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Oscar Hammerstein, Highland Farm, and the Sound of Music

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

A great collaboration, like a successful marriage, depends on the right mix of hard work, personality, chemistry, and luck. All those factors aligned when Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) and Richard Rodgers joined forces to create some of the most glorious musicals in Broadway history. And it was at Highland Farm, the Doylestown property the Hammersteins purchased in 1941, that Oscar wrote the lyrics to arguably his most famous works: Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. He would spend hours sitting on the porch and walking country roads, finding inspiration in the rolling hills and bucolic setting—a collaboration of sorts with his Bucks County home.

“Follow every rainbow…” (The Sound of Music)

In the 1920s and 30s, Oscar Hammerstein II was already one of America’s most illustrious lyricists and librettists. He’d partnered with Sigmund Romberg to write the play and lyrics for the operetta Desert Song (1926), which was a hit in the twenties; and his collaboration with Jerome Kern had resulted in the groundbreaking musical Show Boat (1927). He had enjoyed additional success through much of the 1930s, but by 1940, his career was flagging. A disappointing stint in Hollywood, followed by a series of unsuccessful shows on Broadway, left him at an all-time low. At age forty-six, Oscar found himself longing for country life, away from the bustle of New York City. Though his wife Dorothy was reluctant to move, Oscar was concerned that America would soon be at war and, afraid that food might become scarce, he wanted the family to be self-sufficient.

The Hammersteins had visited friends in Bucks County and were impressed by the area, so they began searching for property. One rainy autumn day, a realtor showed them several properties in the New Hope area, but none were right for them. After lunch, the realtor took them to nearby Doylestown. As they drove up East Street, Dorothy spotted a rainbow and insisted that they follow it to see where it ended. The rainbow led them up the hill to Highland Farm. Dorothy sensed something magical about the place; perhaps she thought it would revive her husband’s career. They both fell in love with the property and bought it soon after.

Highland Farm, a forty-acre working farm, included a three-story stone and stucco mansion built in 1840, a barn, and a carriage house. The property had had many owners before the Hammersteins, including the Lentz circus family, who bought the property at the turn of the twentieth century and housed many of their animals there.

“…till you find your dream.” (The Sound of Music)

Dorothy’s rainbow proved to be prophetic, and it didn’t take long for Oscar’s luck to change. One day in January 1942, as he sat alone in the house listening to a recording of Bizet’s Carmen, he was inspired to write an updated version of the opera—one that would appeal to a wider audience than just opera lovers. The result was Carmen Jones. Staged with an all-black cast, it became a Broadway musical in 1943 and a film the following year. According to Hugh Fordin in his biography of Hammerstein, Getting to Know Him, “The months spent in the country at the lowest ebb of his fortunes marked a turning point for Oscar; in Carmen Jones his showmanship became art.”

But it was later that year, when he agreed to take on an adaptation of the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, and he began working with a new partner, that his career took a giant leap forward. The adaptation was renamed Oklahoma!, and his new partner was Richard Rodgers, who had visited Oscar at Highland Farm on his way back from a show in Philadelphia in the winter of 1941. Though the two of them had met before, that winter meeting planted the seeds that led to Oklahoma!

“Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” (Oklahoma!)

Unlike other musical collaborations at the time where music preceded lyrics, Rodgers and Hammerstein always started with the lyrics. It was up to Oscar to mine plot, character, and motivation to find the right words before passing them on to Dick to marry his melodies to the lyrics. When Oscar envisioned the opening number of Oklahoma!, he pictured a single character on stage instead of the traditional big Broadway opening number. Now, all he had to do was find a subject for the character’s song.

The solution lay right outside his study. The windows surrounding his desk offered two views: a meadow on one side and a cornfield on the other. The result: “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” Oscar’s original lyrics included the line “The corn is as high as a cow pony’s eye,” but he didn’t like the way that sounded. When he walked over to a neighbor’s corn field and discovered that the August corn was much higher than a “cow pony’s eye,” he eventually settled on “an elephant’s eye.” Oscar was sitting on his porch working on the second verse when he spotted a herd of cows standing motionless on a distant hillside. Thus, the line “All the cattle are standing like statues.”

Once Oscar finished the first draft of the script for Oklahoma! in late August 1942, he and Dick worked on the rest of the score. The show opened on Broadway on March 31, 1943. A few hours before the opening curtain, as Oscar and Dorothy nervously walked a country road in Bucks County, Oscar expressed concern about what he would do if the show was a failure. He needn’t have worried, because later that evening, he and Dorothy sat in the fifth row of the St. James Theater and witnessed the unbridled enthusiasm of the opening night audience. Oklahoma! went on to play over 2,200 performances on Broadway and many more during the national tour and subsequent revivals. The show won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944.

