Bruce Miller is the Westport Country Playhouse company manager. He is my go-to guy whenever I need to know, say, how many times some newly deceased actor appeared on stage there, in the 1940s.
But this post is not about the Playhouse.
Though I’ve been at the Playhouse since 2001, my family has a Westport connection that goes back a couple dozen years before that.
I’ve just found 4 Polaroids from 1975. My dad, Dick Miller, had recently purchased Welch’s Hardware on Main Street. It’s currently the location of Shoe-Inn.
Dick Miller, with his Welch’s vehicle.
Dad had been on the road as a wholesale salesman to independent hardware stores throughout the state. When he learned the long-time Westport store was available, he and his cousin Chuck Steinbrick jumped at the chance to own their own place.
They joined competitors at Westport Hardware on the other end of Main Street. Both provided the town with personal, knowledgeable service.
Welch’s Hardware on Main Street. Note that traffic was two-way then.
Within a year they also purchased Harrison’s Hardware in Milford. Chuck continued to run Welch’s, while my dad managed the much larger store up the coast.
He also enticed me to leave my teaching career in Ohio so I could join him in retail. Eventually we were joined by my mother, 2 brothers, an aunt, uncle and numerous cousins. Hardware, paint, and plumbing supplies became the focus of family dinner conversations!
The arrival of big box store in the mid-1980s led to the demise of many family owned shops, Welch’s among them.
Until then, Main Street had mostly independent stores. I still shop downtown, and I still find helpful, friendly clerks. But I miss the unique mix of stores and personalities that made Main Street a special place to shop.
Parker Harding Plaza entrance to Welch’s Hardware. (Photos courtesy of Bruce Miller)
The list of actors who have graced the Westport Country Playhouse stage is long and luminous.
Alan Alda. Tallulah Bankhead. Richard Dreyfuss. Joel Grey. June Havoc. Helen Hayes. James Earl Jones. Liza Minelli. And of course our own Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Their head shots line the walls beneath the famous stage. Before every performance, actors in the current production walk out of their dressing rooms, past those photos.
Westport Country Playhouse company manager Bruce Miller, with some of the head shots near the dressing rooms underneath the stage.
Many of the 500 head shots show less famous actors. They too are part of the Playhouse’s wonderful history of 87 years, and more than 800 shows.
But on one wall — at the end of a hallway — hang 25 images. They are men and women who appeared at least once on the stage above.
The unidentified photos hang at the end of a hall.
They have no tags. Their names have been lost to the ages.
Yet one by one, company manager Bruce Miller is figuring out who they are.
The story begins with that very 1st show in 1931:”The Streets of New York.” Dorothy Gish’s photo went up in the wood-paneled lobby. For more than 70 years, dozens of other head shots joined hers.
For the 2003 renovation, Playhouse officials cleared the catacombs of photos, programs and other records. About 20% were moldy; they were thrown out.
The rest were stored off-site, in Bridgeport. When a sprinkler head bust, half of those items were lost.
Do you know this man …
During the renovation, someone decided to switch the locations of the head shots and the posters advertising previous shows. The idea was that the actors would appreciate seeing photos of their predecessors right outside the dressing rooms; theatergoers, meanwhile, would want to see the posters.
Now — thanks largely to those patrons — the gaps in the Playhouse’s history are being filled in.
Once a month, Miller says, someone calls or emails with something like this: “We were cleaning out my grandmother’s attic. We found a poster for this old show. Do you want it?”
… or this woman?
Playhouse staffers help too.
John Mosele was intrigued by the photo of an unknown mustached man. Working only with a partial name and Google, Mosele found the name “Emil Bundesmann” on a Spanish website.
Bundesmann turned out to be a member of the Playhouse’s original repertory company. He appeared in — and served as stage manager for — that 1st-ever show, “The Streets of New York.”
Anton Bundesmann, looking very suave.
After staging 3 plays in New York, Bundesmann was hired by David O. Selznick as a casting director — supervising screen tests for “Gone With the Wind.”
Under the name “Anthony Mann,” Bundesmann then directed films for Paramount, RKO and MGM, including 7 with James Stewart. His final 3 films were “Cimarron,” “El Cid” and “The Fall of the Roman Empire.”
Meanwhile, for years the only thing anyone at the Playhouse knew about the 1934 production of “The Virginian” was that Henry Fonda was in it. One day, Miller’s wife was talking to someone, when the Playhouse was mentioned. The woman said her mother had acted in “The Virginian.” She gave Miller her mother’s head shot. It now hangs near Fonda’s.
A young Henry Fonda.
But what about those photos the Playhouse has always had — yet remain unidentified?
Each year during the springtime open house, someone peers closely and says, “Oh, that’s so-and-so.” Miller searches online to confirm. Often, he can match the actor to the show.
Surprisingly, Miller says, the folks who know these long-ago actors are baby boomers — even millennials. They recognize the faces from movies — not plays.
A few of the identifications come from older actors. No one, however, has yet identified him or herself.
Bert Lahr, Dorothy Gish, Paul Robeson, Helen Hayes, Henry Fonda, Patricia Neal, Alan Alda, Cicely Tyson, Richard Thomas, Jane Powell, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward — they’re just a dozen of the hundreds of actors who have appeared at the Westport Country Playhouse.
Their publicity shots hang proudly outside the dressing rooms nestled snugly below that fabled stage. Preparing for their roles, today’s performers are reminded of the 8 decades of stars who came before them.
A few of the photos, though, have no names. Taken in the early days of the Playhouse — just a few years after Lawrence Langner turned an old red barn into one of America’s premier summer theaters — they show men and women whose names have been lost to history. Today, it takes tremendous sleuthing — or luck — to put a name to a 1930s face.
A while back, Playhouse technical director John Mosele was intrigued by the photo of a mustached man, hanging in the “unlabeled” collection.
The intriguing photo.
Mosele carefully peeled the picture from its backing, revealing the partial name “ndsmann.”‘
Soaking the photo to remove more glue, it seemed to read “Hinton B__dsmann.”
A Google search led to “Emil Bundesmann” — on a Spanish website.
Further searching brought up an article about Anthony Mann. His birth name was Emil Anton Bundsmann.
Anton Bundsman — yes, that’s the 3rd way his last name was spelled — was a member of the original repertory company at the Playhouse. He appeared in the very 1st production — The Streets of New York — and also served as its stage manager.
After staging 3 plays in New York, Bundsman was hired by David O. Selznick as a casting director. In that role, he supervised screen tests for Gone with the Wind.
Later — under the name Anthony Mann — he directed films for Paramount and RKO, and many classic westerns for MGM. His final films included Cimarron with Glenn Ford, and the epics El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire. (He withdrew from Spartacus, after quarreling with former Westporter Kirk Douglas.)
Just think: such an accomplished actor/director as Anton Bundsman/Anthony Mann hung in such obscurity, for so long, on the walls of the theater where he got his start.
And wonder too who else lurks, forgotten and undiscovered, underneath that very historic stage.
(Hat tip to Westport Country Playhouse company manager Bruce Miller for much of this fascinating information.)
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