Category Archives: Westport Country Playhouse

Friday Flashback #103

If you went to the Westport Country Playhouse any time between 1931 and 2005, you remember certain things: The tight lobby. The bench seats. The unique smell.

And the olio curtain.

Hanging in front of the main curtain, the olio — a large canvas attached at the bottom to a long rigid tube — featured painted advertisements for local businesses.

Since the WCP renovation, theater-goers have been greeted immediately by the set on stage. There is no curtain.

Until now.

The current production — “The Understudy” — is a comedy that takes place in a theater. At this show, patrons see the red velvet main curtain, hanging from the proscenium arch.

So what did that olio curtain look like?

The Playhouse’s Pat Blaufuss sent along this photo:

She doesn’t know the date. But alert “06880” readers who remember Brooks Hirsch, Ann Marie’s Figure Forum and Davy Jones’ restaurant can help.

Pat also sent this photo, from the New York Times:

Just to compare, here’s the post-renovation view:

(Photo/Robert Benson)

FUN FACT: Pat adds that the WCP main curtain does not have “legs” (the narrow curtains on each side of the stage).

In early vaudeville days, producers booked more performers than could possibly fill the time. That way, they could pull “bad” acts before completion.

Performers were not paid unless they actually performed onstage. The phrase “break a leg” meant breaking the visual plane of the legs that lined the side of the stage.

In other words: “Hope you break a leg and get onstage, so you get paid!”

Friday Flashback #85

It’s a big week for the Westport Country Playhouse.

Tomorrow (Saturday, April 7, 5 to 8 p.m.), the iconic theater kicks off its 88th season with a party. Everyone’s invited to enjoy food trucks, local beer, a sneak peek at the shows, an up-close look at costumes, and much more.

Next Thursday (April 12, 7 p.m.), the spring gala honors playwright A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters.” Alec Baldwin and Westport’s own Kelli O’Hara star.

The Playhouse today looks much as it did in 1931, when Lawrence Langner remodeled an 1830s tannery with a Broadway-quality stage.

Over the decades, the Playhouse has changed a bit. It’s been renovated. Amenities — including a new rehearsal building and meeting space — have been added too.

But theatergoers who enjoyed performances by Henry Fonda, Dorothy Gish, Gene Kelly, Paul Robeson and other stars in the 1930s would easily recognize the Westport Country Playhouse today.

It hasn’t changed much. It’s still a magical place, where the magic of theater lives.

Westport Country Playhouse, 1950

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

Westport artist Stevan Dohanos — known nationally for his Saturday Evening Post covers and US postage stamps — created the cover for this 1960s-era Playhouse playbill.

Friday Flashback #83

Buell Neidlinger — longtime “06880” reader and commenter/Westport native/world-renowned musician/all-around good guy — died last week. He was 82 years old.

Three days before his sudden death, he emailed me a suggestion for a Friday Flashback.

He sent a few pages from an old cookbook he’d found. “The New Connecticut Cookbook, Being a Collection of Recipes from Connecticut Kitchens” was compiled by the Woman’s Club of Westport, and illustrated by Connecticut artists. It belonged to his mother.

Buell’s pages did not include a publication date. But — judging from the car in the illustration, which may or may not be parked on a stylized version of Main Street — it was early in the papacy of Pope Pius XII.

Why that example? Because the preface (below), by literary critic/ biographer/historian Van Wyck Brooks — a Westport resident — notes that as Cardinal Pacelli, “the present Pope has been a visitor here.” Pius XII was Pope from 1939 to 1958.

Brooks mentions two other famous visitors to Westport, separated by more than a century: the French gastronome Jean Anthelem Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), and Luigi Pirandello. The Italian writer and poet attended a performance at the Westport Country Playhouse. That was sometime between 1931 — when the summer theater opened — and 1936, when Pirandello died.

The pages that Buell sent are fascinating. Then again, everything he did for “06880” was.

This one’s for you, good friend.

Alec Baldwin, Kelli O’Hara Headline Playhouse Gala

A. R. “Pete” Gurney died last June. He was 86 years old.

The playwright holds many distinctions — including most-produced playwright in the Westport Country Playhouse’s 88-year history. Since 1980, the historic theater has produced 21 of his works.

A.R. “Pete” Gurney

Playhouse artistic director Mark Lamos also has a deep association with Gurney. He has directed many of his longtime friend’s plays, both off-Broadway and at the Playhouse. Some were world premieres.

At Carnegie Hall, Lamos diected Alec Baldwin in Gurney’s “Love Letters.”

