Early Sunday morning, fire destroyed the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford.
News reports noted that the 1,500-seat venue — modeled after London’s Globe Theater — hosted performances by Katharine Hepburn, Helen Hayes and Christopher Walken.
When the theater thrived, its garden on the banks of the Housatonic River featured a garden with 81 species of plants mentioned in the Bard’s plays.
The American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, in its heyday.
Papers reported too that the idea for the theater came from Lawrence Langner. It was not his first rodeo. In 1930 — 25 years before developing the Stratford venue — the Weston resident turned an apple orchard and old tannery into the Westport Country Playhouse.
But Westport’s connection to the American Shakespeare Festival Theater runs far deeper than that.
In fact, our town was almost its home.
In 2014 I posted a story that began with a note from Ann Sheffer. The Westport civic volunteer and philanthropist — who had a particular fondness for the Playhouse, where she interned as a Staples High School student — had sent me an old clipping that told the fascinating back story of Stony Point. That’s the winding riverfront peninsula with an entrance directly off the train station parking lot, where Ann and her husband Bill Scheffler then lived.
Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.
Written in 1977, the Westport News piece by longtime resident Shirley Land described a New York banker, his wife and 2 daughters. They lived in a handsome Victorian mansion with “turrets and filigree curlicues.” The grounds included an enormous carriage house, gardener’s cottage, barn and hothouse.
It was the Cockeroft family’s country home, built around 1890. They traveled there by steam launch from New York City, tying up at a Stony Point boathouse.
After the daughters inherited the home, the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad purchased some of the land for a new train station. (The original one was on the other side of the river.)
The 2nd daughter bequeathed the estate to the Hospital for the Crippled and Ruptured (whose name was later changed, mercifully, to the New York Hospital for Special Surgery).
But the property fell into disuse. Eventually the hospital sold Stony Point to real estate developers.
Which brings us to Shakespeare.
Around 1950 Langner, Lincoln Kirstein of Lincoln Center and arts patron Joseph Verner Reed had audacious plans. They wanted to build an American Shakespeare Theatre and Academy.
And they wanted it on Stony Point. Proximity to the train station was a major piece of the plan.
The price for all 21 acres: $200,000.
But, Land wrote, “the hand of fate and the town fathers combined to defeat the efforts of the theatre people.” Many residents objected. There were also concerns that it would draw audiences away from the Westport Country Playhouse. (Others argued that a Shakespeare Theatre would enhance the town’s reputation as an arts community.)
The theater was never built in Westport. It opened a few miles away –in the aptly named town of Stratford — in 1955.
It achieved moderate success there. But in 1982 the theater ran out of money (and backers). The state of Connecticut took ownership. It closed in 1985.
The garden turned into weeds. The theater grew moldy. The stage where renowned actors once performed the world’s greatest plays was taken over by raccoons.
The entrance to Stony Point.
Meanwhile, in 1956 Westporters Leo Nevas and Nat Greenberg, along with Hartford’s Louis Fox, bought the Stony Point property for residential development.
It’s now considered one of the town’s choicest addresses. A recent listing for one home there was $14 million.
That’s quite a story. We can only imagine what might have happened had Westporters decided to support — rather than oppose — the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Westport.
Then again, as a famous playwright once said: “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”