Friday Flashback #140

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).

11 responses to “Friday Flashback #140

  1. Matt Panos

    My Mother (Thelma Panos) was treasurer and held other Board positions for 25 years. Some of my fondest memories are at the Playhouse (and getting to go backstage :-)) To meet the actors. My favorites were getting to have a late night dinners at Players Tavern with Vincent Price and getting to talk Star Trek with William Shatner.

  2. Bob Stalling

    Olivia de Havilland is still with us…
    102 years old!

  3. Richard R. Craig

    Dan, you have outdone yourself! Huge kudos for pulling these together.

  4. John B Gould

    Fabulous Dan! Still catching my breath. I fell in love with Olivia when she played Maid Marian in Robin Hood. According to his biography Tyrone was born in Ohio in 1914 , not CT? ZZZZZorry!.

  5. Bonnie Bradley

    My father was as fierce as a tiger when representing a client and I’m not surprised that he triumphed over Darryl Zanuck in defense of Tyrone Power and ensured that the show would go on at the Playhouse.
    I can just see him delving into page after page of obscure Connecticut laws until he found the one that would work. You never heard J.K.B. utter the words “It can’t be done.” His signature phrase was “No problem” – long before this became a common catchphrase. And he delivered.
    Speaking of celebraties, he represented The actress Gene Tierney in her nasty divorce from fashion designer Oleg Cassini. She did very well.

    There isn’t a day of my life that I don’t miss my dad.

  6. Marilyn Payne

    I saw Tyrone Power in Liliom when I was 9 years old. I believe it was later turned into the musical Carousel.

    Sent from my iPad


  7. Fred Cantor

    Olivia de Havilland’s sister (and also an Oscar winner), Joan Fontaine, also performed in a play at the Westport Country Playhouse—in the 1960s. It’s incredible how many Academy Award winners have appeared on stage at the Playhouse.

  8. Ann Sheffer

    When we set out to renovate the Playhouse almost 20 years ago, saving the posters was my pet project — some had been chewed on by raccoons and they were all moldy from years in an old barn. They were all cleaned, preserved, and reframed. It’s wonderful to see them back on the wall of the lobby — a visual history of the plays and players over the years. Another bit of trivia — set into the stage floor of the Playhouse is a small section of the original stage, which means that all the actors described in this article and in the book walked on the same stage we have today…