Beneath Playhouse Stage, A Hallway Of History

The list of actors who have graced the Westport Country Playhouse stage is long and luminous.

Alan Alda. Tallulah Bankhead. Richard Dreyfuss. Joel Grey. June Havoc. Helen Hayes. James Earl Jones. Liza Minelli. And of course our own Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Their head shots line the walls beneath the famous stage. Before every performance, actors in the current production walk out of their dressing rooms, past those photos.

Westport Country Playhouse company manager Bruce Miller, with some of the head shots near the dressing rooms underneath the stage.

Many of the 500 head shots show less famous actors. They too are part of the Playhouse’s wonderful history of 87 years, and more than 800 shows.

But on one wall — at the end of a hallway — hang 25 images. They are men and women who appeared at least once on the stage above.

The unidentified photos hang at the end of a hall.

They have no tags. Their names have been lost to the ages.

Yet one by one, company manager Bruce Miller is figuring out who they are.

The story begins with that very 1st show in 1931:”The Streets of New York.” Dorothy Gish’s photo went up in the wood-paneled lobby. For more than 70 years, dozens of other head shots joined hers.

For the 2003 renovation, Playhouse officials cleared the catacombs of photos, programs and other records. About 20% were moldy; they were thrown out.

The rest were stored off-site, in Bridgeport. When a sprinkler head bust, half of those items were lost.

Do you know this man …

During the renovation, someone decided to switch the locations of the head shots and the posters advertising previous shows. The idea was that the actors would appreciate seeing photos of their predecessors right outside the dressing rooms; theatergoers, meanwhile, would want to see the posters.

Now — thanks largely to those patrons — the gaps in the Playhouse’s history are being filled in.

Once a month, Miller says, someone calls or emails with something like this: “We were cleaning out my grandmother’s attic. We found a poster for this old show. Do you want it?”

… or this woman?

Playhouse staffers help too.

John Mosele was intrigued by the photo of an unknown mustached man. Working only with a partial name and Google, Mosele found the name “Emil Bundesmann” on a Spanish website.

Bundesmann turned out to be a member of the Playhouse’s original repertory company. He appeared in — and served as stage manager for — that 1st-ever show, “The Streets of New York.”

Anton Bundesmann, looking very suave.

After staging 3 plays in New York, Bundesmann was hired by David O. Selznick as a casting director — supervising screen tests for “Gone With the Wind.”

Under the name “Anthony Mann,” Bundesmann then directed films for Paramount, RKO and MGM, including 7 with James Stewart. His final 3 films were “Cimarron,” “El Cid” and “The Fall of the Roman Empire.”

Meanwhile, for years the only thing anyone at the Playhouse knew about the 1934 production of “The Virginian” was that Henry Fonda was in it. One day, Miller’s wife was talking to someone, when the Playhouse was mentioned. The woman said her mother had acted in “The Virginian.” She gave Miller her mother’s head shot. It now hangs near Fonda’s.

A young Henry Fonda.

But what about those photos the Playhouse has always had — yet remain unidentified?

Each year during the springtime open house, someone peers closely and says, “Oh, that’s so-and-so.” Miller searches online to confirm. Often, he can match the actor to the show.

Surprisingly, Miller says, the folks who know these long-ago actors are baby boomers — even millennials. They recognize the faces from movies — not plays.

A few of the identifications come from older actors. No one, however, has yet identified him or herself.

That would be a great plot twist.

6 responses to “Beneath Playhouse Stage, A Hallway Of History

  1. Fred Cantor

    Interesting history. To perhaps speed up the process and increase the chances of the pics being identified, why not scan them and post them online at the WCP site? And maybe have a contest where the first person to ID a photo wins a pair of free tickets? I think a popular industry publication/site such as Playbill would be interested in running with this, thus giving exponentially more people the opportunity to see the photos (and, at the same time, generate some extra press for the Playhouse). By the way, I believe I have seen the guy with the cigar and hat in some vintage flick; I imagine a knowledgable movie buff could ID him.

  2. Peter Gambaccini

    The guy might possibly be a young Clifton James, for those who even know who he is. In fact, looking at young pictures of him online (you will recognize him), I think that’s who it is.

    • Patrick Eastin

      Yes, it appears to be Clifton James who just passed on in April of 2017 at the age of 96. He led quite a life !
      “Any man playin’ grabass of fightin’ in the building spends a night in the box- Clifton James as Carr in Cool Hand Luke

  3. Bruce Miller

    Nicely done, Dan.
    Thanks for putting this little bit of Playhouse history out there.

    Bruce Miller
    Company Manager
    Westport Country Playhouse

  4. Dale Nordling

    #1 I think she was a regular in one of the early ’50s TV shows.
    #2 Hedy Lamarr
    #6 Bob Hope
    Bottom Row, second from right: She looks like a young and slim Jane Darwell, who played Ma Joad in the Grapes of Wrath movie, and the “Feed The Birds” lady in Mary Poppins.

  5. Audrey Doniger

    My memory of whom I think is Thelma Ritter got lost in the mail soooo once again…in the back recesses of my mind I think it sure looked like her..Thelma Ritter,anyone