The Playhouse: Past, Present And Future

As the Westport Country Playhouse celebrated its 80th anniversary last week, I wanted to interview someone who attended the 1st performance.

No luck.

But I did find Doug Tirola.  The producer (4thRowFilms) and Westport Arts Center board member has a long history with the Playhouse.  In fact, it has informed and influenced his entire life.

Doug’s father Vincent was the Playhouse attorney — and helped save it one of the many times it nearly went under.

Doug Tirola

Doug’s earliest memories of the Playhouse are of “typical kids’ shows.”  His 1st job, a few years later, was placing posters for upcoming shows in as many store windows as possible in Westport, Fairfield and Darien.  He earned 25 cents per poster.

His 2nd job was house beautician.  “That’s theater-speak for janitor,” he notes.  Doug would prepare the Playhouse for the upcoming show, head to the Y to play basketball (or Ships to eat), then return afterward to clean up.

Mondays were special.  That was opening night — and shows changed weekly.  Local critics like Ina Bradley and Jeanne Davis were there.  They’d eat next door at Backstage (now the Dressing Room) before the play ; afterward they’d all gather on the gravel patio outside the theater, then return to Backstage for drinks.

Some theater-goers were there already.  “If the play wasn’t good, at intermission guys would wander over to the bar,” Doug says.

Doug also ushered.  His co-workers were older people, like today.  But there were also many younger ushers.  He doesn’t see many of them now.

The Playhouse, he says, was a hangout for teenagers — and not just the theater crowd.  “I played 3 sports,” he notes.  “Lots of kids wandered back and forth between the playhouse and Friendly’s” in Playhouse Square.

Westport Country Playhouse -- 80 years young.

Now — producing and marketing movies — Doug looks back on those days with a sense of awe.  “I had this sense of it being like ‘hey, let’s put on a show.’  I had no idea how hard that is.  Turning shows around week after week, with what I realize now were very limited resources — that makes me realize anything is possible.”

Doug was influenced by men like Jim McKenzie — the longtime executive producer, and a “larger than life figure” — and Todd Haimes, now artistic director of the Roundabout Theatre.

Looking back, Doug also realizes that his initial experiences at the Playhouse were special.

“11-year-olds today have a lot more options than we did then.  There’s good and bad sides to that.  But I also think there are more things today geared directly at them.  Back then, by default, kids were exposed to more adult activities — the theater, movies, even TV shows.  That forced us to interact with the adult world.”  As with ushers, Doug sees few young people involved with the Playhouse’s adult shows.

He also senses less of an overall townwide connection with the Playhouse.

“I’m not trying to be negative,” he emphasizes.  “But part of the DNA of Westport has always been the arts.  People here still point with pride to the arts, but they don’t always take advantage of them.

“My parents chose Westport over other Fairfield County towns in part because there was more diversity, but also because of the arts opportunities.  People who moved here the last 10 years, probably 95 percent would say they came for the schools and the beach.  Those are great things, but 30 years ago they might have included the arts too.

“I know plenty of people support the arts financially,” he says.  “But it’s important to go to shows, and to the Arts Center — and to expose your kids to them.”

But — on the 80th anniversary of the Westport Country Playhouse — Doug continues to beat the Playhouse drum.

“As much as I remember what it was like when I was young — the sights and smells — you can’t walk into the Playhouse now and not feel how awesome the space is.

“They’ve done a great job of honoring what it was, and doing what needs to be done for the future.”

A future that — thanks to Westporters like Doug Tirola and his father — now seems more secure than ever.

12 responses to “The Playhouse: Past, Present And Future

  1. Fred Cantor

    One way I know teens got involved with the Playhouse going back 40 years or more was through summer jobs. Friends of mine handled parking during what was then the summer season in which the Playhouse was open. I don’t know whether it’s due to the increased competition for jobs or the fact that the Playhouse is now open virtually year round, but I think that is one way the ties between teens and the Playhouse have lessened.

    On the other hand, a friend’s daughter had a wonderful experience about 7 or 8 years ago doing a summer internship at the Playhouse when she was still in high school.

  2. My college roomate and I helped install the “theater type” cooling system at the Playhouse (then run by Lawrence Langner) in 1949 or 1950. Phil Louterbach of Redding, was the contractor.

    The system feaured a grid of beams positioned over a large sump. Spray heads distributed water over large blocks of ice. The resulting ice-water was pumped to a heat- exchanger. A rather noisy motor-driven fan pushed this ducted air into the theater. The system worked but, due to the noise, it could only function before the performance and during intermissions.

    How long this system was used is unknown to me. The present method of cooling provides a much more comfortable environment.

    • Anyone who went to the Playhouse during the 1960s remembers the special sense of walking into the theater and feeling that distinct icy cold. THANKS for providing some very interesting background info on where it came from.

    • Correction: The contractor’s name for the cooling system was Dockenhausen. We worked for him, helping to buitd a home in Redding for my brother Harry Beasley, he also used us on this project.

  3. Amy Schafrann

    Dan, totally unrelated, but congratulations on being honored as The Hour’s Coach of the Year – you deserve it!
    Best, Amy S

    • Fred Cantor

      Amy, I didn’t know that. Thanks for posting, and congrats to Dan. And for those of you who didn’t know, Dan was voted National Youth Coach of the Year back in 1991.

    • The Dude Abides

      Indeed, congrats Professor. While you concede that you and Mr. Loeffler are much differernt in personalities, I contend that you both know how to foster young men to play excellent soccer. In a sports world full of coach’s screams and self-motivating egos, it is great to see a gentleman on the sidelines. Mr. Loeffler set the bar high but you are clearly at his level. I know he would be proud. Probably changling around those keys from above and befacing a rare smile.

    • Ric Jensen

      Bravo!!

  4. Barbara Deecken

    I was a teenage usher at the Playhouse in the mid 70’s under a young but very professional House Manager, Ms. Monahan…dressed in our best, she sat all of us down an hour before the show in the dark and totally quiet “house” to give very explicit directions. Best parts include cozying into the last row after everyone had been seated to watch the incredible shows FOR FREE, seating celebs like Jason Robards, meeting my teenage hearthrob Robbie Benson backstage after he performed in a show, and heading over to Friendly’s after the show to buy a cone with my “tip money”! Another highlight was celebrating the end of summer with the Preservation Jazz Hall Band, dancing in the aisles required! I highly recommend ushering to anyone, young or old!

  5. Aurora Greenway

    “If I wanted to go to the theatre, I would take a nap.”

  6. I love the theater, past and present, but CONGRATULATIONS, DAN! That’s much bigger and happy news!