So with all those connections, it’s no surprise that the Westport Country Playhouse’s annual fundraising gala features Mark Lamos directing Alec Baldwin in Pete Gurney’s “Love Letters.”

The cast for the old-friends event (April 12) also includes Westporter Kelli O’Hara, a Tony Award winner for her portrayal of Anna in “The King and I.”

Lamos first met Gurney in the early 1980s, while running Hartford Stage. The writer’s understanding of the “New England WASP gestalt” fascinated the director, who saw in Gurney’s characters some of the company’s board members and donors.

“He absolutely captures the sound of a generation of upper-class people,” Lamos says. “He hears their voices, and makes them real. He’s at the end of a long tradition of people like Henry James and John Cheever — New England-based comedy of manners writers.”

In addition, Lamos says, “Pete has a wonderful sense of humor. He has a talent for fine-tuning a joke — or taking it away.”

Mark Lamos

Twenty years ago, when Lamos and his husband moved to western Connecticut, Gurney invited them to dinner with Arthur Miller. Gurney, Lamos and their spouses became good friends.

Over the years, Lamos directed Gurney’s “Big Bill,” “The Dining Room” and others.

Since joining the Playhouse in 2009, Lamos has appreciated Gurney’s long association with the Westport theater. Jim McKenzie — executive director there for 41 years — loved the playwright’s work, Lamos says.

He’s proud to keep up the tradition.

And looking very forward to the April 12 gala, which raises funds so the Playhouse can continue producing many more intriguing, entertaining and thought-provoking plays.

By Pete Gurney — and others, too.

(For more information about the April 12 Spring Gala, including tickets, click here.)

The Westport Country Playhouse

Remembering Patsy Englund

“06880” Mark Basile was surprised that the death in January of his longtime friend — and fellow actor — Patsy Englund did not receive any local notice. She was 93. Mark writes:

I knew and loved Patsy for 26 years. We met at the Theatre Actors Workshop. She was a very impressive woman.

Patsy Englund

Patsy’s mother, Mabel Albertson, played Darren’s mother on “Bewitched.” Her uncle was Jack Albertson, Academy Award-winning actor for “The Subject Was Roses.”

Patsy was raised in Beverly Hills by Mabel Englund and  her husband Ken. He was a screenwriter whose credits include “No No Nanette” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

At UCLA, Patsy was directed by Charlie Chaplin in a production of “Rain.” After college she went into the Broadway company of “Oklahoma!” She then did the London production, returning to New York to take over the role of Ado Annie. She also toured the US with that show.

Patsy was then cast in Katharine Hepburn’s Broadway production of “As You Like It.” That’s where she met Cloris Leachman — who married Patsy’s brother George.

Patsy Englund in “As You Like It.”

During the 1950s Patsy did dozens of live TV dramas, including “Playhouse 90” and “Studio One,” while continuing to perform on Broadway and in regional theater. She married Dunham Barney Lefferts. They had a son, Nick, who survives her.

For several years, the family rented a 1920s cottage on Norwalk Avenue in Westport. They then bought it, and Patsy lived there permanently from about 1962 to 2002.

She was visiting Nick when Hurricane Sandy destroyed the house. She moved back to California, and lived there until her death.

In the early 1960s — while living in Westport — Patsy performed in the groundbreaking political satire TV show “That Was the Week That Was,” with David Frost. She also starred on Broadway in “The Beauty Part,” with Larry Hagman.

Patsy Englund (2nd from left) in “The Beauty Part.” The show — which also starred Bert Lahr and Larry Hagman — opened during a newspaper strike. That cost the production valuable publicity.

Throughout the ’60s Patsy commuted to New York while acting on several long-running soap operas. She also worked at Long Wharf, the Manhattan Theatre Club — and the Westport Country Playhouse.

In the mid-’80s, Patsy helped Keir Dullea and his wife Susie Fuller form the Theatre Artists Workshop. Longtime members included Theodore Bikel, Morton DaCosta, David Rogers, Haila Stoddard, and Ring Lardner Jr.

They met once a week to workshop new plays, scenes and songs, to audition pieces, and get constructive critiques from peers. The Workshop was housed at Greens Farms Elementary School and the Westport Arts Center, before moving to Norwalk.

Patsy Englund with Jim Noble of “Benson” in rehearsal at the Theatre Arts Workshop.

Patsy performed many play readings — including benefits for the Westport Library, Westport Historical Society and Westport Woman’s Club — during her 55 years in Westport.

She loved Westport very much, and is one of the great Westporters who contributed so much to the artistic legacy of this town.

