Category Archives: Westport Country Playhouse

Pic Of The Day #780

A break room? Sort of. This is the set for the Westport Country Playhouse’s new production of “Skeleton Crew.” The thought-provoking, character-driven play explores the lives of 3 factory workers, and their supervisor, in 2008 Detroit — the depths of the Great Recession. It runs through June 22. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Pics Of The Day #766

It looks pastoral.

But beware of poison ivy, at places like Gray’s Creek …

… and Winslow Park, by the Westport Country Playhouse.

(Photos/Tracy Porosoff)

Farmers’ Market Sprouts Thursday

The Westport Farmers’ Market did not exactly have humble beginnings.

Fourteen years ago Paul Newman and his sidekick, Michel Nischan — the chef and co-ownwer of Newman’s Dressing Room restaurant —  opened the market in the Westport Country Playhouse parking lot.

Newman’s name, Nischan’s passion — and the growing popularity of farmers’ markets — ensured a variety of vendors, and good crowds, from the start.

But now the Westport Farmers’ Market is really cooking.

It quickly outgrew its Playhouse home. The market moved to the Imperial Avenue commuter parking lot, just below the Westport Woman’s Club. There’s plenty of room, plenty of parking — and plenty to see, do and buy.

The Westport Farmers’ Market appeals to all ages. (Photo/Margaret Kraus)

When the new season opens this Thursday (May 23, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), longtime market goers and eager newcomers will enjoy nearly 50 vendors, food trucks, chef demonstrations, children’s activities, music and more.

Offerings range far beyond fresh fruits and vegetables, to organic meat, seafood, bread, baked goods, coffee and tea (and kombucha), ice cream, honey and empanadas.

The most popular lunch trucks — pizza and Mexican food — are back too.

This year’s highlights include the Chef at the Market competition; Get Growing, the kids’ activity program, and more lunch seating than ever.

The Westport Farmers’ Market is not just a place to stock up on great, healthy food.

It’s a destination.

Somewhere, Paul Newman is smiling.

(For more information on the Westport Farmers’ Market, click here.)

Friday Flashback #140

As the Westport Country Playhouse opens its 89th season, “06880” shines a spotlight on its famed posters.

For decades, they hung on the walls of its cramped lobby. After the renovation more than a decade ago, a few dozen found spots in the new lobby. All told, there are 400 in posters in the Playhouse collection.

Pat Blaufuss sent along a sampling. Each has a story behind it. Text comes from An American Theatre: The Story of Westport Country Playhouse by Richard Somerset-Ward.

It was 1940 and the Playhouse was doing Green Grow the Lilacs. John Ford had agreed to direct the show but was detained by film commitments, and never showed up (though his name was on the poster). Actual direction was handled by John Haggott who followed ideas he and Ford put together earlier in Hollywood.

Teresa Helburn, a Theatre Guild colleague of Lawrence Langner, Playhouse founder, came backstage on opening night and said: “This play would make a good musical.” They invited Fairfield resident Richard Rodgers. He was inspired to turn the play into the musical Oklahoma! with Oscar Hammerstein.

In 1941 Tyrone Power was the crown prince of Hollywood, dashingly handsome, married to a beautiful French woman named Annabella.

Tyrone was born in Connecticut; his earliest acting jobs had been in summer stock in Massachusetts. He was immersed in film roles, under contract to 20th Century Fox, but longed to get back to the stage. He couldn’t take extended runs because of his movie contract, but he might find time to do summer stock.

Darryl Zanuck, his boss, thwarted his first attempts, but in 1941 Tyrone and Annabella successfully escaped to Westport to star in Liliom, which became the source for the musical Carousel. It was directed by Lee Strasberg.

Power said: “Here in Westport there’s nothing of the huge, inhuman machine atmosphere that dominates Hollywood.” On opening night the Powerses took a dozen-and-a-half curtain calls.

But there almost wasn’t an opening night. A few days before opening, Zanuck sent a cable demanding that Power fly back to Hollywood for urgent re-shoots on the film he had recently made with Betty Grable, A Yank in the RAF.

It seemed that Tyrone had no option – his contract made it clear that the studio owned him. But Playhouse lawyer J. Kenneth Bradley came up with an old Connecticut blue law which enabled the local authorities to prevent a person from leaving the state if he tried to do so before fulfilling a contract with a Connecticut business.

Zanuck was informed that Connecticut stood ready to enforce its law. He caved, and Power stayed for the sold-out run.

