773 Commercial Street

 
“Rancho Pancho”

Not that anyone calls this waterfront property “Rancho Pancho” any longer, but it was its name during its most eventful summer — 1947 — when Tennessee Williams lived here with his lover at the time, Pancho Rodriguez y Gonzalez, and heard Marlon Brando read the part of Stanley Kowalski; a reading that won Brando, within 10 minutes, the lead role in A Streetcar Named Desire, which was soon to open on Broadway. And no, Williams said in Memoirs, Brando did not employ other means of encouraging the playwright to cast him. “I have never played around with actors,” Williams declared, “it’s a point of morality with me and anyhow Brando was not the type to get a part that way.”

Because Williams referred to Rodriguez as “Santo” in Memoirs, there is an interesting little twist on history in his account of the cottage’s nickname: “We rented a shingled bungalow directly on the water somewhere between North Truro and Provincetown. (We named it Rancho Santo and set a board with that title in front of the dwelling.) Soon we had visitors; Margo Jones and her side-kick Joanna Albus came to share the rustic bungalow with us. There were double-decker bunks on either side of the main room: the ladies shared one, Santo and I the other; and there was considerable consumption of firewater.” Jones, whom Williams nicknamed the “Texas Tornado,” had co-directed The Glass Menagerie on Broadway. Albus was her friend and assistant.

The identification of this building as “Rancho Pancho” comes from a couple of sources, one them quite obvious (there is a plaque on the building to the effect that Williams lived here in 1947) and the other a little more circuitous. Property records in the Provincetown assessor’s office and the Barnstable County registry of deeds indicate that the current owner, Lisa Corrin, acquired the property in 1980 from the estate of Susan Barris, to whom it had been sold in 1980 by Eli Danikow Jr. and Raymond Lheureux, shortly after they acquired it from W. Deaver and Marjorie Kehne. The Kehnes had owned the property since 1954, having acquired it from Manuel F. Patrick, who bought it in 1950 from Peter A. and Beryl E. Nyholm, who’d owned it since 1946. And it is Nyholm, a Vogue photographer, whom David Kaplan identified as the playwright’s landlord in Tennessee Williams in Provincetown (2007). Kaplan said that the men painted the house the color of the Mexican flag.

That summer, Elia Kazan, who was to direct Streetcar, sent Brando to Provincetown with $20 for a train ticket that Brando never purchased, since he hitchhiked instead, taking much longer than planned. Williams picks up the tale:

I had stopped expecting him when he arrived one evening with a young girl, the kind you would call a chick nowadays.

He asked why the lights weren’t on and we told him the electricity had failed. He immediately fixed that for us — I think he merely inserted a penny in the light fuse.

Then he discovered our predicament with the plumbing [the toilet was not working] and he fixed that, too.

He was just about the best-looking young man I’ve ever seen, with one or two exceptions ….

When he had gotten the Rancho into shape by repairing the lights and plumbing, he sat down in a corner and started to read the part of Stanley. I was cuing him. After less than 10 minutes, Margo Jones jumped up and let out a ‘Texas Tornado’ shout.

‘Get Kazan on the phone right away! This is the greatest reading I’ve ever heard — in or outside of Texas!’

Brando maybe smiled a little but didn’t show any particular elation, such as the elation we all felt.

The summer of 1947 on the Cape was also significant for Williams because he met, first in the company of the songwriter John LaTouche and then by himself — in Levi’s — on the porch of the A House, “a youth of Sicilian extraction … designed by Praxiteles”: Frank Merlo, who would become his “closest, most long-lasting companion.” Rodriguez was not slow on the uptake. He tried to run over Williams with the playwright’s own Pontiac on the night that Williams and Merlo first had sex out in the dunes. That was the end, though Rodriguez tried alternately to charm or terrorize his way back into Williams’s life.

In one such violent effort, at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, Rodriguez loudly threatened to kill Williams, smashed a vase and tore down an ornamental light fixture. Williams fled across the hall to Kazan’s room. “A little later we heard Pancho returning,” Kazan recalled in A Life, “and Williams went back into his suite. He didn’t look frightened, dismayed or disapproving, but happy that Pancho was back and eager to see the man who’d made such a terrible scene the night before. The violence had thrilled him. If Tennessee was Blanche, Pancho was Stanley.”

Sounds like the stuff of terrific drama. Gregg Barrios, a journalist and playwright who knew Rodriguez, certainly thought so. Inspired by Kazan’s observation, he set out to write the two-act play Rancho Pancho. As Barrios describes it, “Rancho Pancho follows their relationship from the summer of 1946 on Nantucket Island with their house guest, the novelist Carson McCullers, to the summer of 1947 in Provincetown with director Margo Jones and the aspiring actor Marlon Brando arriving at Williams and Rodriguez’s vacation cottage, affectionately named Rancho Pancho, and the tumultuous and final break up.” It was produced at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival in 2008.

No. 773 has another distinction which ought to place it on any theater lover’s must-see list, as Williams himself recounted: “We had come to the Cape too early for ocean bathing, it was still icy cold. But I continued to work on Streetcar and it was in that cabin that I thought of the exit line for Blanche, which later became somewhat historical: ‘I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.'”

 

One thought on “773 Commercial Street

  1. Susan Barris owned the property long after 1980 since we visited her there…her estate did not sell the property in 1980 since she was definitely alive T that time.

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