Westport Playhouse: A Look Back At 90 Seasons

Today should have been a red-letter day in Westport Country Playhouse history.

The former cow barn opened its doors — and ushered in a golden era of summer theater — on June 29, 1931. Ever since last year, the Playhouse had prepared for a landmark 90th season.

COVID canceled those plans. But “06880” — the blog and the town — can still celebrate.

The building is actually twice as old as the theater. It was built in 1835 by R&H Haight, as a tannery for hatters’ leathers. Apple trees grew nearby.

In 1860 Charles H. Kemper purchased the plant from Henry Haight’s widow.

Kemper tannery, 1860.

Twenty years later, he installed a steam-powered cider mill.

By the winter of 1930, the property — assessed at $14,000 — had been unused for several years. It was bought by Weston residents Lawrence Langner and his wife Armina Marshall Langner, co-founders of the Theatre Guild, a powerful producer of Broadway and touring productions.

The 1930 barn.

The Langners wanted a place to experiment with new plays, and reinterpret old ones. Westport was already home to actors, producers and directors.

On June 29, 1931, the Westport Country Playhouse opened. The very first play — The Streets of New York — starred Dorothy Gish. Its stage was built to Broadway specifications. Remarkably, that first show made it all the way there.

Westport Country Playhouse interior, 1933.

Bert Lahr, Eva LaGallienne, Paul Robeson, Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore, Henry Fonda, Tallulah Bankhead and Julie Harris were some of the many big names who appeared on the Playhouse stage.

The early days (Photo/Wells Studio)

The theater went dark for 4 years during World War II, due to gas rationing.

Thornton Wilder received his Equity card in 1946, so he could play the stage manager in his own hit, Our Town.

In the 1940s, the Playhouse began an apprentice program. The legendary list includes Stephen Sondheim, Frank Perry and Sally Jesse Raphael. The educational apprenticeship programs are still running.

An early shot of the Westport Country Playhouse.

Though Oklahoma! has never been performed at the theater, it played a key role in the legendary show’s history. In 1940, Richard Rodgers came from his Fairfield home for Green Grow the Lilacs. Three years later, he produced Oklahoma!, based on what he’d seen.

Roders also saw Gene Kelly that night at Lilacs, and a few months later gave him his big break: the lead in Pal Joey.

In 1959 the Langners turned operation of the Playhouse over to Jim McKenzie. Later named executive producer, he retired in 2000 after 41 years. His tenure was notable for many things — including his efforts in 1985 to purchase the theater and its property, thwarting a takeover by a shopping center complex.

Gloria Swanson arrives, 1961.

Appearing on stage during McKenzie’s time were stars like Alan Alda, Cicely Tyson, Richard Thomas, Jane Powell, Sandy Dennis, and Stiller and Meara.

A teenager earned her Equity card, and earned a standing ovation on opening night in The Fantasticks. Her name was Liza Minnelli.

Prior to renovation, the cramped lobby was filled with posters from past shows.

In 2000, artistic director Joanne Woodward joined an illustrious team including Anne Keefe, Alison Harris and Elisabeth Morten. They brought Gene Wilder, Richard Dreyfuss, Jill Clayburgh and Jane Curtin to the stage.

Woodward’s husband — Paul Newman — also starred at the Playhouse, in the same role Thornton Wilder played 56 years earlier: stage manager, in Our Town. 

Like so many other Playhouse shows, it (with Newman) soon transferred to Broadway.

But the building — still basically a 170-year-old barn — was in physical disrepair.Woodward and company also renovated the Playhouse physically, and revitalized it artistically.

An 18-month, $30.6 million renovation project in 2003 and ’04 brought the Playhouse into the modern era. It closed in 2003 with a revival of its first show, The Streets of New York.

It reopened in 2005 — its 75th season. At Woodward’s suggestion, a piece of the original stage is still there. The Playhouse moved forward, while paying homage to its storied past.

Westport Country Playhouse, after renovation.

The next year saw the world premiere of Thurgood. Since then — under artistic directors Tazewell Thompson and now Mark Lamos — the Westport Country Playhouse has expanded both its scope and its season.

From a tryout and summer stock house focusing mostly on light, entertaining comedies, to its current April-through-November staging of powerful dramas, musicals and exploratory plays, the Westport Country Playhouse has played a key role in American theater.