Oklahoma! changed the course of musical theater by seamlessly integrating plot and music. For the first time, music was used to develop character and move the plot forward. According to William A. Everett and Paul R. Laird in the Cambridge Companion to the Musical, Oklahoma! was a “show, that, like Show Boat became a milestone, so that later historians writing about important moments in twentieth-century theatre would begin to identify eras according to their relationship to Oklahoma!

“I Can’t Say No” (Oklahoma!)

The spectacular success of Oklahoma! enabled Oscar and Dorothy to pay off the mortgage on Highland Farm and make many improvements to the house, including the addition of a swimming pool. When Christine Cole, the current owner of Highland Farm, interviewed Herman Silverman, the groundskeeper at the time the Hammersteins moved in, he told her how the swimming pool came to be. Herman recounted that on New Year’s Eve, 1943, the Hammersteins summoned him to the house. Herman protested that he had other plans that night, but the Hammersteins insisted. When Herman arrived, Oscar and Dorothy were sitting in front of the fire. Oscar said, “Herman, I want you to build me an inground pool.” Herman replied, “Oscar, I don’t know how to do that,” whereupon Oscar said, “You’ll figure it out.” And figure it out he did. Herman sliced a pear in half to get the shape of the pool, assembled a crew, and built the first inground swimming pool in Bucks County. He did such a good job that he eventually left Highland Farm and established Sylvan Pools (now Anthony and Sylvan Pools), a leading swimming pool builder.

Herman’s connection to Doylestown wasn’t limited to pools; he was also a leading force in the creation of the Michener Art Museum.

“In my own little corner” (Cinderella)

Dorothy Hammerstein was an interior decorator, so she had little difficulty making the changes necessary to accommodate the many family members and friends who stayed with the Hammersteins on weekends and holidays.

Two spacious bedrooms and a bath on the third floor were reserved for the children and other family members, friends, and visitors (including Dick Rodgers and his wife, also named Dorothy). The second-floor master suite comprised a bedroom and another large room with a fireplace, which would serve as Oscar’s study. Peter Bowen, one of the caretakers who was also a masseur, would often give Oscar a massage before he moved across the hall to his study, where he preferred to work standing up.

“The hills are alive with the sound of music.” (The Sound of Music)

While Dorothy spent weekdays at their Manhattan apartment running her decorating business, Oscar stayed at Highland Farm most days of the week. He loved the serenity and solitude, which allowed him time and space to be creative. He spent hours on the porch looking out at the rolling hills and farmland and took long walks, occasionally covering up to ten miles.

On weekends and holidays, the Hammerstein home was alive with the sounds of children: William and Alice, Oscar’s children with his first wife; Susan, Dorothy’s daughter from her previous marriage; and James, Oscar and Dorothy’s son; their children’s spouses; and their grandchildren. Oscar was known to fly different colored flags as a message to the local children. One color meant “Come and swim,” another, “Let’s play tennis,” and still another let the children know that they should “Stay away today. According to Will Hammerstein, Oscar’s grandson, when his grandfather walked into town, he was often trailed by a line of neighborhood kids. From time to time, kids who lived nearby would climb over the locked gate and make mischief on the property. One of them told Will about the time he and his friends were teasing the livestock, and a bull chased them up a tree. The bull stood guard until Peter Bowen, the caretaker, rescued them.

The surrounding countryside was peaceful, but not necessarily silent. Stephen Sondheim recalls standing on the porch and hearing the sounds of mooing, lowing, squawking, and cackling filling the air. That’s because Highland Farm was a working farm. The Hammersteins had hogs, chickens, and heifers, and they made their own butter.

A less pleasant sound of music, according to Dorothy, was Oscar’s voice when he worked on lyrics. He liked to use a “dummy melody” consisting of musical fragments to try out his lyrics as he was writing them. Apparently, his melodies were awful, and when Dorothy heard him singing, she suggested that he “try them out on the dog.”

“You Have to Be Carefully Taught” (South Pacific)

So many of Oscar’s best-known shows deal with issues of social justice and equality. Show Boat depicted racial oppression in the post-Reconstruction South, while South Pacific and The King and I explored relations between men and women of different races. Less well known is his work as a humanitarian and social activist. His personal beliefs were reflected in his art.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Oscar helped found the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and the Hollywood League for Democratic action, and was also active in the Writer’s War Board, which worked to promote the Allies and combat racism and anti-Semitism. The organization was instrumental in persuading the military to hire black medical workers and getting the Red Cross to stop classifying donated blood by race.

