came even though the audience had to trudge along narrow, wooded paths to get there. As they walked, crickets and cicadas sang in the trees and hungry mosquitoes searched for exposed skin. When they arrived at the gate, they bought their tickets and made their way into Waterside Theater, descending first to the lower benches near the stage then quickly filling the upper benches. Wooden steps along the aisles helped them traverse the gentle rake of the seating area. My father watched this happen with pride and more than a little nervousness. The moment had arrived to test the value of his creation, and Paul Green’s play, before a real audience.
The crowd hummed with excited conversation. No one had ever seen what he or she was about to see. They’d never even heard of such a pageant. But what they saw was the nation’s first outdoor symphonic drama that combined history, legend and imagination to tell the story of the first attempt at settling the New World.
According to the National Park Services’ archives, “To the Depression-weary audiences of the late thirties, ‘The Lost Colony’ represented their own journey through hardship. The unknown was still ahead but perhaps the worst was over.” (“The Lost Colony: A Cure for Depression?,” NPS “Diversions” section.)
Everything went along rather smoothly after that first night. Of course, Dad was still constantly busy at Fort Raleigh, so much so that Mom wrote: “Bert stays at the Fort nearly all the time. He is becoming a stranger here.” In July, North Carolina Governor Clyde R. Hoey, who had been elected in 1936, came to see the play. Roger and I got to shake hands with him. That same month, Paul Green himself came to see the play. And for the first time, it was rained out — on the night of the playwright’s appearance.
Then an even more momentous thing happened. One afternoon as Dad was putting away some tools he’d been using to make a few minor repairs on the stage, Ben Dixon hurried towards him.
“Skipper!” he called out.
Dad turned to see the newspaperman coming towards him at a quick clip, waving what looked like a letter in his hand. “Hey, Ben. What you got there?”
“I’ve got some big news, Skipper,” Ben said smiling broadly. “Big news indeed!”
He stopped when he reached Dad and tapped the back of his hand on the letter. “My friend, we’ve just received word that President Roosevelt may be coming to see our little pageant in August.”
Dad was ecstatic. He was a huge supporter of Roosevelt, and now the great man was coming to “his” theatre? “Well, then,” he said, “we’ll just have to make sure everything is perfect for him, won’t we?”
Ben smiled and nodded. “Yes sir, we will. I’m going to contact Hall right away and get you two in touch. You’ll need to talk.” Dad knew he meant Hall Roosevelt, FDR’s son. He also knew that Ben Dixon McNeill could make this happen.
Born on June 2, 1891, Hall Roosevelt was actually Eleanor Roosevelt’s youngest brother. (Eleanor and Franklin were cousins, hence the same last names.) But when Hall was only two, his mother, Anna Hall Roosevelt, died. Shortly after Hall’s third birthday, their father, Elliott Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s son, died as well. But before he did, he begged Eleanor to act as a mother towards her toddler brother. She spent the rest of her life doing just that – to the point that no one remembered that Hall wasn’t FDR’s biological son, along with his other six children.
By the time FDR was set to come to Manteo, he had been stricken with polio, which left his legs unable to carry him. So others had to do the job. (Two years later, in August of 1939, my mother wrote in her diary that two cases of infantile paralysis had been reported in Elizabeth City.)
Hall was acutely aware of FDR’s feelings around his infirmities. The President was very sensitive about large crowds seeing him being carried around. There was also the matter of security. So he and my father brainstormed about ways to provide a satisfactory method for FDR to navigate safely and with great security to the podium in the afternoon to give a speech. They also needed to come up with a way to get him into the amphitheater that night to watch the play.
In typical fashion, Skipper Bell found the solution. He designed a podium that could be accessed by a ramp and guarded by the Secret Service. He also designed and built a large platform for the dignitaries who would be seated with the President. And he devised a special ramp and platform at the rear of the amphitheater where FDR’s automobile would simply drive up and park. The President would watch the play without ever having to get out of the car.
When Hall confirmed that FDR would be coming to Manteo on August 18, I thought my father would burst with pride and excitement. He clamped that cigar in the corner of his mouth and smiled from ear to ear.
I’ll never forget the day President Roosevelt landed on our little island. He arrived at the Manteo waterfront aboard a Coast Guard ship then rode in an open-air car all the way to Fort Raleigh. From the Croatan Bridge to Roanoke Island and on into Fort Raleigh, Secret Service agents were stationed about every 100 feet. I could see them along the road by our house. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt couldn’t come at the last minute due to illness (she would come on a separate trip in 1939), much to my mother’s dismay.
