TBT: Ted Shawn's Opening Night Prank at Jacob's Pillow

July 21, 2021

When Ted Shawn bought a mountaintop farm named Jacob’s Pillow in 1931, it would have been impossible to predict that the scrappy artistic retreat in the Berkshires would become such a beloved center for dance in America.

In the summer of 1941, beset by financial difficulties, Shawn rented the Pillow to ballet stars Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova; the International Dance Festival they produced was such a great success that a group of locals banded together to raise money to purchase the property from Shawn and build a proper theater, of which he was named director. It opened on schedule on July 9, 1942, a feat that Shawn described as a “miracle” in the July 1951 issue of Dance Magazine.

Reflecting on building and maintaining the theater in the midst of World War II, he wrote: “Our audiences, often less than fifty people, came on foot, on horseback, or even used to hire a hay wagon to transport them to and from. I used to say, after scanning hundreds of empty seats, that I would faint dead away if I ever saw the theatre sold out. A newspaper man picked this up and headlined it as follows: ‘Shawn promises to faint the first time every seat in his theatre is filled’. In 1946, with the end of gas rationing, one day early in the season word was brought to me that every seat in the house was taken. So, going through the curtain after the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, I took a long look at the totally filled house and did a convincing ‘Delsarte’ fall. The old-timers, who knew the gag, laughed uproariously; the newcomers looked at each other appalled and said, ‘The man has fainted—how heartless of these people to laugh. What’s the matter with them?’ “

The Ted Shawn Theatre
is still in operation nearly 80 years later.