Today should have been a red-letter day in Westport Country Playhouse history.
The former cow barn opened its doors — and ushered in a golden era of summer theater — on June 29, 1931. Ever since last year, the Playhouse had prepared for a landmark 90th season.
COVID canceled those plans. But “06880” — the blog and the town — can still celebrate.
The building is actually twice as old as the theater. It was built in 1835 by R&H Haight, as a tannery for hatters’ leathers. Apple trees grew nearby.
In 1860 Charles H. Kemper purchased the plant from Henry Haight’s widow.
Kemper tannery, 1860.
Twenty years later, he installed a steam-powered cider mill.
By the winter of 1930, the property — assessed at $14,000 — had been unused for several years. It was bought by Weston residents Lawrence Langner and his wife Armina Marshall Langner, co-founders of the Theatre Guild, a powerful producer of Broadway and touring productions.
The 1930 barn.
The Langners wanted a place to experiment with new plays, and reinterpret old ones. Westport was already home to actors, producers and directors.
On June 29, 1931, the Westport Country Playhouse opened. The very first play — The Streets of New York — starred Dorothy Gish. Its stage was built to Broadway specifications. Remarkably, that first show made it all the way there.
Westport Country Playhouse interior, 1933.
Bert Lahr, Eva LaGallienne, Paul Robeson, Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore, Henry Fonda, Tallulah Bankhead and Julie Harris were some of the many big names who appeared on the Playhouse stage.
The early days (Photo/Wells Studio)
The theater went dark for 4 years during World War II, due to gas rationing.
Thornton Wilder received his Equity card in 1946, so he could play the stage manager in his own hit, Our Town.
In the 1940s, the Playhouse began an apprentice program. The legendary list includes Stephen Sondheim, Frank Perry and Sally Jesse Raphael. The educational apprenticeship programs are still running.
An early shot of the Westport Country Playhouse.
Though Oklahoma! has never been performed at the theater, it played a key role in the legendary show’s history. In 1940, Richard Rodgers came from his Fairfield home for Green Grow the Lilacs. Three years later, he produced Oklahoma!, based on what he’d seen.
Roders also saw Gene Kelly that night at Lilacs, and a few months later gave him his big break: the lead in Pal Joey.
In 1959 the Langners turned operation of the Playhouse over to Jim McKenzie. Later named executive producer, he retired in 2000 after 41 years. His tenure was notable for many things — including his efforts in 1985 to purchase the theater and its property, thwarting a takeover by a shopping center complex.
Gloria Swanson arrives, 1961.
Appearing on stage during McKenzie’s time were stars like Alan Alda, Cicely Tyson, Richard Thomas, Jane Powell, Sandy Dennis, and Stiller and Meara.
A teenager earned her Equity card, and earned a standing ovation on opening night in The Fantasticks. Her name was Liza Minnelli.
Prior to renovation, the cramped lobby was filled with posters from past shows.
In 2000, artistic director Joanne Woodward joined an illustrious team including Anne Keefe, Alison Harris and Elisabeth Morten. They brought Gene Wilder, Richard Dreyfuss, Jill Clayburgh and Jane Curtin to the stage.
Woodward’s husband — Paul Newman — also starred at the Playhouse, in the same role Thornton Wilder played 56 years earlier: stage manager, in Our Town.
Like so many other Playhouse shows, it (with Newman) soon transferred to Broadway.
But the building — still basically a 170-year-old barn — was in physical disrepair.Woodward and company also renovated the Playhouse physically, and revitalized it artistically.
An 18-month, $30.6 million renovation project in 2003 and ’04 brought the Playhouse into the modern era. It closed in 2003 with a revival of its first show, The Streets of New York.
It reopened in 2005 — its 75th season. At Woodward’s suggestion, a piece of the original stage is still there. The Playhouse moved forward, while paying homage to its storied past.
Westport Country Playhouse, after renovation.
The next year saw the world premiere of Thurgood. Since then — under artistic directors Tazewell Thompson and now Mark Lamos — the Westport Country Playhouse has expanded both its scope and its season.
From a tryout and summer stock house focusing mostly on light, entertaining comedies, to its current April-through-November staging of powerful dramas, musicals and exploratory plays, the Westport Country Playhouse has played a key role in American theater.
Several years ago, Lamos noted, “What had a been a leaky, vermin-infested, un-weatherized — albeit beloved — converted barn became a state-of-the-art theater as fine as any in America.”
Like Broadway, the Westport Country Playhouse is closed during this, its 90th season.
But — as its long history shows — the old barn has weathered many ups, and a few downs. The curtain will rise again next year.
The show must go on!
(Hat tip: Pat Blaufuss)