As the Westport Country Playhouse opens its 89th season, “06880” shines a spotlight on its famed posters.
For decades, they hung on the walls of its cramped lobby. After the renovation more than a decade ago, a few dozen found spots in the new lobby. All told, there are 400 in posters in the Playhouse collection.
Pat Blaufuss sent along a sampling. Each has a story behind it. Text comes from An American Theatre: The Story of Westport Country Playhouse by Richard Somerset-Ward.
It was 1940 and the Playhouse was doing Green Grow the Lilacs. John Ford had agreed to direct the show but was detained by film commitments, and never showed up (though his name was on the poster). Actual direction was handled by John Haggott who followed ideas he and Ford put together earlier in Hollywood.
Teresa Helburn, a Theatre Guild colleague of Lawrence Langner, Playhouse founder, came backstage on opening night and said: “This play would make a good musical.” They invited Fairfield resident Richard Rodgers. He was inspired to turn the play into the musical Oklahoma! with Oscar Hammerstein.
In 1941 Tyrone Power was the crown prince of Hollywood, dashingly handsome, married to a beautiful French woman named Annabella.
Tyrone was born in Connecticut; his earliest acting jobs had been in summer stock in Massachusetts. He was immersed in film roles, under contract to 20th Century Fox, but longed to get back to the stage. He couldn’t take extended runs because of his movie contract, but he might find time to do summer stock.
Darryl Zanuck, his boss, thwarted his first attempts, but in 1941 Tyrone and Annabella successfully escaped to Westport to star in Liliom, which became the source for the musical Carousel. It was directed by Lee Strasberg.
Power said: “Here in Westport there’s nothing of the huge, inhuman machine atmosphere that dominates Hollywood.” On opening night the Powerses took a dozen-and-a-half curtain calls.
But there almost wasn’t an opening night. A few days before opening, Zanuck sent a cable demanding that Power fly back to Hollywood for urgent re-shoots on the film he had recently made with Betty Grable, A Yank in the RAF.
It seemed that Tyrone had no option – his contract made it clear that the studio owned him. But Playhouse lawyer J. Kenneth Bradley came up with an old Connecticut blue law which enabled the local authorities to prevent a person from leaving the state if he tried to do so before fulfilling a contract with a Connecticut business.
Zanuck was informed that Connecticut stood ready to enforce its law. He caved, and Power stayed for the sold-out run.
Olivia de Havilland, so popular from the film Gone with the Wind, was in the Playhouse production of What Every Woman Knows in 1946.
On the same day she opened the show, she got married to novelist and journalist Marcus Goodrich. The wedding ceremony took place at the Weston home of Playhouse founder Lawrence Langner.
Henry Fonda and daughter Jane both appeared on the Playhouse stage, though not at the same time. With a film career still in the future, Jane Fonda starred in No Concern of Mine in 1960. Her father appeared in The Virginian at the Playhouse in 1937 — the same year Jane was born.
In 1964, 18-year-old Liza Minnelli came to the Westport Country Playhouse to get her Equity card. She played The Girl in The Fantasticks, with Elliott Gould as her co-star. On opening night, in the words of the Playhouse’s 50th anniversary brochure, “the rather gawky teenage…received a standing ovation.”
In 1987, Weston playwright David Wiltse’s Doubles was a Playhouse attraction. His newest play will be featured at a Script in Hand reading next Monday (May 6).