By Peggie MillerPerforming arts columnist
Updated: 10.25.09- Conroe COURIER
You know what they say about cream rising? Would the following narrative be an example?
Only five years ago local theatre critic DAVID DOW BENTLEY, III, (known as Dow to his friends) of The Woodlands, was inducted into The Lambs, America’s oldest professional theatre club. This year he rose to the position of editor of the club’s periodical called The Lambs’ Script, in publication since 1932.
“When I was a junior at Westchester’s Peekskill High School,” Bentley said, recalling an early brush with the arts, “a sophomore named Irene Cooksey caught my eye. After class one day, I followed her into the auditorium where she was auditioning for the spring play. The English teacher in charge needed a reader and surprised me by thrusting a script into my unsuspecting hands.” Following this, Dow went on to roles in “Rebel without a Cause,” “Pygmalion,” and more — enough to be voted “Best Actor” in the yearbook.
After that he went off to the University of Texas to major in history and take elective drama courses. He returned to New York and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts during 1966-67, and eventually earned a master’s degree in education at Brooklyn College.
Bentley entered a career teaching sixth graders and directing school musicals, despite not being a trained musician. He coupled this career with deep involvement in national units of teachers’ federations.
Later, after early retirement, Bentley wrote some reviews for the Peekskill Herald, bought a condominium in The Woodlands, and was on hand for the 1998 inaugural production of Bizet’s “Carmen” on the new multimedia stage at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands. He submitted a review that was accepted by Houston Community Newspapers; thus began a satisfying relationship for the free lancer.
A few weeks ago Dow gave me a copy of his first publication as The Lambs’ Script editor and I found it fascinating, spending an unexpected two hours poring over the contents. Although I recognized few of the names, I felt that I knew them all a little by the time I finished.
The Lambs’ membership is by invitation only and once excluded women. Its charitable arm, The Lambs Foundation, supports the Actors’ Fund that maintains homes for theatre retirees, similar associations, and other charities.
Bentley’s sponsor was Wayne Coleman, a member of The Lambs’ board of directors. They met at Sardi’s bar in New York while Dow awaited the arrival of a Texas friend.
Early history of The Lambs in America is that it took its cue from a London group that met informally in the home of essayist and poet Charles Lamb and his sister Mary. Its official beginning was in 1869, although arts aficionados had met at the Lambs’ home for years. Membership was composed of London’s show business enthusiasts and literati. Two of the members at that time were William Wordsworth and Charles Lamb’s lifelong friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The club took the motto “May the Lambs Flourish,” and so it did for 10 years, dispersing around 1879.
Charles Lamb never married and speculation has it that this partly was due to his obligation to his mentally unstable sister who stabbed their mother to death, then wove in and out of mental institutions during their lifetimes, although she, too, was a writer and collaborated with Charles on a children’s book.
But be that as it may, the club honoring them has remained alive and well in New York, although it went through dark financial times decades ago when it reluctantly sold its landmark building on 44th Street and relocated to 3 West 51st Street.
During more that 130 years of existence The Lambs have boasted among their 6,000 members, greats such as the Barrymores, George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire, Abe Vigoda and innumerable luminaries.
One of the Lambs’ important functions is its “Gambols,” frolicsome plays, musicals and variety shows produced to entertain members. One important show first performed there was “Stalag 17,” that went on to national success. Another was “Mark Twain Tonight.”
A current connection to Charles Lamb is the best seller “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by the late Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece, Annie Barrows. One plot line involves finding a book with a signature on the fly leaf referring to Lamb’s compositions titled “Selected Essays of Elia.” Lamb also is referenced throughout the novel. Yet, today, nobody has discovered why Lamb credits the name “Elia” for his two volumes of essays.
David Dow Bentley, III, splits his time between his condominium in a “pinewood forest in The Woodlands” and his longtime New York apartment on Rockaway Beach. There also is a huge family clan in Peekskill and Rhode Island that stretches all the way to the edges of its Christmas photo.