As expected, FDR arrived with full entourage. When he reached the amphitheatre, he was easily wheeled up to the podium at midday. And from there he made one of his typically uplifting speeches. I was in the audience of some 10,000 people, which included islanders, “Lost Colony” cast members, ministers, CCC boys, school groups, politicians and dignitaries of all kinds, including many from the state’s major universities.
Roosevelt’s speech addressed how successful his New Deal/Fair Deal had been thus far at putting men back to work. And he compared the duality of the two times – that of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony and our own state of Depression – in terms of sweat, tears and hope:
“We do not know the fate of Virginia Dare or the First Colony,” he said. “We do know, however, that the story of America is largely a record of that spirit of adventure.” And he praised Paul Green for turning what could have been a depressing story into a pageant of hope and inspiration at a time when the nation needed both so badly.
Immediately afterwards, the crowd and the President made their way to an enormous fish fry on the grounds, compliments of the islanders. The intoxicating aroma to our local fish and hundreds of “hushpuppies” (small cornmeal breads deep-fried into cone-like shapes) frying in hot oil wafted through the warm summer air. Large tubs of fresh coleslaw and a variety of desserts baked by island women were laid out on a long wooden table. Everyone filled his or her plate and sat together on wooden picnic tables or on blankets placed under the trees. It was a spectacular afternoon.
That night, when Roosevelt’s car arrived at Waterside Theatre – on the day of Virginia Dare’s birth on Roanoke Island 350 years earlier – the driver had no trouble steering it straight up the ramp Dad had built to the place where the President could watch the play. FDR’s security and dignity were intact.
I was there with Dad, Roger, Quentin, and Mom, the latter of whom had been lamenting the lack of good crowds at the play. Not that night. The amphitheater was filled to capacity. Approximately 3800 people saw the first presentation. Over 2200 watched the second. This was a record-making night with well over 6000 in attendance. The islanders were tremendously proud of the place and the pageant they had created. I like to think that the thunder of applause that night was as much for all of us as it was for our pageant.
The day after Roosevelt’s visit, Roger and I went with Dad to Fort Raleigh to see what, if any, damage had been done to the amphitheater and the fort after such an onslaught of humanity. Because of the fish fry, there was a lot of debris – paper cups, plates, utensils and napkins – that needed to be picked up. And there were plenty of water and soda bottles scattered around the amphitheater. It had been a hot night and the good people had to quench their thirsts for six hours to see the two performances. Otherwise, everything was in remarkably good shape.
We were especially interested in the ramp and platform area from which Roosevelt had viewed the play. While Dad was checking that out, I climbed into a tree and discovered a newly minted dime with Roosevelt’s face on it. This was the special coin issued to mark the beginning of “The March of Dimes” campaign to make us aware of the Warm Springs, Georgia, facility for polio victims’ rehabilitation and medical research. Dad, Roger and I marveled that I’d found that dime on that day. I kept that dime for a very long time, proudly showed it off to family and school friends.
A few days after FDR’s visit, a letter arrived with the White House as the return address. Mom placed it on the table to await Dad’s arrival that evening. When he came in, she grinned and handed it to him.
Gently, as if he were handling something fragile and precious, Dad opened the envelope and extracted the letter inside. It was from Hall Roosevelt. He thanked my father for his efforts in making the President’s day and night a very memorable event. The President was particularly proud, he said, that money from the Works Progress Administration and workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps had helped to make it possible.
I know that was one of the proudest moments of my father’s life.
At some point that summer, Dad and Chauncey Meekins, the Dare County Clerk of Court, took over the main gate ticket area at the theatre so they could greet and count the guests. Dignitaries were given the “royal treatment,” of course, warmly welcomed and escorted to their seats near the stage.
Ben Dixon MacNeill was usually there as well to interview any VIPs who arrived. He always had his camera with him, although, sadly, he was not as good a photographer as he was a writer. Many of his pictures were so blurred you couldn’t make them out. I also remember my father admonishing him to make sure his flash bulbs didn’t pop out and go straight down the top of a woman’s low-cut summer dress!
The 1937 season of “The Lost Colony” ended after Labor Day and was considered a great success. Over 100,000 people saw the play that year. All the bills were paid and plans were made for “The Lost Colony” to resume the following summer. We didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but our outdoor drama would continue year after year, going “dark” only during World War II. (By 2007, over 3 million people would see the play in the theater my father first built.)
