Ushering In The Playhouse

It takes a ton of people to produce a Westport Country Playhouse show.

There are actors and director, of course. Plus costume designers, set builders, lighting and sound technicians, marketing staff, ticket sellers, and many more.

Including ushers.

Recently, 3 former — very former — ushers reminisced about that long-ago, very intriguing and quite satisfying summer work.

When Marilyn Harding, Arlene Gertzoff and Ed Gerber were growing up, the Playhouse was an “otherworldly” place. Repurposed in the 1930s, the erstwhile tannery had become a cozy red theater presenting the best of Broadway (and headed-to-Broadway) plays and musicals.

Westport artist Stevan Dohanos -- known nationally for his Saturday  Evening Post covers and US postage stamps -- created the cover for this 1960s-era Playhouse playbill.

Westport artist Stevan Dohanos — known nationally for his Saturday Evening Post covers and US postage stamps — created the cover for this 1960s-era Playhouse playbill.

Casts included great actors and actresses — and those who would later become great.

In the 1960s, when Marilyn, Arlene and Ed were teenagers, the Playhouse was just 3 decades old. But it was already one of the most famous summer stock houses in the country.

Arlene says that for both the audience and ushers, the Playhouse was much more formal than today. Marilyn “found my string of pearls, whacked 3 inches off the hem of my black silk sheath — after all, it was the ’60s — dusted off my Capezios, pulled my hair into a French twist and was out the door.”

Ed, meanwhile, “unhappily” wore a blazer and tie.

Ushers worked under Jan De Vries, daughter of famed Westport author Peter De Vries. Ed calls her “a friendly sort, requiring nothing more of us than that we showed up on time having educated ourselves about the quirks of the theater’s seating chart, and that we greeted each guest with a polite ‘good evening’ as we checked their tickets and helped them find their seats.”

Playhouse playbill - ushers

Thanks to the ushers, from the playbill shown above.

The 3 ushers loved the Playhouse’s musty smell of paint, polish, aging red upholstery, creaky floors and unpredictable “air conditioning.”

Some of the seats were not very good, offering poor sight lines and uncomfortable balcony chairs. House managers dealt with unhappy customers.

Ushers were in awe of apprentices, who planned on careers in theaters. They and the touring actors lived in nearby housing, owned by or rented to the Playhouse (ushers lived at home, with their parents).

But ushers reveled in the chance to see a different play each week, with remarkable casts including Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, Tallulah Bankhead, Joel Grey, Claude Rains, Sammy Davis Jr., Alan Alda and Liza Minelli.

When the show was over, ushers headed up the street to the Ice Cream Parlor.

All 3 left Westport, seeking fame and fortune elsewhere.

Marilyn, Arlene and Ed are all retired now, from varied and intriguing careers.

And all 3 are happy subscribers to the Playhouse. Where, half a century later, a new cast of ushers shows them to their seats.

A decade ago, the Westport Country Playhouse replaced its bench seating with individual seats. But they're still red. Some things never change.

A decade ago, the Westport Country Playhouse replaced its bench seating with individual seats. But they’re still red. Some things never change.

11 responses to “Ushering In The Playhouse

  1. Great story Dan. My brother Doug and I and many of our friends spent many summers ushering circa 1972-1975. Our late grandmother Bunnee Taft was a season ticket holder for many decades. When I was ushering, after we had seen a show a few times, we’D head over to Friendly’s during the first act before getting back in time to run the concessions stand outside.

  2. Christine Bisceglie

    On Tuesday night, I watched ” Red” . Red on the stage, Red in the seats. Wonderful production. Part of a repertoire. I also was thinking about the usher dressed in black and white. Ironic, as I considered volunteering because of my Tuesday experience. !965 (?)” Jack and The Beanstalk. ” A neighbor’s birthday party. My introduction the live theater. It was as magical back then as it is now. A life long love and appreciation. Westport , so lucky ( ( more like hard work and money ) to have. I can only hope Norwalk , where I live will bring back the White Barn Theater a cultural landmark so that our urban citizens can provide much needed bread for the soul. Especially the youth.

  3. Thanks Dan 😃 Perfect as always ! Ed

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  4. Merle Dorfman Spiegel

    Brings back memories, Dan. Whenever I see a show at the Playhouse today, I remember the fun we had ushering and seeing all those great shows in the 60s. We even got occasional tips! Fun to see my name on that appreciation note in the playbill.

  5. Arline PGertzoff

    Thanks for the memories Dan. I might add upstairs were wooden benches.Arline graduated from Staples,earned a bachelors and masters at Boston University, taught in New Canaan for four years and then spent 25 years teaching history and college counseling at the Antwerp International School. I also managed to travel the globe and return to my hometown and be a busy and involved Westporter. Running into Ed Gerber at the Historical Society and looking back at our ushering days was great fun.No teen age ushers today though. Most importantly the theater connection was the Staples Players .i was in charge of costumes and will always fondly remember Steve Gilbert and Craig Mathieson. On to see Art at the Playhouse

  6. Berke Rhoda

    I have fond memories of ushering at the Playhouse but different than those mentioned above. I moved to Westport in 1976 and I think I ushered during the summer of1977. However, my memories are that of “a right of passage”. Most all the ushers then were young married women…it was like a girls sorority, black skirt or slacks and a white blouse. It was such a treat to see all the performances during the season.

  7. sandra johnson

    Thanks, Dan, for more of your very informative information!! Arline, didn’t know that you had been an usher there — such fun!! Enjoyed reading your comment. Do remember Craig Mathieson and knew he had been involved with the Playhouse. When I lived on Warnock (when first coming to WP), he was a neighbor – always enjoyed talking with him.

  8. Fred Cantor

    This story and the wonderful Stevan Dohanos cover triggered a memory that the Playhouse also provided a supplemental or second summer paying job for some Westport teens back in the day: helping direct traffic for the patrons in the lot. I recall a couple of friends doing that.

  9. Peter Barlow

    I was an usher there one summer in the late 1940s. Being the newcomer, I was assigned the balcony which was especially hot without air-conditioning. But I did get to see the shows. The next year they hired all girls.

  10. Eric E Bosch

    Thanks Dan, for the quick trip back down memory lane. Some friends in the neighborhood introduced me to ushering at the Playhouse before I could drive. I remember there were plays that I saw so many times ushering, that I felt I had learned the lines. The rules were that you could take any open seat, if it was still vacant after the intermission. One time I watched the 2nd half from front row center. I remember working at “Mousetrap”, with Noel Harrison in ’71, “A Signpost to Murder”, with David McCallum, (from the Man from Uncle fame), and “There’s a Girl in My Soup” with William Shatner, (from Star Trek), to name a few.

    I’m certain that my early Westport Country Playhouse ushering experience translated into a love for the theater, and later motivated me to paint sets for my college theater productions. And then there’s my most talented daughter Kate Bosch, who spent years working as the Master Scenic Painter for the Huntington Theater in Boston. She was apart of the team that won them The Regional Theatre Tony Award in 2013.

    I can still remember the wonderful smell of the old Playhouse barn theater.

  11. Sally Campbell Palmer

    I ushered in the mid 50’s. We had to rush outside during intermission to sell cold drinks out of a rolling cooler. Fun!!