Tag Archives: Melody James

Go “Down The Rabbit Hole” With Theatre Artists Workshop

Theatre Artists Workshop‘s next event is “Down the Rabbit Hole: The Only Way Out is Through.”

That’s almost a metaphor for the low-key, highly productive non-profit. For 38 years, they’ve been up and down. But they keep coming through.

Theatre Artists Workshop began in Westport in 1983. Keir Dullea transplanted his Los Angeles career to the East Coast. Conceived as a playground or gym for professional theater artists, he based it on an LA organization they loved. James Mapes was a co-founder.

Ever since — in different locations — the Workshop has continued. It’s a place to hone skills, develop new work, take artistic risks and get rigorous critiques — away from the glare of agents, and commercial concerns.

Plays developed have gone on to Broadway, Off-Broadway, film and TV.

The Workshop’s original home — the Greens Farms Arts Center — ended when the town reclaimed the space for an elementary school. Most recently, the pandemic brought an eviction from the “black box” space they’d enjoyed for 25 years.

The Workshop is not the only victim of COVID. Live theater everywhere has been on hold. But local members met weekly via Zoom. They did what the Workshop always has: provide a “gym” to workout, and get feedback.

In October they produced “Tawlight Zone” on Zoom. “Down the Rabbit Hole” — a series of short plays — is also virtual. It’s accessible any time from now througg May 24. Click here for tickets.

As usual, Westporters are featured.

Susan Jacobson wrote and performs “My Story.” It was inspired by an interview with a woman who had “traveled down the rabbit hole” into QAnon. Disillusioned by everything she once believed in, she struggles to free herself from a dangerous lie.

Initially, Jacobson said, she thought all Q followers were “crazies.” But as she read about the woman — who had worked on Bernie Sanders’ campaign — she recognized “the common story we all have: a desire to belong, make a difference, find validation and be part of something bigger than ourselves.”

Rob Mobley and Melody James in “The Book Lover,” part of the “Rabbit Hole” show.

Melody James is featured as an actor and director in 3 “Rabbit Hole” plays. A noted member of Staples Players — the high school troupe — in the 1960s, her professional credits include stage, TV and film. She also taught theater at Vassar and Muhlenberg, and playmaking for the Westport Country Playhouse.

For “Rabbit Hole,” James directs “Trio Asphodel,” in which 3 female friends face a friend’s suicide and discover a secret. She also performs 3 roles in the dark comedy “The Book Lover” (an amusing unraveling of a revenge murder), and portrays a local theater director in the comedy “Rowan’s Last Bow.”

Longtime Westporter Linde Gibb gives a tail-wagging performance as Judy, an abandoned blind chihuahua in an animal shelter. “Good” is the hilarious-yet-heartbreaking story of 2 older dogs bonding, as they await adoption.

Intrigued? Click below for the trailer.

FUN THEATRE ARTISTS WORKSHOP ENCORE: Theatre Artists Workshop alumni include Anne Baxter, Theodore Bikel, Dorothy and Ed Bryce, Rita and Win Elliot, Pat Englund, John Franklin, June Havoc, Fred Hellerman, Ring Lardner Jr., Lucille Lortel, David Rogers, Brett Somers, Haila Stoddard, Max Wilk and Maggie Williams.

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 Jazzbos — 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.

“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.)

Remembering Florence James Shook

Florence James Shook — a Westport resident for 63 years — died on October 26.  She was 97.  She lived here when this was truly an artists’ colony — and folks in the arts had fun.

Florence helped her husband Hal produce “Man of La Mancha” on Broadway — but they also played a key role in the Coleytown Capers, an elementary school fundraiser with Broadway-type talent.

Florence’s daughter Melody James wrote this tribute to her mother:

Florence is remembered for her enormous love, friendship and generous spirit. She co-founded a school, advocated for actors, adored dogs, and relished playing cards with her family. She loved Compo Beach, people, picnics, parties, poker and laughter.

Quick to come with chicken soup, a glazed ham, or easily add another place at the table, Florence possessed a particular affinity for those in trouble or with “broken wings.” “There will always be people in trouble whose lives are in turmoil and need immediate help,” she said.

