Westport Country Playhouse: 91 Years Young Today

On June 29, 1931, the curtain rose for the first time at the Westport Country Playhouse.

It ushered in a new chapter in town history — and the theater world nationally.

By 1930, Lawrence Langner and his wife Armina Marshall had achieved remarkable success as theater producers. The Theatre Guild — which Langner co-founded — had become perhaps the most prolific and influential producer on Broadway, and the leading producer of touring productions throughout the country.

Residents of Weston, the Langners wanted to establish a resident acting company, and experiment with new plays and reinterpretations of classics. But it had to be away from the spotlight of New York.

In the winter of 1930 they saw an old barn in an apple orchard near downtown Westport. The town was already popular with Broadway’s theatrical community.

It was exactly what they were looking for. They bought the property, with an assessed value of $14,000.

The 1930 barn.

Cleon Throckmorton — a respected Broadway set designer who had also designed the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts — was hired to transform the 1835 tannery into a theater.

The first production — “The Streets of New York” — opened 91 years ago today.

It was called Woodland Theatre. On opening day, Langner changed the name, to Country Playhouse.

The Westport Playhouse has seen countless highlights since then. Among them:

1933: “Present Laughter” is directed by Antoinette Perry. The Tony Awards are now named for her.

1935: Langner purchases 3.5 more acres, at $2,000 an acre, to expand the facilities. Extensions to the theater and construction of a scene shop and offices cost $25,000; a refreshment stand is $225.

1939: An unknown Gene Kelly dances in a musical revue. with a pair of new composers/performers named Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

1940: Oklahoma!” was never performed on the Playhouse stage, yet it plays a critical role in its genesis. A 1940 production of Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs incorporates turn-of-the-century folk songs, and a square dance scene. Langner invites Fairfield resident Richard Rodgers to see a performance. Three years later the Theatre Guild produces Oklahoma! on Broadway.

An early audience outside the Playhouse.

1941: Tallulah Bankhead adds drama to Her Cardboard Lover by taking her bows carrying a lion cub in her arms. It’s such a hit, she does it every night.

1941: Lee Strasberg directs Tyrone Power in Liliom, which later becomes Carousel on Broadway. Power is ready to open at the Playhouse when Daryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, demands he return to Hollywood to re-shoot movie scenes. Playhouse attorney Kenneth Bradley invokes a 300-year-old Connecticut blue law to keep Power here.

1942-45: For 4 seasons during World War II, when gas rationing prevents audiences from getting to the theater, there are no productions. The next season closure occurs 75 years later, during COVID..

1946: Just before Olivia de Havilland takes the stage on opening night of What Every Woman Knows, she marries novelist and journalist Marcus Goodrich at Langner’s Weston home.

1946: The apprentice system begins. Over the years, summer interns include Stephen Sondheim (1950) and Tammy Grimes (1954). Today the Playhouse hosts the Woodward Internship Program, a national program for emerging theater professionals. It is named for longtime Playhouse supporter Joanne Woodward.

Stephen Sondheim (crouching, top of photo), during his 1950 apprenticeship. The photo was taken at the Jolly Fisherman restaurant. Also in the photo: future film director Frank Perry (front row, left) and Richard Rodgers’ daughter Mary (2nd row, 4th from left).

1949: Helen Hayes performs with her 19-year-old daughter, Mary MacArthur, in Good Housekeeping. Mary becomes ill the day after closing, and dies of polio one week later.

1951: A world premiere comedy by Noël Coward, Island Fling, stars Claudette Colbert. Post-performance visitors to Colbert’s dressing room include Marlene Dietrich, Danny Kaye, Richard Rodgers and Otto Preminger.

 1952: Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who had achieved great success with Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon, struggle to create a musical from Shaw’s Pygmalion. Lerner sees it on the Playhouse stage. Four years later My Fair Lady becomes a smash on Broadway.

1954: ApprenticeTammy Grimes is fired from the box office in her first week because she is unable to make correct change. She is transferred backstage, where she irons actor Richard Kiley’s pants.