Despite damage from hurricanes and other harsh weather, Waterside Theater remained in good shape until July 24, 1947.
The immediate post-war years were marked by an influx of great talent to the show. Andy Griffith, Barbara Edwards, and Bob Armstrong joined the cast that season and found themselves a wonderful summer home on Roanoke Island.
These headliners were all on hand when the theater went up in flames on July 24. The fire started backstage, most likely the result of a carelessly discarded cigarette. Cast, crew and the local fire department scrambled valiantly to defeat the fire, but their efforts were in vain. The stage, scenery docks, two dressing rooms and left wing were completely destroyed.
Everyone gathered afterwards among the embers, exhausted, dirty and depressed. There seemed to be nothing to do but cancel the rest of the season – a terrible blow for everyone involved who depended on “The Lost Colony” for his or her livelihood.
My father had been standing off to one side, rubbing soot-stained fingers across his brow while the others lamented their plight. Unwilling to admit defeat, he was trying to solve the problem. Finally, he pulled Bob Armstrong aside.
Armstrong played John Borden, a courageous and, in effect, “all-American” colonist whose memorable lines include “…by that great Spirit that guards this world and holds our little lives in the hollow of His hand, I swear we will fight on and on here until this wilderness is won.”
Dad told Bob he could rebuild the theatre in a week if he had the manpower to help. In “The House That Skipper Bell Built,” an article on Waterside Theater by historian Lebame Houston, Armstrong is quoted as saying, “Skipper told me to go out there and be John Borden. Get him a work force. And I did. That was the night I really became John Borden.”
So my father and a volunteer crew of actors, technicians and islanders rebuilt Waterside Theater in six long, hot days. Taking few breaks for food, water or rest, they persevered, Dad working harder than any of the much younger members of the crew. Dad had stretched his usual 14-hour days to 20 hours throughout the entire week. And Roger and I were right there helping him.
By 8 p.m. that Wednesday night, the show went on – even though Dad and his crew were still finishing up the thatched roofs on two buildings and the main stage while new scenery was being brought in from the proscenium. Technical director Bill Long and his men had worked their own miracle by reconstructing all of the scenery. Fortunately, all of the props had survived the fire.
The dressing rooms were crowded until two weeks later when the replacement building was finished. But that was a minor detail considering the miracle that had occurred in one single week. It was a truly incredibly site when the “ship” rolled across its runway at the rear of the stage with its flags flying – as if the original “Lost Colony” had returned. And according to reports, it was one of the most emotional presentations of the play anyone had ever seen.
Ben Dixon MacNeill called my father the “English doer of miracles.” And he would have to pull off another “miracle” after the season of 1960. Hurricane Donna roared through Roanoke Island, taking the backstage area and most of the main stage with her. Not to be outdone by Mother Nature, Dad and yet another makeshift crew got busy and by opening night of the 1961 season, the entire theater was rebuilt and ready for the evening’s performance.
A major restoration of the theater took place in 1962. Had it not been for Hurricane Donna’s destruction, however, it would have remained untouched for 25 years — an enormous testament to Dad’s handiwork as a designer and craftsman. And this from a man who taught himself how to do everything he did.
“As long as there is a Waterside Theatre,” Houston wrote, “Bell, the ‘tamer of darkness, fire and flood’ will be remembered.” The 1962 season’s play program praised his ability to bring the theatre back after the hurricane, calling it “a tribute to A.Q. Bell…native by heart, foreigner by birth, Dean of American outdoor theatre design.”
That honor was appropriate since my father would go on to build the now-historic Forest Theatre at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a stone amphitheater and an icon on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. It was first developed in Battle Park by Frederick Koch and rebuilt in 1940 according to my father’s plan. Dad would also build the Mountainside Theatre in Cherokee, NC, where the outdoor drama “Unto These Hills” has been staged since 1950, and the Lake Matoaka Amphitheatre in Williamsburg, VA, for “The Common Glory (1947). Paul Green wrote the latter.
Ben Dixon MacNeill may have seen Dad’s accomplishments as “miracles.” But to me, they were a product of creativity, determination and persistence, all of which defined my father and his work. Dad relished challenges, brought creativity and self-taught skills to bear on them, and pushed his ideas through with conviction and perseverance. As a young child, I watched. As a student, I remembered. And as an adult and landscape architect, I emulated. Whenever I’ve felt as if I were facing defeat, I’ve remembered the grit, guts and imagination my father displayed in the face of all sorts of adversities, from the Great Depression to a burned down or hurricane-bashed theatre. That lesson has never let me down.