Olivia de Havilland, so popular from the film Gone with the Wind, was in the Playhouse production of What Every Woman Knows in 1946.

On the same day she opened the show, she got married to novelist and journalist Marcus Goodrich. The wedding ceremony took place at the Weston home of Playhouse founder Lawrence Langner.

Henry Fonda and daughter Jane both appeared on the Playhouse stage, though not at the same time. With a film career still in the future, Jane Fonda starred in No Concern of Mine in 1960. Her father appeared in The Virginian at the Playhouse in 1937 — the same year Jane was born.

In 1964, 18-year-old Liza Minnelli came to the Westport Country Playhouse to get her Equity card. She played The Girl in The Fantasticks, with Elliott Gould as her co-star. On opening night, in the words of the Playhouse’s 50th anniversary brochure, “the rather gawky teenage…received a standing ovation.”

In 1987, Weston playwright David Wiltse’s Doubles was a Playhouse attraction. His newest play will be featured at a Script in Hand reading next Monday (May 6).

Remembering Beau James

Beau James — member of a noted Westport family; an avid Downshifter; house manager of the Westport Country Playhouse and a longtime area resident — died April 10 at his Weston home after a brave battle with cancer. He was 75.

Born Hal Wells James in New York City on December 22, 1943, he was later called Beau James, the nickname given to colorful New York mayor Jimmy Walker. It stuck.

Beau was the middle child of Hal and Florence James of Wilton Road, who moved to Westport in 1948.

Beau James, Staples High School Class of 1961.

He graduated from Staples High School in 1961. His activities included the 4-H Club, raising bantam chickens and pigeons, and cars. He loved the  Downshifters, a club devoted to building hot rods and driving safety.

He was also a member of the Staples football team, Staples Players and the Hi-Y Club.

He and a group of friends — the Jolly Jazz-Beaus — frequented the Apollo Theater in Harlem for rhythm ‘n’ blues as often as possible.

Beau spent a gap year before college taking Advanced Placement courses at Staples and working at Kerrigan’s Auto Body Shop.

At Lake Forest College Beau majored in art history and arts management. He was managing director for the Ravinia Festival outside of Chicago, and later became house manager for the Westport Country Playhouse.

He worked as an assistant to his father Hal, co-producer of the original Tony Award-winning musical Man of La Mancha. Beau produced the melodrama The Drunkard off Broadway. He enjoyed a long membership in The Players Club in New York, founded by noted 19th-century Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth.

Beau (center) with his brother Michael, mother  Florence, sister Melody and father Hal.

Beau was enrolled in the first masters program for theater/arts administration at NYU when he was drafted during the Vietnam War. Upon return he married Jane. They moved to Vermont and had 2 daughters. He returned to his childhood love of farming.

In 1978 he moved to New York and entered the toy industry. He was vice president of sales and marketing at International Playthings, a New Jersey distributor of prestigious European toy brands. He later married Caren, and had 2 more children.

Beau’s illustrious career in the toy business spanned 40 years. From 2016 until his death he was managing director of KidSource, a Maryland distribution company offering high-quality European products to specialty retailers in North America.

Beau James

He also distributed Sasha dolls, and worked at Madame Alexander, Goetz (the original manufacturing company of the American Girl doll), and Corolle.

Throughout his career Beau was a proponent of the power of play and the value of the partnership between manufacturers and specialty retailers in bringing high-quality, well-designed and developmentally appropriate playthings to children everywhere.

Shortly before his death, Beau was presented with the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association.

In addition to his father, Beau was mentored by Levon West (one of America’s foremost artists of etching), aka Ivan Dmitri, a pioneer in color photography, and the recognition of photography as an art medium. Beau often credited West with teaching him the importance of presentation and details.

Beau was the consummate host.  Having grown up in a home that always welcomed friends and made room for more, Beau hosted business and family gatherings, as well as many Staples alumni reunions for the classes of 1961, 1962 (his post-grad year), and his brother’s class of 1960.

Beau was renowned for his warmth, hospitality, wit, generosity of spirit, and an ability to listen and forge abiding friendship. He loved people, travel (especially France), museums, theater, architecture and opera.

Beau is survived by his children Jessica and her husband Chris Davenport, and their children of Aspen, Colorado; Ashley James of Brooklyn, and her children; Brooke and Travis James,  both of New York City; his brother Michael of Chicago; his sister Melody of Westport, and numerous nieces and nephews.