Several years ago, Lamos noted, “What had a been a leaky, vermin-infested, un-weatherized — albeit beloved — converted barn became a state-of-the-art theater as fine as any in America.”

Like Broadway, the Westport Country Playhouse is closed during this, its 90th season.

But — as its long history shows — the old barn has weathered many ups, and  a few downs. The curtain will rise again next year.

The show must go on!

(Hat tip: Pat Blaufuss)

(Photo/Robert Benson)

23 responses to “Westport Playhouse: A Look Back At 90 Seasons

  1. Great, Dan. But wasn’t Richard Rodgers’ house in Westport? That’s what his granddaughter told me.

    • No. Just over the border on Hull’s Highway in Fairfield.

      • Jan Carpenter

        Hulls Farm Road, I think.

      • Deb Rosenfield

        I was in that house in Fairfield when it was being sold, perhaps 20 years ago. Wonderful house. I believe his daughter lived in a house on Canal Street in Westport, which also sold about 15 or 20 years ago.

  2. That Gloria Swanson pic is one of the greatest in Westport history.

  3. Vanessa Bradford

    Wow! Quite the history. I have gone since a little kid. Remember the old playhouse. And of course players tavern!!!!!

    Sent from my iPhone

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  4. Carol Waxman

    A wonderfully written history but we also have to give credit to the play readings and Annie’s great castings! The readings may contribute to keeping the expenses down and the audience up during the winter months.
    Carol

  5. Right after the original “Star Trek” TV series concluded in 1969, a slightly dejected Wiliam Shatner starred in a light comedy at the Westport Playhouse called “There’s A Girl In My Soup”, The character Shatner played was quite a departure from the “Captain Kirk” he previously portrayed for 79 episodes. During the autumn of 1969, reruns of “Star Trek” began to appear on local TV stations, and the rest was an amazin’ history catapulting Shatner’s career forever into Hollyword stardom.

  6. What a joy to see ‘the baby pictures’ of the Westport Country Playhouse! This was the the place of the first date night out my husband and I enjoyed when we first moved to Connecticut from California in 1992. It was love at first performance, squeaky benches and all. So many memories of stunning, funny, powerful, and just downright great plays, play readings and more. Thanks for the memories!

  7. Joyce Barnhart

    Wonderful read. Thank you, Dan. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers the distinctive smell of the old building on humid summer nights. I thought it was the smell of a barn, but knew better after learning that it had been a tannery and that urine was used for tanning. I also remember that there was really only one aisle, about mid-auditorium, where my long-legged husband could sit comfortably. The old barn was a very special place but the “new” building manages to reflect much of the charm with none of the scent.

  8. A. David Wunsch

    In the summer of 1957 I was a college student . I spent the summer at my parents’ Westport house . One day my mother said to me ,” you have to take this afternoon off from your summer job, Robert Frost is reading at the Playhouse.” I did take the afternoon off even though I missed 4 hours of pay at $1.25 per hour.
    Frost was wonderful He knew how to play Robert Frost. I suspect Mark Twain was the same way. I can still hear Frost say
    “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”
    ADW Staples 1956

  9. The WCP is truly one of Westport’s treasures and I look forward to the day when Debbie and I will be able to watch a production once again.

    I recently finished a fascinating theatre memoir, “The Street Where I Live” by Alan Jay Lerner, and I learned that the WCP played a role—in a way—in the development of “My Fair Lady.”

    In 1952 Lerner and his partner, Fritz Loewe, had been approached by a producer who had acquired the rights to “Pygmalion” and wanted to adapt it into a musical. To help along the process, the producer arranged for the WCP to stage a production of “Pygmalion” that summer so that Lerner, Loewe, and the producer could see it, and that perhaps it would give them a better idea of how to successfully adapt the material.

    Lerner and Loewe worked on how to do the adaptation that summer, but really struggled with it, and finally threw in the towel. Thankfully, two years later Lerner and Loewe revisited what they had worked on during that summer of ‘52, thought about approaching it from a different angle—and the rest, as they say, is history.

  10. Roseann Spengler

    Wonderful story. Wonderful memories. WCP kids’ productions is where I introduced by little children to live theater.

  11. Jay A. Dirnberger

    The Playhouse faces serious financial pressure from having virtually no means to produce any income from productions.