1954: A restaurant is built adjacent to the Playhouse: Players Tavern.

The iconic red Westport Country Playhouse.

1954: Christopher Plummer makes his American stage debut in Home Is the Hero. Years later, he joins the Playhouse board of trustees.

1955: The Empress includes apprentice Sally Jessy. She later earns fame as talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael.

1956: The big concern every day is how much ice to order. The theater is cooled by fans blowing over ice. Vintage posters in the lobby boast, “Air-cooled.”

Westport Country Playhouse in 1960 (Photo courtesy of Paul Ehrismann)

1957: Eartha Kitt stars in Mrs. Patterson, a Tony-nominated role she originated on Broadway. Fifty years later, now a Weston resident, she returns to the Playhouse stage in All About Us, a new musical by Kander and Ebb opening the 2007 season.

1958: Hugh O’Brian, popular star of television’s “Wyatt Earp,” causes a box office frenzy as the leading man in Picnic. It is a vivid illustration of the new power of television.

1958: Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy star in Triple Play.

1960: With a film career still in the future, Jane Fonda, age 23, stars in No Concern of Mine. Her father, Henry, had appeared in The Virginian at the Playhouse in 1937, the year his daughter was born.

1964: 18-year-old Liza Minnelli receives her Equity card, appearing with Elliott Gould in The Fantasticks. On opening night, according to a Playhouse brochure, “the rather gawky teenager…received a standing ovation.”

1969: Butterflies Are Free premieres with Blythe Danner and Keir Dullea. The comedy transfers to Broadway where it runs over 3 years, earning Danner a Tony Award. The  play — one of 36 that made the leap from Westport to Broadway — is reprised as a reading for the Playhouse’s 80th anniversary in 2010, with its original stars –Danner as the mother, Dullea as the evening’s host.

1973: The Connecticut Theatre Foundation is created to operate the Playhouse as a not-for-profit.

1974: In his playbill letter for Hair, Jim McKenzie, executive producer, says, “Open your mind, open your heart and prepare for the theatrical experience of a lifetime.”

1977: Absent Friends, a Playhouse co-production plan with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, opens in Washington, following its Westport run. On the same evening, The Master Builder opens in Westport, following its engagement in DC.

1978: A fall and winter film and play series begins with the movie Gone with the Wind, plus a big barbecue hosted by Colonel Sanders himself.

1981: Eva Le Gallienne makes her last appearance at the Playhouse 45 seasons after her first, with many roles in between. Today, the Playhouse’s Green Room is named in her honor, and contains memorabilia from her career.

The green room. Think of all the legendary names that have passed through there.

1985: Philip Langner, son of founders Lawrence Langner and Armine Marshall, receives an offer of $1.2 million for the Playhouse property from Playhouse Square, the adjacent shopping center. The Connecticut Theatre Foundation, current lessee, has a right to match the offer. The Playhouse Limited Partnership, a group of 27 ardent theater supporters, is formed to purchase the property.

1985: A fall season includes A Bill of Divorcement starring Christopher Walken and Katharine Houghton, who recreates the role in which her aunt, Katharine Hepburn, made her film debut in 1932. Hepburn is in the audience.

1987: The Playhouse makes a major change: from producing 12 plays in 12 weeks to producing 6 in 12. Subscriptions spike. Seeing a show every other week is more convenient to many than committing to a weekly schedule.

1989: With the Playhouse in arrears on its mortgage and taxes, and facing major expenses to meet fire and safety codes, it asks local developer Ceruzzi Mack Properties to make good the debt, assume the mortgage, and renovate and lease back the theater for $1 a year, in return for property ownership and construction of commercial rental space on the Playhouse campus. The Planning & Zoning Commission turns down the application.

1990: The Playhouse is entered on the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places.

1991: 30-year-old Aaron Sorkin visits the Playhouse to see a production of his play A Few Good Men.

1999: Groucho: A Life in Revue is taped at the Playhouse for PBS.

