Category Archives: Westport Country Playhouse

Now Starring At The Playhouse: Westport

One of the great perks of living here is the Westport Country Playhouse.

And one of the great perks of the Playhouse is the chance — once a year — to go behind the scenes.

Today was that day. The annual season kickoff party featured food, music, and a very cool opportunity to visit the dressing rooms, costume and set shops, and green room.

And — this is very, very cool — to stand on stage, gazing out at the historic house, just like Alan Alda, Tallulah Bankhead, Sid Caesar, Carol Channing, Richard Dreyfuss, Will Geer, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Uta Hagen, June Havoc, Helen Hayes, Hal Holbrook, James Earl Jones, Eartha Kitt, Bert Lahr, Gypsy Rose Lee, Hal March, Grouch Marx, Liza Minelli, Paul Newman, Ezio Pinza, Basil Rathbone, Gloria Swanson, Joanne Woodward and thousands of others have done right in Westport, for 85 exciting years.

Standing on the venerable stage is a rare treat.

Standing on the venerable stage is a rare treat.

Associate artist Annie Keefe explains the Playhouse's inner workings.

Associate artist Annie Keefe explains the Playhouse’s inner workings.

The green room isn't green. But just think of all the famous actors who have hung out here, waiting for their scenes. (The television shows a live feed of the play.)

The green room isn’t green. But just think of all the famous actors who have hung out here, waiting for their scenes. (The TV offers a live feed of the show.)

Remembering Joe Cocker

We’re getting to that age when the rock stars who didn’t die young are dying old.

In the wake of Joe Cocker’s death, “Howlin’ Doc Trulove” posted a memory on Facebook.

“Howlin’ Doc” says that back in the day, the raspy-voiced, air guitar-playing singer auditioned musicians for his upcoming Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour of Australia at the Westport Country Playhouse.

If you’ve got a Joe Cocker/Westport story, hit “Comments” below. We’ll get the complete version of his local connections — with a little help from our friends.

Joe Cocker


Fred Cantor’s Timeless Westport

As an alert “06880” reader, Fred Cantor has seen comments on every side of every debate about the changing nature of Westport.

As someone who came to Westport in 1963, Fred has seen many of those changes himself.

An accomplished attorney, film and play producer and writer, Fred has spent years taking photos around town. Recently, he asked Staples grad Casey Denton to help create a video of those shots.

Fred’s goal was simple. He wanted to document his belief that the essence of Westport’s beauty and small-town New England character — which his family discovered upon moving here over 5 decades ago — remains alive and well.

The video opens with long-ago Westport scenes. There are photos of mom-and-pop stores, the kind that filled Main Street back in the day. Obviously, that’s changed.

But most of the photos are from the recent past — many taken within the past year. And, Fred notes, they are “timeless Westport scenes.” Churches, barns, the Saugatuck bridge, the Minuteman and Doughboy statues, the Mill Pond and cannons — we are surrounded by wonderful history and spectacular beauty.

Fred knows that family businesses are very much with us. From long-time establishments (Oscar’s, Mario’s) to relative newcomers (Elvira’s, Saugatuck Sweets), there are more here than we realize.

Finally, Fred wanted to show that institutions like the Library, Westport Country Playhouse and Levitt Pavilion have been significantly upgraded over the years. The entire community benefits, Fred says, from “the strong commitment to the arts that existed when my parents brought us here over 50 years ago.”

Fred knows this is the perspective of just one near-native. But, he says — as health problems limit how far he can go from home — he is glad he can notice and appreciate more than ever what is right around all of us.


Breaking Restaurant News: Positano’s Replaces Dressing Room At Playhouse

Old Mill’s loss is the Westport Country Playhouse’s gain.

Positano’s — the much-loved-but-too-seldom-visited restaurant kitty-corner from Elvira’s — is closing at its Old Mill Beach location. “06880” broke that news 2 months ago.

Positano's, at Old Mill Beach near Elvira's.

Positano’s, at Old Mill Beach near Elvira’s.

But it’s reopening in February, next to the Westport Country Playhouse. That’s the space was occupied for 8 years by The Dressing Room. The Paul Newman-created restaurant closed last January.

The Dressing Room, next to the Westport Country Playhouse.

The Dressing Room, next to the Westport Country Playhouse.

Positano’s has been owned and operated by the Scarpati family for more than 15 years. Owner Giuseppe Scarpati was born on the island of Ponza, Italy. He learned to cook from his father, who studied with master chefs in Italy and was one of the island’s leading fisherman. Giuseppe focuses on all-natural cooking.