    Fortunately they have received a two for one gift that will match any donation. It is easy to make a donation. Check out their website

  12. Peter Barlow

    One summer when I was 16 I was an usher at the Playhouse. Being the new kid, I was assigned to the balcony and it was very hot up there. The theatre was not air-conditioned back then. But I got to see many performances. The following year all the ushers were girls.

  13. Charlie Cole

    Back in the summer of 2005 we stopped off in Westport, and spent the evening visiting with our good friends the Hightower’s. Back near midnight we were changing rooms at the Westport Inn because our the air conditioning was not working in our room. As we were moving our luggage down the hallway I noticed a man walking behind us. His voice was so distinctive as he asked “Can I help you?”, so that Sandie responded “Good evening Mr. Jones.” Yes, it was James Earl Jones! As we were exchanging comments he asked, “Did you go to the theater tonight?”. We replied no, we were visiting friends. He said, “Go, this show needs work.” It was then that I recalled seeing the poster in the lobby featuring Thurgood staring Jams Earl Jones, so I took Sandie back to the lobby to clarify. Some years later we saw Thurgood on Broadway staring Laurence Fishburne and it had definitely gotten the work Mr. Jones said it needed 😉. And later we did see Mr. Jones on stage doing something else, and we are sure he would have been satisfied with that work. Keep up your good work 🤗. Charlie & Cole, Oakton, Virginia

    Sent from my iPad

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  14. Roseann Spengler

    Thanks Jay. I’m going to donate.

  15. Denise Johnson

    What a great history, evoking lovely memories. I apprenticed there in 1964, I believe, & saw many fantastic shows. The ones I recall are Come Blow Your Horn, Where’s Papa? with Ruth Gordon & Joel Segal, & Stop The World I Want To Get Off with Joel Grey. It was so much fun!

  16. There is a movement to have a Literary Landmark for Lawrence Langner in Westport. Lawrence Langner was one of the great figures of the American Theatre and this year marks not only the 90th anniversary of the Westport Playhouse but also the 100th anniversary of the Theatre Guild. The Theatre Guild was, without question, the greatest theatrical producing organization of the 20th century. Langner not only was a great producer, he was also a writer of both plays ad books including his book on the theatre called “THE MAGIC CURTAIN.” The Literary Landmark for Langner will be the very first Literary Landmark in Westport, CT.

  17. Great article Dan and happy to see your name in print. Karen Burnes & Susan Ahsen sent me the article, so it’s a full Staples reunion. I ushered at the Playhouse in 1970 (?). So remember the musty, woodsy smell of the backstage. I particularly remember having to rouse the inebriated patrons out of the Tavern for the second act. It was part of my Westport adolescent intro to the theater. Many years later as an actor I worked with Mark Lamos at Hartford Stage, and he’s now director of the Playhouse. It all comes full circle.

  18. Bradley Jones

    From the Pixie Judy Troupe, to the miraculous mini Broadway musicals of The Price Street Players, The Westport Playhouse played a large part in my very early development. At age 13 I started as an usher, and I watched all the summer packages that came through town with rapt attention. Some not so great– as attested by Shelley List’s painfully acerbic reviews– but others were gorgeous. I’l never forget seeing Boys The The Band. As a young gay child, I looked beyond the half full houses and angry people leaving at intermission, into the the fabulously funny but not so very nice world of what it meant to be gay during that time in LBGTQ history. What a brave choice for our town in 1970! I LOVED seeing all the stars (some waning) come through town, earnestly doing 8 shows a week for their appreciative (and often ambivalent) Straw Hat Trail audiences. It wasn’t always great art, but at that early time in my life it was show business–something I craved. At 15 I became an apprentice, and at 17 finally got on the payroll as a box office assistant. That was the summer before I moved into NY, and also the summer that A Chorus Line opened on Broadway. It was in the box office of The Playhouse that I saw the inspiring full two page ad in The NY TIMES for the musical I would eventually spend a decade of my life performing in. It’s unthinkable to imagine my life without The Westport Playhouse! Thank you, Dan, for a glorious retrospective of this historic part of Westport! After reading your post, as you can see, I am filled with memories that are foundational!

    • Thanks, Bradley. Your story is wonderful, unique — and also similar to many others’. We are so lucky to have this jewel, right here in our town.