Friday Flashback #352

Longtime Westporter/amateur historian Fred Cantor was fascinated by a recent “06880” story on the Playhouse Kitchen.

The restaurant operated on the Post Road (State Street), in front of the Westport Country Playhouse, in the 1930s and ’40s. It may have opened earlier, under a different name.

The building still stands. We know it as Winslow Park Animal Hospital.

Fred reached out to Debbie Hooper Fisher, another longtime resident. Her grandparents operated the Playhouse Kitchen. Debbie writes:

My grandparents, Rose and Michael Vigilante, owned this Colonial for many years. It served as a real estate office under Steve Crowley, and is now veterinary practice.

Rose opened the Playhouse Kitchen in a section of her home. It served many actors and actresses, while they performed at the Playhouse.

Rose was a warm, outgoing, energetic and engaged lady. She loved to cook and welcome patrons into her “kitchen.”

Many continued their friendship with Rose well-beyond their performances. One example was Rose O’Neill, famous illustrator, writer and creator of the Kewpie doll. They shared the same name and many other interests, such as flowers.

My mother Rita helped in the Playhouse Kitchen as a young girl. Many of the famous actors’ autographs are addressed to Rita with sweet, endearing comments. She loved meeting them, and they inspired her to participate in plays at Staples when she was older.

A few of the autographs addressed to Debbie’s other Rita. 

Robert Lambdin, a well-known Westport artist and illustrator, also befriended Rose. Some of his large murals still hang around town.

My family donated many of his illustrations (gifted to Rose) to the Westport Historical Society. I still have an illustration Robert gave me as a wedding gift, as well as other paintings in my own home in Westport.

My grandmother also offered overnight stays to actors and actresses when they were in town and just starting their careers.

Another interesting note:  My grandparents were also close friends of the Baron (Walter Langer van Langendorff, inventor of White Shoulders perfume). As they aged, they decided to sell their home and property to him (the land is now known as Winslow Park).

However, my grandmother missed the house so much she repurchased it back from the Baron (for more than they’d sold it for). Ugh — but she was so very happy to be back “home”!

My grandfather Michael was also very active in his own pursuits, as a builder, sheriff and president of the Sons of Italy. He was responsible for many of the still-standing stone walls throughout Westport, which he and his company built during the Depression.

He also built homes off Bayberry Road. He named the private road after my family (on my father’s side) Hooper Road.

We are so grateful for the many stories my grandparents shared with us throughout the years about Rose’s Kitchen, the incredible meals she cooked for us most Sundays, and both Rose and Michael’s many contributions to our family and the town!

Playhouse kitchen interior.

Fred Cantor adds these details:

In the summer of 1941, the Playhouse Kitchen was included on a couple of occasions in Billboard Magazine’s  national “night club” listings of musician performances.

Also Zachary Scott, who appeared alongside Lana Turner and Ronald Reagan in 1940s films, wrote to his family about having his meals at the Playhouse Kitchen when his first job after college in the summer of 1939 was at the Westport Country Playhouse. He said:

Westport itself is a small village right on the Boston Post Road. We eat our meals at the Playhouse Kitchen next door, as both it and the Inn are on property adjoining the theatre.  The theatre itself is the most attractive thing you ever saw.

Outside it is a great big red barn.  Inside it is mid-Victorian red plush and gilt—-seats several hundred and is modernly equipped.

Fred also says that Paul Robeson seems to have eaten at the Playhouse Kitchen, and/or stayed at the inn, in 1940. That was at a time, Fred says, when “a lot of establishments, even in the North, were still not integrated.”

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5 responses to “Friday Flashback #352

  1. Gracine Bueti

    Such a great story! Thanks for sharing this✨

  2. Michael Calise

    Thanks Debbie!
    Brings back many memories of your mom, Dad and Grandparents. Great people!

  3. Barbara Sherburne '67

    Wonderful story and photos. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Fred Cantor

    Thanks for publishing this Flashback. I just wanted to note a couple of other things:
    —Paul Robeson starred in “The Emperor Jones” at the WCP in the summer of 1940.
    —one of the musicians who was listed in Billboard as performing at the Playhouse Kitchen in the summer of 1941 was the prominent jazz pianist, Herman Chittison, who recorded and/or played with other well-known musicians including Louis Armstrong.
    —some of your readers might remember Zachary Scott from his co-starring role in “Mildred Pierce,” the movie in which Joan Crawford won a Best Actress Oscar. Scott’s description of his time in Westport was excerpted from a letter that was quoted in a biography of Scott by Ronald L. Davis.

  5. Happy to hear that Rose was a kind, beautiful person and owner of the Playhouse Kitchen back in 1940. She believed in treating ALL people alike. How appropriate that is to read on Juneteenth.