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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.

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.”

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.

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