On the west side of Lower Manhattan in New York City, Greenwich Village has long been home to progressive thinkers and artists of all types, as well as ground zero for several movements. In the 1950s and 60s, it was a mainstay of the nation’s bohemian culture, hosting beatniks, folk music originals, the strong counter-culture movement, and the Beat Generation, with such icons as Maya Angelou, Truman Capote, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Rod McKuen.
The coffeehouse scene flourished at that time, when a remarkable alternative to commercial theater was developed: Off-Off-Broadway, where productions ran the gamut from scripted to impromptu, and venues ranged from old warehouses to small cafes. At the heart of this historic movement was a little-known North Country actress and writer who was widely respected in the New York City arts community.
Mary Elizabeth Boylan was born in Plattsburgh, New York, in February 1913. Her father, John, was a mainstay of the community, serving as district deputy of the Knights of Columbus for four years, president of the chamber of commerce for two years, and general manager of the Mountain Home Telephone Company. In 1924, when Mary was 11, the family moved to Rochester, New York, where her dad became president of the Rochester Telephone Company three years later.
Instead of attending public schools, Mary went to Nazareth Academy and the Columbia Preparatory School for Girls, both located in Rochester. Highly regarded Columbia Prep was founded in 1890 and is still around today, having been renamed Allendale Columbia School.
She began attending Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts in fall 1931, where she joined the Dramatic Club and found her life’s calling. In a May Day pageant at the end of her freshman year, Mary performed one of her first public roles, appearing as a councilor in The Pied Piper of Hamelin. She was already writing plays by that time, and as a sophomore, her original work, The Young Outlaw, was performed by the school’s drama club, known informally as the Playshoppers. A year later in the same pageant, she played the leading role in John Drinkwater’s Bird in Hand. In 1934, the club presented Chantecler, by Edmond Rostand, and later that year, she starred in Alice Sit-By-the-Fire, by J. M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan). After four years of playing leading roles in many productions and working on technical and stage crews, Mary graduated in June 1935.
She found work close to home, at Camp Madonna on Canandaigua Lake, a girls-only summer camp sponsored by the Catholic Women’s Club of Rochester. Immediately after leaving Holyoke, Boylan joined the Camp Madonna staff as newsletter editor, and served with a friend as co-Dramatics Counselors, developing programs featuring theater, music, and stunts. They organized a chorus to perform for parents and visitors, and each week produced a new play that was presented to public audiences.
At the end of summer, Mary enrolled in the most prestigious acting school in the country, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan (check out their impressive list of alumni). The following year, 1936, she again returned to Camp Madonna, adding librarian to her theater, stunt, and music responsibilities.
Over the next decade, Mary honed her acting chops at some very impressive venues: the Feagin School of Dramatic Art in New York City (trainees there include Angela Lansbury and Jeff Chandler); the famous Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia (Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Kevin Spacey, and many others have performed there); and the New School in Greenwich Village (among their alumni are Marlon Brando, Walther Matthau, and Tennessee Williams).
During that time, she also began appearing on Broadway, debuting at the famed Belasco Theater in 1938 as Miss Spangelman in Kenyon Nicholson’s two-act play, Dance Night. In 1940 she played Sister Olympia Herring in 30 performances of Suzanna and the Elders, and in 1941 she played Nurse Pyngar in the Walrus and the Carpenter at the Cort Theater. In 1944 she appeared in a revival of Our Town, and the following year was in Live Life Again at the Belasco. She also found other work as a writer, playing uncredited stage roles, and serving as understudy for various actresses.
In 1953 she played the ward nurse in the traveling production of The Shrike, which featured Van Heflin, one of the top movie stars of the day. Among their stops was the Sacandaga Summer Theater in the Adirondacks. Mary also began exploring a relatively new medium, television, making her first of many appearances in December 1955 on Star Tonight, in an episode titled “Write Me a Love Scene.” Beginning in 1956, she also played minor roles in several movies, debuting in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man.
Next, the conclusion: On the ground floor of theatrical history, then on to television and movies.
Photos: Mary Boylan (from the Billy Rose Theater Division, New York Public Library); Mary’s theater résumé (1946)
A version of this article was first published on the Adirondack Almanack.