A memorial celebration of Beau James’ life will be held this Sunday (May 5, 12:30 p.m.) at the Jane Hotel Ballroom in New York City. For further information, email BrookeLJames@gmail.com. The family requests that no flowers be sent to the service.

Cocktails For A Pancreatic Cancer Cure

Jen Greely moved to Westport 6 years ago. She met fellow artist Binnie Birstein and was captivated.

“She was quite a character,” Jen says. “She never minced words. But she always gave great feedback to me and other artists.”

Binnie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017. Jen and fellow members of the Artists Collective of Westport became her caregivers.

“She never spent a single night alone,” Jen says. “We were there 24/7. When her kids came, we gave respite to them too.”

Binnie Birstein with her work, at the Westport Arts Center. (Photo/Jen Greely)

Binnie died this past May. As Jen talked about her mentor, and her experience as a caregiver, with other Saugatuck Elementary School moms, she learned how many people have lost loved ones to pancreatic cancer.

One of those Westporters is Jessica Newshel. A decade ago, her world was thrown into a tailspin as her 50-year-old uncle — healthy, active, the father of 3 — battled the disease.

Jessica Newshel (Bottom left) in 2001, with her uncle Jeffrey Rosenzweig (top right), cousin Steven Rosenzweig and aunt Lizanne Rosenzweig.

He died 6 weeks before Jessica, her relatives and friends walked in a Lustgarten Foundation fundraiser. The organization is the largest private funder of pancreatic cancer research.

Jessica’s family — who also lost their matriarch to pancreatic cancer — provided a large challenge grant to Lustgarten. They also organized several large race events in Westchester, raising over $500,000.

Now Jen, Jessica and fellow Westporter Natalie Kroft have teamed up for their next event. And it’s right here, in their hometown.

“Cocktails for a Cure” — set for Thursday, April 4 (7 p.m., Westport Country Playhouse barn) — includes drinks, light bites from Bartaco, treats and live music.

Jen, Jessica and Natalie all have personal connections to pancreatic cancer. They are doing all they can to raise awareness around the importance of testing, early diagnosis, and research.

They do it for their loved ones. And for all of us.

(Click here for tickets and more information on the April 4 “Cocktails for a Cure.”)

The Sun Comes Out On “Annie” Actors

Since opening night in 1931, Broadway actors have starred on the Westport Country Playhouse stage. Their talent (and famous names) have contributed to the magic of the long-running theater.

The current production is no exception. Many members of the large cast of “Annie” boast Broadway credits. (Sunny — who played Sandy in the 2012 production — revives her canine career here too.)

Joining them are 45 young members of Broadway Method Academy. For them, “Annie” is the latest — or in some cases, first– production that they hope leads them to their own Broadway shows.

Among that group: Westporters Brenna Connolly and Jackie Peterson.

Jackie Peterson and Brenna Connolly in “Annie.”

BMA offers training in acting, singing and dancing. Its Fairfield facility — including a 130-seat black box theater — is designed to feel like a New York boutique studio.

BMA serves as the resident conservatory of the Playhouse. Brenna (a freshman at Staples High School) and Bedford Middle School 8th grader Jackie are excited to be on the storied stage.

They’ve learned a lot about professional theater. Rehearsals began last month. During tech week, they were at the theater from 4:30 to 10 p.m. every day.

But the cast and crew have been welcoming. Brenna and Jackie are all in.

“Annie” is a great opportunity for friends and family members to see them perform. It’s a popular show, in a historic theater.

And it’s only an hour from what may be the Broadway Method Academy actors’ ultimate destination: Broadway.

(“Annie” is performed this weekend and next, at 1:30 and 7 p.m. Click here for exact performances and tickets.) 

Pic Of The Day #656

Westport Country Playhouse at night (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

Dr. Kendi’s Journey

Exactly one year ago, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi was the keynote speaker at Westport’s annual Martin Luther King Day ceremony. A full house listened raptly as the winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction described exactly what it means to be anti-racist.

It was a powerful, insightful lecture. Attendees contributed almost $3,000 toward anti-racism training in Westport.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

In the weeks following, the MLK Planning Committee — TEAM Westport, the Westport Library, Westport Playhouse and Westport Weston Interfaith Council — worked with Dr. Kendi and his team to develop anti-racism training for senior management of key organizations in Westport. It includes town government, the police and the school system.

The year-long, successful pilot project is now in the action stage.

