As the Westport Country Playhouse celebrated its 80th anniversary last week, I wanted to interview someone who attended the 1st performance.
Doug’s father Vincent was the Playhouse attorney — and helped save it one of the many times it nearly went under.
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.
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.
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.