New Name For Westport Country Playhouse

The Westport Country Playhouse — which already includes the Lucille Lortel White Barn Center, and the Sheffer studio space — is adding another name to its property.

In fact, the entire campus will now be called The Howard J. Aibel Theater Center at Westport Country Playhouse.

The change recognizes a $3 million gift from the local resident, and current vice chair of the board of trustees.

Howard Aibel

“I have found live theater to be life transformative,” Aibel — a retired attorney, who formerly served as chief legal officer of ITT Corporation — says.

“Being a supporter of the Westport Country Playhouse has been a rich and grand experience.”

Playhouse artistic director Mark Lamos says, “This is not only financial sustenance. It is spiritual sustainability. His belief now enables us to create the highest level of work.”

Of Aibel’s grant, $500,000 is designated for current operations, and $500,000 for working capital reserve. A bequest of $2 million to establish an endowment is held in an irrevocable trust.

Aibel retired as a partner of Dewey & LeBoeuf, where he focused on international dispute resolution. He served as president of the Harvard Law School Association of New York, and chair of the American Arbitration Association. He is also chair emeritus of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/NY.

I’m not sure how many people will actually refer to the Playhouse as the Howard Aibel Theatre Center.

But there will be a nice sign on the 87-year-old iconic red building to remind everyone that while the arts are important to Westport’s heritage, they need the financial support of people like Aibel, who have the means — and desire — to help keep them alive.

Artist’s rendering of the new sign above the Westport Country Playhouse entrance.

How Not To Be A Racist

Or, more specifically: “How to be an Anti-Racist.”

That’s the topic of tomorrow’s (Sunday, January 14) 12th annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration in Westport. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi — winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction — keynotes the 3 p.m. event, at the Westport Country Playhouse.

He’ll be joined by Chris Coogan and the Good News Gospel Choir, along with the Weston High School Jazz Ensemble. Students from the Regional Center for the Arts will present a dance piece too.

Kendi’s book — “Stamped From the Beginning” — examined the history of racial ideas in the US.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

An assistant professor of African American history at American University, he’s spent his career studying racist and anti-racist ideas and movements. He speaks nationally on issues like #BlackLivesMatter, and social justice.

Kendi began his research assuming that the major adherents of racist ideas were hateful and ignorant, and that racist policies like slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration resulted directly from them.

But as he dug deeper, he realized that political, economic and cultural self-interest lie behind the creation of racist policies — which, in turn, lead to racist ideas that rationalize deep inequities in everything from wealth to health.

Kendi’s address is free, and open to the public. It will be followed by an audience Q-and-A session. He’ll also sign books, which are available for sale at the event. The Westport Weston Family YMCA will provide childcare and activities in the studio adjacent to the theater.

The MLK celebration is co-sponsored by the Westport Library, Westport Country Playhouse, TEAM Westport and the Westport/Weston Interfaith Council.

Friday Flashback #72

The new tax bill signed by President Trump may devastate Newman’s Own Foundation. Since 1982, the Westport-based organization has donated $512 million to charities helping veterans, children with cancer, low-income students and many other causes. (Click here for the full story.)

That news reminds us of the actor/food and lemonade manufacturer/automobile racer’s enormous, longtime impact on our town.

From the time he moved to Coleytown in the late 1950s — attracted here by the movie “Rally Round the Flag, Boys!” — he and his wife Joanne Woodward — were good, giving neighbors.

From the Westport Historical Society and Westport Country Playhouse to speaking with middle school students about substance abuse, the couple did plenty for all of us.

Everyone who’s lived here a while has a Paul Newman or Joanne Woodward story.

But I’d sure like to know the one behind this photo, taken shortly after he moved around the corner from the elementary school:

(Photo courtesy of Dave Parnas via Facebook “Exit 18” page)

Nora Guthrie: “Woody Sez” …

Nora Guthrie cannot remember when her father was not sick.

From when she was 2 until he died 15 years later, Woody Guthrie battled Huntington’s disease. It robbed the legendary singer/songwriter of his ability to walk, swallow and speak.

Nora went on to a career in modern dance — her mother’s medium. But around 1990, more than 20 years after Woody died, Harold Leventhal — a Weston resident, and Woody Guthrie’s longtime manager — gave Nora boxes full of material.

They were Woody’s archives.

Nora Guthrie (Photo/Tina Tschirch)

Harold was retiring, and he’d retrieved them from storage. “You should look at these,” he told her.

Unlike other relatives — including her older brother Arlo — Nora had not followed in her father’s footsteps. Her main connection with his legacy was signing legal papers a couple of times a year.