Dr. Kendi’s impact on Westport has been profound.

And it came while he was engaged in his own, very different struggle.

Last week, the Atlantic published a first-person piece by Dr. Kendi. Titled “What I Learned From Cancer,” it describes his whipsawing emotions as he was diagnosed with — and then battled — Stage 4 colon cancer.

It’s powerful, personal and raw. During grueling chemotherapy, he continued to research and write his new book, “How to Be an Antiracist.” It was, he says, “perhaps my way of coping with the demoralizing severity of the cancer and the overwhelming discomfort of the treatment, furiously writing and fighting, fighting and writing to heal mind and body, to heal society.”

Dr. Kendi’s Atlantic piece ties together his professional work, and his new insights into America’s healthcare. He writes:

America’s politics, in my lifetime, have been shaped by racist fears of black criminals, Muslim terrorists, and Latino immigrants. Billions have been spent on border walls and prison walls and neighborhood walls, and on bombs and troops and tax cuts—instead of on cancer research, prevention, and treatment that can reduce the second-leading cause of death.

Any politician pledging to keep us safe who is drastically overfunding law and order, border security, and wars on terror—and drastically underfunding medical research, prevention, and health care—is a politician explicitly pledging to keep our bodies unsafe.

Harold Bailey — chair of TEAM Westport, who with Rev. Alison Buttrick Patton of Saugatuck Congregational Church has helped lead the local anti-racism initiative — notes that Dr. Kendi’s Playhouse talk last year was his first public appearance after being diagnosed with cancer.

Bailey — but few others — knew of that back story as they worked through the year together.

Today, Dr. Kendi stands a good chance of joining the 12% of people who survive a Stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis.

In fact, on Wednesday, January 30 (8 p.m., Quick Center for the Arts) he will be the keynote speaker at Fairfield University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation. (Click here for details.)

As for Westport: This year’s 13th annual Martin Luther King celebration scheduled for tomorrow (Sunday, January 20, Westport Country Playhouse) has been postponed. A new date has  not yet been announced.

The keynote speaker will be James Forman, Jr. He wrote the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for general nonfiction: “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”

James Forman Jr.

He is a leading critic of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people of color. The Brown University and Yale Law School graduate clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He then spent 6 years as a public defender.

Forman has contributed op-eds and essays to the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Nation, and the Washington Post.

(For Dr. Kendi’s full Atlantic article, click here.)

My True Moth Story

Jane Green is a wonderful author. She’s written 19 novels, has over 10 million books in print, and been published in more than 30 languages.

Our Westport neighbor is as gifted a storyteller in person as she is in print. For years she entertained book tour audiences with her tale of cooking dinner for Hugh Grant.

Jane Green

The Moth — the wildly successful radio show and podcast featuring real people telling true stories — heard about Green’s routine. They chatted a bit, before deciding it was not quite right for The Moth. They asked if she had another story to tell.

She did. It was about her middle-aged head being turned by the attention of a handsome younger man. First told at Cooper Union, “Greener Grass” (clever name!) was wildly successful. It’s been heard more than a million times.

Which got Green thinking: Why not bring The Moth to Westport?

A longtime supporter of the Westport Country Playhouse — and one-time board member — Green always looked for programs appealing to  young audiences. She’d helped bring a “Hamilton” singalong, David Bowie tribute and Lisa Lampanelli play to the fabled stage.

The Moth was a natural next project.

Which is why next Friday (January 25, 7:30 p.m.), 5 great storytellers will bring The Moth to the Westport Country Playhouse.

Well, 4 great storyteller. Plus me.

I can’t believe I’ll be standing up there with Green herself; Alistair Bane, a Shawnee who makes dance regalia, paints and rehabilitates feral reservation dogs; Henia Lewin, a Lithuanian instructor of Hebrew and Yiddish, and Trina Michelle Robinson of San Francisco, who explores memory through video, archival materials and text.

Not quite the Westport Country Playhouse. But close.

I tell stories every day on “06880.” I can type a tale in my sleep.

But performing as a Moth storyteller is waaaaay different.

I’ll join 4 experienced folks — including a woman who has done this before, and written 17 New York Times bestsellers.

And — oh yeah — the Moth Radio Hour is heard on more than 475 stations. The podcast is downloaded a million times each week.

But I’m ready. I might rock it — or bomb.

Either way, for the rest of my life I’ll have one more intriguing story to tell.

(For more information and tickets, click here.)