2000: A campaign begins to renovate the Playhouse, and transition from summer stock to a year-round theater. Connecticut Theatre Foundation becomes owner of the Playhouse and adjacent restaurant. Contributions, bolstered by a $5 million state grant from the State of Connecticut, help reach the $30.6 million goal by the end of 2005.

The Westport Country Playhouse teoday.

2000: A 2-week run of Ancestral Voices by A. R. Gurney features a different stellar cast each week. Among them: Jane Curtin, Neil Patrick Harris, Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman, Paul Rudd, Swoosie Kurtz, James Naughton.

2001: Joanne Woodward is named artistic director. She directs 3 plays and appears in several productions, including Love Letters with Paul Newman, and a Script in Hand reading of Arsenic and Old Lace with Christopher Walken. Newman also appears in Ancestral Voices, Trumbo, and a revival of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which transfers to Broadway.

2002: Gene Wilder stars in Don’t Make Me Laugh. It’s his 4th appearance at the Playhouse, but first in a feature role. He performed here with Walter Pidgeon, Helen Hayes, and Carol Channing, “but nobody knew who I was then.”

2002: The Playhouse’s 2002 production of Our Town transfers to Broadway for a limited run, playing to full houses. The play airs on Showtime and PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre.” Newman receives Tony and Emmy Award nominations for his performance as Stage Manager.

Local residents Jim Naughton, Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, at the Westport Country Playhouse in 2002.

2003: During a regional power outage, the Playhouse is in the middle of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons with Richard Dreyfuss and Jill Clayburgh. Most actors live in New York and cannot travel to Westport. The performance is canceled.  However, Dreyfuss is in Westport. He drives to the theater and shakes hands with whoever arrives.

2003 and 2004: Fundraising galas support the Playhouse’s planned renovation with performances by Carole King, Robin Williams, Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Harry Connick, Jr. hosted by Brian Williams.

2005: May 23, 2005 marks the re-opening of Westport Country Playhouse and its 75th anniversary season, following a major multi-million dollar renovation.

2005: The Lucille Lortel Foundation awards a $2 million grant to establish The Lucille Lortel White Barn Center at the Playhouse.

2006: Paul Newman and Chef Michel Nischan open the Dressing Room restaurant next door.

2006: Stephen Sondheim returns to the Playhouse for the first time since his 1950 apprenticeship. He is saluted on the Playhouse stage with performances by Laura Benanti, Kristin Chenoweth, Barbara Cook, and Patti LuPone.

2006: James Earl Jones appears as Thurgood Marshall in the world premiere of Thurgood. He later joins the Playhouse board of trustees. 

2008: The popular Script in Hand play reading series begins.

2009: Stephen Sondheim presents a tribute to Mary Rodgers Guettel at the annual gala, An Enchanted Evening: The Music of Richard Rodgers. Sondheim and Rodgers Guettel are former Playhouse apprentices.

2021: During its 90th anniversary — and the pandemic, the Playhouse pivots to an all-virtual season. It’s available on-demand, with captions in Spanish.

After 91 years, the view has changed little. (Photo/Robert Benson)

(Like the Westport Country Playhouse, “06880” relies on contributions for support. Please click here to help.)

6 responses to “Westport Country Playhouse: 91 Years Young Today

  1. Peter Gambaccini

    Thanks for the fine history, Dan. The Playhouse was my first real job. McKenzie was an excellent boss.

  2. Bonnie Erickson

    I love this story, Dan. I cut my theater teeth at the Playhouse as an intern beginning the summer of ’68 assisting Shirley Booth, Keir Dullea, Blythe Danner, Noel Harrison, Colleen Dewhurst, Rip Torn and Geraldine Page. Life would never be the same after that.

    • Bonnie, this is one more example of how you can learn something new every day.🤨 I had no idea; very cool!

      The Playhouse is truly one of the town’s greatest treasures and I hope that one day in the not-too-distant future Debbie and I will be able to experience a live show there in person once again.

  3. Thanks for the great historic synopsis ..one note: our own Chilton Ryan is in the apprentice photo top right

  4. Kate Randolph

    LET US ALSO GIVE CREDIT AND THANKS TO THERESA HELBURN

  5. Brilliant!

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