Not long into Act I of the Cape Playhouse story, a determined young woman in a summer dress and heels strides down a rutted, sandy drive toward a churchlike building.

It is early summer 1928, and sea gull caws meld with distant hammering. The playhouse's nattily dressed owner is reviewing a playbill. He pushes back his hat to wipe his forehead.

He is taking a chance -- his third production of the season, "The Barker," will include a young man making his first professional appearance.

The young woman waits, reading over his shoulder. The newcomer's name -- Henry Fonda -- means nothing to her. She has traveled to the year-old Cape Playhouse on Cape Cod on the slim hope that she can apprentice to an established actor.

The man barely looks up as he tells the girl the best he can offer is an usher's job. She takes it and, in doing so, adds her name -- Bette Davis -- to what will become the Cape Playhouse's illustrious and star-studded history.

This summer, America's oldest professional summer theater will open its 75th season of entertaining generations of visitors and year-round residents.

Its mission has changed as little as the shingled playhouse.

"The Cape Playhouse . . . aspires to be of service to many artist-workers and to be a source of inspiration and recreation to the public," read the manager's message inside the July 1927 opening night playbill.

While audiences might be drawn by the promise of a balmy evening of live theater, possibly with a "name" leading the show, there is always the possibility they also might see the birth of a star or a romance.

Betty White and Alan Ludden met in 1962 while performing in "Critics Choice" and later married. They returned to the theater several years later to play "Once More With Feeling."

The slightly frowsy, wood-dark theater is rich in history, its stories burnished to a gloss from years of telling and re-telling.

Few would say that tourists are drawn to the Cape for its theater, but its role is well documented in personal scrapbooks where pages from Cape Playhouse programs are beside beach snapshots and flattened matchbooks.

"For me, that is the heart of the playhouse -- its combination of traditions, and at the same time, it's still a vital place," said Evans Haile, artistic director of the Cape Playhouse.

"We are a vital and living theater. We are not just resting on our laurels," Haile said. "It's not a musty place."

He was speaking metaphorically. In fact, the theater is a little musty. It rather has to be, as it's locked up against the Cape damp for more than half the year and because it's summer theater, for heaven's sake. It's supposed to be faintly musty. It's part of the charm.

"We are building on our past and looking to the future," said Haile, a trained conductor who made the playhouse his artistic home two seasons ago. The lineup "reflects the new and the classic," Haile said. "That's what we can offer here -- the balance of terrific and classic theater and new. Something for everyone."

It has been years since the shows were produced and rehearsed on the property (that happens in Manhattan before the whole shebang moves to the Cape for the two-week runs), but the playhouse property has been alive with activity since mid-May.

The tiny, bare-bones dressing rooms, including the one haunted by legend Gertrude Lawrence, are being aired. Electric cables snake across the circular drive into the nearly antique theater -- power tools buzz as technicians bring the theater back to life.

The dark oak pews that serve as the primary seating will be polished, and the chair seating (to the side) will be checked before the scenery is brought in and the walk-throughs begin, just about the time that the summer traffic patterns set in near the Cape bridges.