Category Archives: Westport Country Playhouse

Westport’s Newest Gallery Opens In Historic Space

A group of local artists is “drawing” plenty of attention. And they’re doing it in partnership with one of Westport’s oldest cultural institutions.

On Tuesday night, the Artists Collective of Westport met in the Lucille Lortel White Barn Center at the Westport Country Playhouse. The interior space has now been christened “The Gallery at the Westport Country Playhouse.”

The Westport Country Playhouse’s Lucille Lortel White Barn Center. Sure, it’s red. But it’s named for the legendary founder of the White Barn Theater on Newtown Turnpike — which really was white.

This was the Collective’s largest meeting in 3 years of existence. Almost 90 of the area’s top artists attended.

This is a great creative match. The Playhouse has agreed to host future meetings, as well as exhibits. There’s a lot to choose from: The Collective includes 150 artists, in a wide variety of mediums.

Westport Artists Collective members enjoying the new Playhouse gallery space are (from left) Susan Fehlinger, Nina Bentley (founder) Miggs Burroughs (founder),
Dale Najarian, Tammy Winser, Jen Greely, Dan Long and Eric Chiang.

The Playhouse has reached out to other artists in a big way too. The Friends of the Westport Public Art Collections will share the space with the Collective. WestPAC plans to show parts of their 1,500 works, in a series of public exhibits.

Playhouse executive director Michael Barker says the historic theater is excited to partner with Friends of the Westport Public Art Collections and the Artists Collective of Westport “to create a new visual arts exhibit space on the Playhouse campus.

“The Gallery at Westport Country Playhouse will showcase the varied and vibrant visual arts scene in Westport. In addition, it will celebrate the role of the Playhouse as one of the cultural centers of our  town.”

The Playhouse was founded 87 years ago, and has long been one of the country’s iconic regional theaters.

The Collective — now an official 501(c)(3) — has other partners too, including The Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County, Westport Downtown Merchants Association, the Drew Friedman Community Arts Center, UNLOAD: Foundation, and the Westport Arts Center.

(To see the work of all Collective members, and for more information, click here. The group will host a kids’ activity booth at the Downtown Merchants Association’s WestobertFest on Elm Street, from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, October 13.)

“Man Of La Mancha” Comes “Home”

Audiences — and the Westport Country Playhouse itself — are excited about the coming production of “Man of La Mancha.”

Since its debut in 1965, the Don Quixote-inspired play-within-a-play has become a theatrical icon. It won 5 Tony Awards, has been revived 4 times on Broadway, and was staged twice previously at the Playhouse.

Two Westporters are particularly excited about the Playhouse’s September 25-October 13 run: Melody James and Clay Singer.

James is the daughter of Hal James. The actor, and radio/TV producer, was between projects nearly 50 years ago when he and his wife Florence saw the then-fledgling musical at Goodspeed Opera House.

Inspired, they went backstage and asked how to get involved.

At the University of Chicago, James had taken a class on Cervantes and Don Quixote with professor Thornton Wilder. With his life experiences, and then seeing “La Mancha” in development, James thought the time was right to help bring it to Broadway.

In 1965 he had 3 children in college: Michael (involved in the Free Speech Movement at the University of California), Beau (at the New School) and Melody (at Carnegie Institute of Technology).

Producing a Broadway show is always risky. But James’ bet paid off.

With his wife’s help, he enlisted fellow Westporters as angels. One was Mal Beinfield.

An orthopedic surgeon by trade, and Staples High School’s football doctor by hobby, he had never been involved in theater. But he invested, loved the challenge, and said later it was one of the best things he’d ever done.

For years, an original Al Hirschfeld drawing of “Man of La Mancha” hung on Beinfield’s wall.

Despite his New York ties, James — who moved to Westport with Florence in 1949 — was deeply involved in Westport too.

Hal and Florence James

He produced Coleytown Capers, a mid-1950s elementary school fundraiser involving talented Westporters as skit and song writers, performers, even can-can dancers.

He also helped start the first Westport-Weston Arts Council, brought Odetta to Staples, organized teen dances at Longshore — and worked with Craig Matheson to found Staples Players.

Clay Singer

Which brings us to the second Westporter who is particularly excited about “Man of La Mancha” at the Playhouse: Clay Singer.

The 2013 Staples graduate — a former Player himself, and a graduate of Melody’s alma mater, now called Carnegie Mellon University — is part of the upcoming cast. He made his Playhouse debut last year, in “Romeo and Juliet.”

Melody James loves “Man of La Mancha” for its “profound inspiration.” She says her father loved the show because it “points the way to how we all survive and sustain.”

For her — and for Clay Singer too — the Westport Country Playhouse production is not an impossible dream.

(For tickets and more information, click here. The 3 p.m. Saturday, October 13 performance will be open-caption in Spanish, a nod to the many Hispanic cast and creative team members.)

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)