Tag Archives: Peter de Vries

Ushering In The Playhouse

It takes a ton of people to produce a Westport Country Playhouse show.

There are actors and director, of course. Plus costume designers, set builders, lighting and sound technicians, marketing staff, ticket sellers, and many more.

Including ushers.

Recently, 3 former — very former — ushers reminisced about that long-ago, very intriguing and quite satisfying summer work.

When Marilyn Harding, Arlene Gertzoff and Ed Gerber were growing up, the Playhouse was an “otherworldly” place. Repurposed in the 1930s, the erstwhile tannery had become a cozy red theater presenting the best of Broadway (and headed-to-Broadway) plays and musicals.

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.

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.

Casts included great actors and actresses — and those who would later become great.

In the 1960s, when Marilyn, Arlene and Ed were teenagers, the Playhouse was just 3 decades old. But it was already one of the most famous summer stock houses in the country.

Arlene says that for both the audience and ushers, the Playhouse was much more formal than today. Marilyn “found my string of pearls, whacked 3 inches off the hem of my black silk sheath — after all, it was the ’60s — dusted off my Capezios, pulled my hair into a French twist and was out the door.”

Ed, meanwhile, “unhappily” wore a blazer and tie.

Ushers worked under Jan De Vries, daughter of famed Westport author Peter De Vries. Ed calls her “a friendly sort, requiring nothing more of us than that we showed up on time having educated ourselves about the quirks of the theater’s seating chart, and that we greeted each guest with a polite ‘good evening’ as we checked their tickets and helped them find their seats.”

Playhouse playbill - ushers

Thanks to the ushers, from the playbill shown above.

The 3 ushers loved the Playhouse’s musty smell of paint, polish, aging red upholstery, creaky floors and unpredictable “air conditioning.”

Some of the seats were not very good, offering poor sight lines and uncomfortable balcony chairs. House managers dealt with unhappy customers.

Ushers were in awe of apprentices, who planned on careers in theaters. They and the touring actors lived in nearby housing, owned by or rented to the Playhouse (ushers lived at home, with their parents).

But ushers reveled in the chance to see a different play each week, with remarkable casts including Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, Tallulah Bankhead, Joel Grey, Claude Rains, Sammy Davis Jr., Alan Alda and Liza Minelli.

When the show was over, ushers headed up the street to the Ice Cream Parlor.

All 3 left Westport, seeking fame and fortune elsewhere.

Marilyn, Arlene and Ed are all retired now, from varied and intriguing careers.

And all 3 are happy subscribers to the Playhouse. Where, half a century later, a new cast of ushers shows them to their seats.

A decade ago, the Westport Country Playhouse replaced its bench seating with individual seats. But they're still red. Some things never change.

A decade ago, the Westport Country Playhouse replaced its bench seating with individual seats. But they’re still red. Some things never change.

A. E. Hotchner: Hemingway’s Muse Still At Home Here

A. E. Hotchner has just published a new book. Hemingway in Love: His Own Story is an intimate portrait of the troubled writer, by a man who knew him well.

Hemingway committed suicide in 1961. Hotchner — a longtime Westport resident — is still going strong in his 90s.

A. E. Hotchner, with his latest book. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

A. E. Hotchner, with his latest book. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

Earlier this week, “06880” reader Fred Cantor chatted with Hotchner about his life and times in our town. Here is his report.

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A. E. Hotchner, the well-known writer and philanthropist, moved to Westport from New York City in 1953 — but not for all the reasons commonly associated with such a move.

“Somebody said to me: ‘Go to Westport. It’s an inexpensive place,'” Hotchner recalls.

A real estate broker showed him a 1920s home, on 5 acres, that had been empty for 2 years. “A real white elephant,” Hotchner remembers it. “Nobody wanted it, it was so big.”

But he and his wife, with 2 young children, liked the possibilities. They made an offer that was accepted.

A. E. Hotchner and Ernest Hemingway, in an undated photograph.

A. E. Hotchner and Ernest Hemingway, in an undated photograph.

The Hillandale Road home and surrounding acreage have provided Hotchner plenty of solitude to write the nearly 20 books he has published over the years, including his latest.

Like his previous works, Hotchner composed an initial draft of Hemingway in Love by longhand, on an old roll-top desk in his 3rd floor study in the finished attic that was already in place when he moved in.

What motivated him to write a new part of the Hemingway story almost 50 years after his acclaimed biography, Papa Hemingway?

The publisher’s lawyers edited out controversial parts of the 1966 manuscript that dealt with people who were alive then. Finally, Hotchner feels he is able to tell “a great tragic love story” that had such an impact on Hemingway’s life, and was perhaps even “more dramatic than what Hemingway was writing about” at the time.

“He was under siege,” Hotchner explains.

Hotchner was not only close friends with one of the 20th century’s most iconic authors. He was also close to one of its most celebrated movie stars: Paul Newman. That friendship led to their co-founding the Newman’s Own charitable endeavor.

 A. E. Hotchner has lived on Hillandale Road -- and been part of Westport -- for more than 60 years. (Photo/Fred Cantor

A. E. Hotchner has lived on Hillandale Road — and been part of Westport — for more than 60 years. (Photo/Fred Cantor

But long before that wonderful philanthropy, Hotchner was involved in a much smaller local charity event that was an integral part of small-town Westport life in the 1950s: the writers-vs.-artists basketball game in the Staples High School gym.

Hotchner played with illustrious teammates like Peter De Vries and Max Shulman. The event raised money for good causes — but there was pride involved too. Hotchner recalls De Vries being injured one game, lying on the bench unable to continue, encouraging his teammates to win.

Hotchner has other fond memories of his early years in Westport: a downtown butcher in a straw hat; a Main Street hardware store that sold nails by the pound; a farm just down the street from his home where cows grazed, and nearby homes dating back to the Revolutionary War.

Westport has changed considerably since 1953. Nevertheless, over 60 years later Hotchner very much enjoys his home. He considers his property “an oasis.” He calls the grounds “glorious.”

And — nearing the century mark — he likes being surrounded by “what’s familiar.”