In times of need and crisis, the Hammersteins periodically took family members in to live with them at Highland Farm. One such family “adoption” was Dorothy’s sister Doodie who was married to Jerry Watanabe, a Japanese-American. In 1942, when the government ordered the internment of all citizens of Japanese descent, Jerry was arrested and sent to Ellis Island. Doodie was living in Bucks County with their daughter, Jennifer, and Oscar was concerned about the negative attention she would attract in a public school because of her name. Oscar suggested that Jennifer enroll in a Friends school, and she attended the George School in Newtown as Jennifer Blanchard, her mother’s maiden name. Jerry was released in 1943 and spent the Christmas holiday at Highland Farm. He wrote to a friend, “There comes a time in every man’s life when his world seems shattered.… At such a time, lucky is he indeed who has a friend in the real sense of the word…That I am here today able to send you these few lines, with my own wife, daughter, and mother is all due to the Hammersteins—God bless them and theirs.”

Oscar, Pearl S. Buck, and James A. Michener, all Bucks County neighbors, played major roles in introducing Americans to Asia. The Rodgers and Hammerstein show South Pacific was based on Michener’s prize-winning book, Tales of the South Pacific. The plot of South Pacific centers on an American nurse who falls in love with an expatriate French plantation owner while stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II, but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. The show premiered in 1949 and enjoyed great success. That same year, Michener approached Oscar for his help in supporting Welcome House, a home and adoption agency founded by Pearl Buck for children of Asian-American parentage, and he agreed. When Oscar’s daughter Alice adopted a baby girl, he became one of the first grandfathers of a Welcome House child. He later became president of the Board of Directors of the agency (now part of Pearl S. Buck International).

Writing about Welcome House, Oscar described the “unwanted children” of American men in the armed forces in Japan, Korea, and Okinawa. He wrote, “In the U.S., a country of mixed peoples from the beginning of our history, a half-Asian child blends easily into our culture. In the Asian countries where the people have for centuries been all of a color, a child with grey eyes and light curly hair and fair complexion can stand out as a permanent stranger.” These words are echoed in his lyrics to “You Have to be Carefully Taught,” from South Pacific:

“You have to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made

And people whose skin is a different shade

You have to be carefully taught.”

“By your pupil you are taught.” (The King and I)

Stephen Sondheim was another Hammerstein “adoptee.” When Stephen was ten, his father abandoned the family, and he was left with an abusive mother. She and Stephen moved to an apartment in Bucks County. Stephen writes that the move might have been because of his mother’s acquaintance with Dorothy or because she wanted to take advantage of the Hammersteins’ social connections. Regardless of the reason, it wasn’t long before Stephen was spending summer weekends with the Hammersteins and their extended family.

Stephen writes that he was “overwhelmed by the extraordinary serenity” of the Hammerstein house. “The huge living room was dark and cool and chic, the atmosphere was unhurried. Not reverent—there were too many children for that—but unhurried, promising that every wound would be healed and that boredom would be dispensed with forever.” Stephen became a kind of surrogate son to Oscar, who nurtured him psychologically and professionally. Stephen’s relationship with Oscar had a profound effect on his life. Stephen wrote: “I didn’t know [Oscar] well, but he saved my life. He and Dorothy.” He added, “I wrote for the theater to be like Oscar.”

When Stephen showed Oscar his first play and asked for an honest appraisal, Oscar told him it was awful and gave him an exercise to improve his writing. “I learned more in that afternoon,” wrote Stephen, “than most people learn about songwriting in a lifetime.”

According to Stephen, what Oscar liked best about being a teacher was that “by your pupils you are taught.” Nineteen years after they met and shortly before Oscar’s death, Stephen asked his mentor for an autograph. Oscar wrote, “For Steve, my friend and teacher.”

“Bless my homeland forever.” (The Sound of Music)

Oscar was one of many New York celebrities to buy a home in Bucks County during the 1930s and 1940s. Bucks County had become a Mecca for artists, poets, novelists, playwrights, and musicians. Other Broadway figures who purchased houses in the area included: S. J. Perlman, writer and playwright; Dorothy Parker, writer; George S. Kaufman, playwright and director; and Moss Hart, playwright. But unlike most of those other New York celebrities who only used their Bucks County homes as weekend or vacation retreats, Oscar made the farm his primary residence. And he became an active member of the Doylestown community. He was on the Doylestown Hospital steering committee in the 1950s, raising money with James A. Michener. According to a Doylestown resident who was a young man when the Hammersteins owned Highland Farm, Oscar let the Doylestown High School tennis team practice at his tennis court. And when the high school theater company needed a bridge for a production, he lent them a little wooden bridge he had on the property.

The Hammersteins lived at Highland Farm for twenty years until Oscar died of stomach cancer at the age of sixty-five on August 23, 1960, at Highland Park, nine months after the opening of The Sound of Music on Broadway. The final song he wrote was “Edelweiss,” which was added near the end of the second act during rehearsal. Many people thought Edelweiss was an Austrian folk song. But Oscar wrote the song specifically for the musical, and the piece was no doubt inspired by his beloved Doylestown home.