Under chef Michel Nischan, the Dressing Room was Fairfield County’s 1st farm-to-table restaurant.

So Positano’s stands poised to carry on that natural tradition — right next door to the 83-year-old Playhouse, with its own venerable history.

But the question remains: Will the tradition of an Old Mill Beach restaurant now be history, replaced by a large and imposing private home?

Paula Poundstone Pounds The 1 Percent

Paula Poundstone owes me a new pair of boxers.

I peed myself laughing at her Saturday night show. The comedian — best known for her regular appearances on NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” — rocked a sellout crowd at the Westport Country Playhouse.

It was a benefit for Homes With Hope. Between ticket sales and a live auction, the event raised huge bucks — 12% of their annual budget — to help fight homelessness. As a brief video by 4th Row Films pointed out, it’s a problem even in this prosperous town.

Paula Poundstone

Paula Poundstone

Poundstone knew her audience. She picked a few random people. There was, incredibly, former Homes With Hope director Pete Powell (he’s an Episcopal priest — as an atheist, she had great fun with that), as well as a CPA, and a guy in budgeting for a film company (with, to Paula’s great delight, several assistants).

The theme throughout the night was Westport’s affluence. She joked about the difference between the pledges made at the Playhouse (2 people offered $20,000 each) and her kids’ PTA event (“we start at $1, and go down from there”).

She asked what the main industry in Westport is. “Money,” someone said. All night long, Poundstone returned to the idea of folks in the audience taking care of each other’s money.

It was all in good fun. This was a well-heeled crowd, but they were raising funds for their much-less-fortunate fellow citizens, who live here too.

Let no good deed go unpunished.

The theme of Paula Poundstone's jokes -- and some Facebook comments.

The theme of Paula Poundstone’s jokes — and some Facebook comments.

As a public figure, Poundstone updates her Facebook page often. Just before the show began, she posted: “I’m in Westport, Connecticut. I’m trying to reach out to the disenfranchised members of the 1%.”

Her fans responded. “You just keep taking care of the comical needs of those poor uptight old white folks Paula,” one wrote. “We appreciate it.”

“Good luck,” another said. “I hear that crowd is too lazy to work for a living.”

A woman in Westport on business huffed, “wouldn’t you know, the 1% grabbed all the tickets for themselves! Typically entitled, these folks are, I swear.”

“Talk to ’em straight, Paula,” a fan commented. “They need to hear from you what’s really going down outside their protected bubble.”

Over 700 people “liked” the post. Presumably, they liked her dig at the “1%.”

That’s fine. We loved Paula Poundstone. She loved Westport — and gave a great hour-long performance. And everyone loved raising oodles of money for Homes With Hope.

But she still owes me a new pair of boxers.



Andrew Loog Oldham Kind Of Remembers His Westport Days

An “06880”  post following the recent death of Johnny Winter drew a flood of comments about his time in Westport. Yet he — and REO Speedwagon — were hardly the only rockers in town during the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Andrew Loog Oldham — manager/producer of the Rolling Stones, co-founder of Immediate Records (Rod Stewart, Nico, Humble Pie) and producer of recordings by Donovan, Jimmy Cliff and Marianne Faithfull — bought a house in Wilton in 1969. But he spent a great deal of time in Westport. 

Andrew Loog Oldham (left) and Mick Jagger.

Andrew Loog Oldham (left) and Mick Jagger.

Here’s what he remembers — sort of — according to the website Music Museum of New England:

A few months ago I saw Ronnie Spector singing to support Haiti at the Westport Country Playhouse. But things were not always good between myself and New England.

When I settled into Wilton (in 1969) my friend Noel Harrison came to stay. He was hot with “the girl from UNCLE,” and was doing summer stock at the Westport Playhouse.

Westport was a wasted hoot and Vietnam horror show. All of the rich kids were 4F and more wasted than Keith Richards. Joe Cocker stopped by and mused, “so this is what is between New York and Boston.”

Westport looked pretty, and had Sally and her great record store at the back of Klein’s on the main drag, but for all its Stepford Wife properness the Westport train station was a nightly procession of lost and drunk Jack Lemmons pouring themselves back into station wagonerama, as drunk as their kids were stoned.

Back in Andrew Loog Oldham's day, the area behind the old library -- at the corner of Post Road and Main Street, across from the YMCA -- was called "Needle Park." It was a popular teenage hangout.

Back in Andrew Loog Oldham’s day, the area behind the old library — at the corner of Post Road and Main Street, across from the YMCA — was called “Needle Park.” It was a popular teenage hangout.