She was born May 26, 1914, to Anne Dieckman and Henry Sperl in the Bronx, “when it was still farmland.” When her father died, Florence moved to Eastchester with her mother and sister Harriett, to live with her grandparents, great-grandparents and aunt.  She spoke fondly of 4 generations gathered around the dining table every night, including her great-grandfather Gopa, wounded during the Civil War at Gettysburg.

Florence, in her high school days

Florence graduated business college and landed a job in radio programming. The position evolved into a dream job: director of radio commercials and casting, working with hundreds of actors. She spotted a promising Neighborhood Playhouse graduate and invited him to her casting office.  The tall, dark, handsome man appreciated her gesture and said if Hollywood didn’t work out, he’d be back to see her. He was Gregory Peck.

She encouraged Mel Allen, the sportscaster, and claimed her knowledge of baseball stemmed from Mel taking her to her first Yankees game. Another early “find” and friend was Ralph Edwards of “This is Your Life” fame.

Florence’s life changed when she met a tall redhead from Chicago. Hal James, hired by her agency to develop new programs, had been an actor. He became a radio and TV producer, advertising executive and Tony Award-winning Broadway producer.

They married Thanksgiving Eve 1938. Ten years later the couple moved to Westport.

Florence created welcoming homes, on Red Coat Road and then Wilton Road, raising 3 children — Michael, Beau and Melody — all graduates of Staples High School. Florence served as “den mom” to hundreds of kids, and supported her family’s passions.

Florence and Hal James, at the beach.

Active members of the Westport community, Hal produced and Florence publicized Coleytown Capers, a fundraiser for the new elementary school, utilizing prestigious local talent. Both held leadership roles in PTAs, the Saugatuck Congregational Church, YMCA, Norwalk Symphony, Westport Arts Council and Staples Scholarship Committees.

Florence co-founded the after-school Rendezvous Room at the Y for teens.  Hal and Florence partnered with old friends to create WVET, later WROC, a radio station in Rochester.

In the mid-1960s Hal became a Broadway producer. and Florence his unofficial producing partner. They fundraised and traveled the world for the shows he produced, including “Man of La Mancha” (which she helped with, unofficially) and “Hallelujah Baby.” Reluctant to leave home, Florence loved traveling — once she arrived.  Favorite trips included Europe, Japan, Prince Edward Island, the final crossing of the Queen Mary I, India and Cuba (pre- and post-revolution).  She loved Disney World, where “you park your troubles at the door.”

Florence was a staunch supporter of every child feeling loved and comfortable in his or her own skin and identity. She raised money for Negro Ensemble Theater, Habitat for Humanity and Tougaloo College. In 1968, after attending a Tougaloo Choir concert at Carnegie Hall the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Florence co-founded the Saugatuck Nursery School to carry out his dream.

Florence James Shook

Now in its 42nd year, the school remains committed to creating opportunities for children of different colors, languages and nationalities to learn and play together in a loving atmosphere. In 2009, Florence was honored for her 41 years of service to the school.

Widowed at the age of 57, Florence continued her love for actors with activism in the Episcopal Actors Guild in New York City. She served many years as chair of the grants committee, helping people in the theater who suffer from AIDS and face daily challenges stemming from the precarious economics of life in the arts.

Florence believed people belonged in pairs.  She was fortunate to meet and fall in love with Euclid Shook, a Weston artist, after both were widowed.  They met in 1973, married in 1985, and enjoyed their children, grandchildren, friends and his enormous garden. He died in 1988.

Florence is survived by a large, extended family: her children, Michael of Chicago, Beau of Weston, and Melody of New York and Westport; adopted son James Arden of Port Chester; step-children Dona Egan and Alex Shook (pre-deceased by Jonathan Shook); their mates, 17 grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren.

A memorial to celebrate her life is planned for Saturday, December 17 (3 p.m., Green’s Farms Congregational Church).

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be sent to the Saugatuck Nursery School’s Scholarship Fund (245 Post Road East, Westport CT 06880) or the Episcopal Actors Guild (click here).