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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.”
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.
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.