America was at the crossroads — Vietnam had done the Robert Johnson on the lot of you, and a sorry state was your lovely nation for that while.

I saw Bridgeport jail a few times, driving under the influence of you name it. I blacked out more than once on the Merritt Parkway, coming to just in time for Exit 40….

On more than one occasion I saw Mr. and Mrs. Paul Newman driving around Westport. I had a wonderful time. I cannot think of any place I’d rather have been the first time I heard Harry Chapin’s “WOLD.”

Eventually I got much, much better and as New England keeps on doing that, we are all doing well.



Philip Perlah Says Goodbye To Westport

Last Sunday’s “06880” post on Christie’s Country Store — aka Vermont — brought this response from Philip Perlah:

After 38 years, it is time to say goodbye to Westport. About 6 years ago we bought a 2nd home in a small town in Vermont. We have now moved in.

Our new town has a population of about 3,000, compared to the 25,000 or so in Westport.

Traffic lights are not merely suggestions.  Actually, we don’t have any traffic lights.

Philip Perlah's new downtown.

Philip Perlah’s new downtown.

There are very few Bimmers and Benzes; more Subarus and pickups (really, really big pickups). Having fewer Bimmers seems to reduce the problems of the entitled self-important. For example, parking is a breeze at the Starbucks parking lot. Actually, we do not have a Starbucks parking lot.

Well, we don’t even have a Starbucks.  But we do have a coffee shop on the green, and an old-fashioned, aluminum diner with Formica tables (narrow — only 1 row of booths and a counter).

But there is a McDonald’s in the next town. And a Shaw’s.

We all remember the Westport Shaw’s –- narrow aisles, dingy, useless clerks. The Vermont Shaw’s has wide aisles and really, really helpful, friendly staff. Like all grocery stores in Vermont, it has an entire aisle devoted to wine.

Our home is on a dirt road (plowed by the town), and a river runs through the back yard. When the wind is right, we are reminded there is a dairy farm a mile down the road.

Philip Perlah's Vermont home.

Philip Perlah’s Vermont home.

We can walk to the town green, which has eclectic shops and restaurants — all locally owned — and a cute library.

The scenery is lovely, and the “vibe” is really mellow and relaxing.

We still have our season tickets to the Westport Country Playhouse, so we were back to see “Nora.” We didn’t miss it one bit.

Next year we’ll subscribe to the Weston Playhouse. As in Weston, Vermont.

A river runs through Philip Perlah's back yard.

A river runs through Philip Perlah’s back yard.

All The World’s Deborah Grace Winer’s Stage

Deborah Grace Winer grew up in both Westport and New York. But it was here — not the big city — that she fell in love with the magic of theater.

From a young age, she was enchanted by the Westport Country Playhouse. Everything about it — the shows, the cast, even the red benches — thrilled her.

She saw Betsy Palmer, June Havoc and Luci Arnaz. She particularly enjoyed watching her godmother — Myrna Loy — in “Barefoot in the Park.”

Deborah Grace Winer

Deborah Grace Winer

“It’s not just ‘summer theater,'” Deborah says. “It’s Grade A, right before New York. It’s big theater, for everyone.”

At 15, she apprenticed at Lucille Lortel’s White Barn Theater. She rode her bike to the magical spot off Newtown Turnpike every day.

“It was almost like a private social club,” Deborah remembers. “There were only 150 seats, for great stars who wanted to try out new work.”

The next year, at the Playhouse, she became Estelle Parsons’ dresser. Deborah has gone on to a life in theater — she’s a playwright whose work was developed at Lincoln Center, produced Off-Broadway and read at the Playhouse — but whenever she sees Parsons, now in her 80s, they laugh about that summer.

Now she’s headed back to the Playhouse. On June 3, the curtain rises on “Sing for Your Shakespeare.” It’s a world premiere — there’s that Playhouse magic again — musical revue, exploring through song, dance and verse how the popular American songbook has been inspired for decades by Shakespeare’s works.

Sing for your Shakespeare logoDeborah co-conceived the show, with Playhouse artistic director Mark Lamos. It originated at the 92nd Street Y, where she’s the artistic director of the Lyrics & Lyricists concert series.

Despite moving full-time to New York, Deborah has retained her ties to the Playhouse. She was inspired by the theater’s renovation, particularly little touches like keeping wood from the old stage in the new wings. “Those are the same boards Helen Hayes walked!” she says.