She picked a piece of paper from one of the boxes. It was written by Woody — and seemed to be aimed directly at her.

“He was sick my whole life. So I never had any deep conversations with him,” Nora recalls.

“But I pulled out this wonderful poem he’d written, called ‘I Say To You Woman and Man.’ It had lines like ‘Go dance’ and ‘I go up to your office.’

“I’m a dancer. I was sitting in my office. This was a man I never knew, speaking in a language I never heard. This was a father I never had.”

Woody Guthrie (Photo/Al Aumiller, courtesy of Woody Guthrie Publications Inc.)

As Nora delved into the boxes, she discovered — for the first time — her “healthy father.”

The impact of her discovery soon went far beyond her own life.

The boxes were filled with 3,000 lyrics Woody had written in the 1930s and ’40s — the prime of his career. Some were complete; others unfinished. Some were one or two lines; others ran up to 85 verses.

Nora showed them to Pete Seeger, one of Woody’s oldest friends and most cherished collaborators. He’d never seen them — or heard of them.

No one else in the American folk music world had, either.

There was other remarkable material, like a letter to Woody from John Lennon. Each box offered a previously unknown look into Woody Guthrie’s life.

In 1996, Nora co-produced the first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute series honoring Woody. Bruce Springsteen headlined a star-studded concert. There was also a scholarly symposium.

Listening to the presentations, Nora realized that “80% of what people were saying was incomplete, or incorrect.” Even Woody’s closest friends and fellow musicians had not seen the archival material.

Fred Hellerman

For instance, Fred Hellerman — a Weston resident who as a member of the Weavers helped lead an American folk song revival — said that Woody “hated love songs.”

“But Fred hadn’t seen Woody’s 150 love songs,” Nora says.

She knew she had to get the story right.

“Not everyone wants to hear songs about unions or boycotts,” she says, invoking some of her father’s most famous causes. “He wrote 100 songs about Hanukkah and Judaism. I wanted to find a way to bring everyone into the fold.”

Nora has spent the past quarter century “connecting various spokes to the hub.”

She produced 3 groundbreaking Billy Bragg/Wilco collaborations of previously unknown lyrics.

She curated “This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie,” in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution. It toured for 3 years at major museums throughout the country, displaying previously unseen notebooks, diaries, artwork, lyrics, photographs, instruments and memorabilia.

And for several years, “Woody Sez” has provided audiences with one more way to understand and appreciate the life and music of “America’s greatest troubadour.”

Part of the cast of “Woody Sez.”

From January 9 to 20, the show will be here. It’s the next big event at the Westport Country Playhouse. Nora is excited.

“It’s unbelievable how true Woody’s music is for our world today,” she says. “There’s every major issue: immigration, refugees, tax reform, religion, greed, freedom of speech, politicians, the environment.

“But there are also love songs, and songs about family. It’s all delivered from Woody’s point of view: personal, friendly, funny, familiar and accessible. You come out feeling empowered and exhilarated — not depressed. You feel your own little self is important.”

It’s family-friendly too. “Woody cut his teeth on Will Rogers’ humor,” she notes. “Children will chuckle.”

Nora has seen “Woody Sez” 100 times. Each time, she is inspired.

Nora Guthrie discovered her father’s “lost” material, and shined a light on a man she — and America — never really knew.

Now “Woody Sez” is doing the same.

“In dark times like these,” Nora says, “I don’t believe the American spirit is dark. Even after all these years, Woody’s light humor, light wisdom and light spirit is important.

“This show reminds us that there have always been amazing people, all over our country. It wakes up the part of you that wants to feel — and do — good.”

(For more information on “Woody Sez” — including tickets — click here.)

Clay Singer’s “Romeo And Juliet”: A Play In 2 Parts

Last month, “06880” profiled Clay Singer. The 2013 Staples High School graduate was getting ready to play Peter in the Westport Country Playhouse production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

His background — including starring roles in Staples Players, and as a Carnegie Mellon musical theater major — sure paid off.

Last Sunday at 1 p.m. — while driving from New York for his 3 p.m. matinee — Clay learned he’d have to step in for an actor who was ill.

In addition to his own role, he’d play Prince Escalus.

Clay got a quick costume fitting, learned all his lines and blocking with his scene partners, and went on stage.

Clay Singer and his new costume.

He’d already planned to arrive at the Playhouse early — to watch football games on the green room TV.

Instead, he asked his family to record them.

The show, after all, must go on.

And it has, with Clay playing his — and Prince Escalus’ — roles, ever since.