“Won’t there ever be a home for me?” (Pipe Dream)

After Oscar’s death, Dorothy was too heartbroken to return to Highland Farm, and she sold the property a year later. In 1988, it was entered into the National Registry of Historic places.

In 2017 Christine Cole, a Lehigh University psychology professor, was searching for an old barn to renovate and possibly use as a venue for events or a yoga studio. She was having no luck until the realtor told her about a property that had a huge barn; but there was a catch—it also came with a mansion. Christine says that when she visited and learned that a developer was going through the subdivision process, she thought, “That doesn’t sit well with me.”

Unlike Dorothy Hammerstein, who saw a rainbow when she approached the property, Christine saw dilapidation. To say that the house had fallen into disrepair would be a gross understatement.

Years after Hammerstein had been inspired by his surroundings to write, “The hills are alive with the sound of music,” Christine was horrified to discover that the sound of a different, more discordant music had recently emanated from the manor house at Highland Farm. The current owner had rented the place to a local punk rock band, who “thought it was cool to do a music video in Oscar Hammerstein’s house,” says Christine. “Not a stick of furniture survived. All the windows were boarded up, and there were cigarette butts and beer cans everywhere. It needed to be rescued.” The bank wouldn’t loan her enough money to buy the whole property, so she bought two lots from the developer: the house and the barn. She restored the house, running it as a bed and breakfast. Christine has maintained the spirit of Oscar and his music. A walk through the house and around the property evokes memories of the man and his musical legacy; and for those of us who grew up with the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, it’s difficult to refrain from humming or singing familiar lines as one stands in his study or sits on a rocking chair on his porch.

Unfortunately, Christine is no longer able to maintain the property as a bed and breakfast while holding down a full-time teaching position. And if enough money can’t be raised to purchase the house and barn, the property will be subdivided. Will Hammerstein and others are making every effort to raise the money to buy the house and barn and turn them into the Oscar Hammerstein II Museum and Theater Education Center.

“This was a working cattle farm,” says Will. “It’ll never be a cow barn again.… I know this barn needs to sing for its supper or fall down.… We need to restore the house and barn and tell my grandfather’s story.”

Terry Teachout, author and drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, wrote the following in July 2018: “To stand…in the room where [Oscar Hammerstein] wrote the words to ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’’ is to know in your bones that for anyone who loves the American musical, the successful preservation of Highland Farm will be the worthiest of causes.”

But it will take more than eloquent tributes or even a rainbow to save the property and make the dream a reality. It will take a substantial financial commitment.

“It’s a Grand Night for Singing” (State Fair)

What’s needed now is another collaboration—one between the public and the legacy of Oscar Hammerstein.

Fundraising to save Highland Farm from being subdivided has been going on for a number of years. No surprise that many of the fundraising events have had a musical theme. In July 2008, Jessie Barth and Christine Cole held a sing-in and concert in the living room of the inn. Jessie, who sang a number of Rodgers and Hammerstein songs at the event, said, “Oscar was a romantic who felt love was what everyone needed. People need these songs today more than ever.”

There have been a number of other events since then. In July 2018, well over four hundred people attended the outdoor singalong on the farm’s front lawn to celebrate Oscar’s 123rd birthday.

Later that year an Oscar Night Cocktail Party was held at the manor house with professional Broadway performers.

“We’re Hammersteins, we’re obsessives,” Will Hammerstein told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We have patience and stubbornness and determination. We will complete the vision.”

“Bloom and grow forever” (The Sound of Music)

When Oscar Hammerstein died, the entire Times Square area between 42nd and 53rd streets was blacked out for one minute to honor the man who had brought so much light and joy to Broadway. Lights went out on the huge advertising signs, on movie theaters, hotels, restaurants and street lamps. Many in the crowd of five thousand bowed their heads, and two musicians blew taps. A half block away, the curtain was already up on Oscar Hammerstein’s final collaboration with Richard Rodgers: The Sound of Music.

Extinguishing the lights of Highland Park for good would dishonor the memory of Oscar Hammerstein II, whose music was woven into the fabric of the 1940s to the 1960s, and beyond.

I recently attended a Sound of Music singalong in Lambertville, New Jersey. As the Van Trapp family sang “Edelweiss” onscreen as a farewell to their homeland, and the crowd in the theater sang along, I couldn’t help wondering if the last song Oscar wrote would also be a farewell to his Bucks County home. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

Note: Since this article was written, a number of generous donors have come forward, including the family of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the property is on the way to becoming a museum and educational center.

Appeared in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Neshaminy, The Bucks County Historical and Literary Journal. Neshaminy is published by the Doylestown Historical Society in association with the Bucks County Writers Workshop.

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