She’s tremendously excited to return. She praises Lamos’ “creativity, scholarship and stature,” while describing the unlikely pairing of show tunes and the Bard.

“If he were alive now, Shakespeare would have hung out at Lindy’s, eating cheesecake,” Deborah insists. “This sort of follows up on that kind of Shakespeare. There are lots of funny and fun songs, and some surprising discoveries. Plus, the cast is fantastic.”

Recalling so many wonderful memories from her past — cookouts and beach parties with Playhouse actors and crews; taking the last train to Westport from Grand Central, filled with Broadway stars heading home — Deborah says, “I am so thrilled to come back! My whole childhood and history are there. It’s like someone gave me the keys to the candy store.”

Or, as Shakespeare said — in an entirely different context — “sweets to my sweet.”

(Click for tickets and more information for “Sing for Your Shakespeare.”)

The "Sing for Your Shakespeare" team.

The “Sing for Your Shakespeare” team.



A Historic Hanging Beneath The Playhouse Stage

Bert Lahr, Dorothy Gish, Paul Robeson, Helen Hayes, Henry Fonda, Patricia Neal, Alan Alda, Cicely Tyson, Richard Thomas, Jane Powell, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward — they’re just a dozen of the hundreds of actors who have appeared at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Their publicity shots hang proudly outside the dressing rooms nestled snugly below that fabled stage. Preparing for their roles, today’s performers are reminded of the 8 decades of stars who came before them.

A few of the photos, though, have no names. Taken in the early days of the Playhouse — just a few years after Lawrence Langner turned an old red barn into one of America’s premier summer theaters — they show men and women whose names have been lost to history. Today, it takes tremendous sleuthing — or luck — to put a name to a 1930s face.

A while back, Playhouse technical director John Mosele was intrigued by the photo of a mustached man, hanging in the “unlabeled” collection.

The intriguing photo.

The intriguing photo.

Mosele carefully peeled the picture from its backing, revealing the partial name “ndsmann.”‘

Soaking the photo to remove more glue, it seemed to read “Hinton B__dsmann.”

A Google search led to “Emil Bundesmann” — on a Spanish website.

Further searching brought up an article about Anthony Mann. His birth name was Emil Anton Bundsmann.

Ta da!

Anton Bundsman — yes, that’s the 3rd way his last name was spelled — was a member of the original repertory company at the Playhouse. He appeared in the very 1st production — The Streets of New York — and also served as its stage manager.

After staging 3 plays in New York, Bundsman was hired by David O. Selznick as a casting director. In that role, he supervised screen tests for Gone with the Wind.

Anthony Mann

Anthony Mann

Later — under the name Anthony Mann — he directed films for Paramount and RKO, and many classic westerns for MGM. His final films included Cimarron with Glenn Ford, and the epics El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire. (He withdrew from Spartacus, after quarreling with former Westporter Kirk Douglas.)

Just think: such an accomplished actor/director as Anton Bundsman/Anthony Mann hung in such obscurity, for so long, on the walls of the theater where he got his start.

And wonder too who else lurks, forgotten and undiscovered, underneath that very historic stage.

(Hat tip to Westport Country Playhouse company manager Bruce Miller for much of this fascinating information.)



Honoring Ann Sheffer: Queen Of Arts

If you’ve lived in Westport for any length of time, you know the name Ann Sheffer.

You may know her work with the Westport Arts Center. Or the Westport Country Playhouse. Or Westport Historical Society. Or Westport Library.

If it’s related to culture — and Westport — Ann is involved.

Last Saturday, the WAC honored her as its “Queen of Arts.” (Pretty clever: The event was their annual fundraiser, with a “Wonderland” theme.)

Ann Sheffer in her role as "Queen of Arts."

Ann Sheffer in her role as “Queen of Arts.” (Photo/Helen Klisser During)

The tribute included a 10-minute video, produced by Westporter Doug Tirola’s 4th Row Films. Plenty of boldface names appear, like Senators Blumenthal and Murphy, Jim Himes, Maxine Bleiweis, Miggs Burroughs and Gordon Joseloff, along with Ann’s brother, son, daughter, grandkids, and husband Bill Scheffler. (They met sitting next to each other alphabetically in a Staples homeroom, then re-connected 25 years later).

There are some great lines, including Miggs’ “her canvas is Westport, her palette is everyone in it.”

In whatever capacity you know Ann — or even if you’ve just heard her name — this video is well worth watching. It’s Westport — and Westporters — at their finest.

(If your browser does not take you directly to YouTube, click here.)