Tag Archives: Westport Country Playhouse

Friday Flashback #148

A few days ago, I posted the back story of the Police Athletic League’s nearly-70-year sponsorship of Westport’s Independence Day fireworks.*

That sent alert “06880” reader/amateur historian Fred Cantor scrambling to the stacks.

He found the July 8, 1954 Westport Town Crier. There — on the front page — were photos and a story of that year’s pyrotechnics.

Held on Sunday, July 4**, the event drew a crowd of more than 3,000, the paper reported.

Some of them were dressed quite a bit fancier than today’s revelers.

Announcer Don Tedesco introduced the national anthem, then the fireworks.

They were shot from the sand, near the cannon. I remember that site well (though not from 1954!). The smell was strong and distinct. I always wondered what would happen if one landed next to me, sitting a few feet away from where they were launched.

Here’s a black-and-white photo from the paper. I’ll let you decide whether it looks very cool, or like a radiology report.

There was a lot going on, that holiday week.

Dorothy and Lillian Gish “sojourned” in Westport, at the home of Dr. John V.N. Dorr. Their visit was the lead photo on Page 1, as they posed with the equally famous Lucille Lortel:

Meanwhile, the Westport Country Playhouse advertised an upcoming production starring Eva Gabor and Richard Kiley.



The current production did not fare well. The last line of “Court Olympus” was “Let’s go home” — exactly what the Town Crier‘s reviewer advised audiences to do.

Other front-page news on July 8, 1954: “First Jewish Temple in History of Town Set For Construction” (the 6-acre site on a former Hills Lane nursery was eventually abandoned, due to issues with the land); town prosecutor Robert Anstett was named head of Westport’s Civilan Defense Corps, and 600 people were expected to attend the 6th annual Compo Beach Clambake, sponsored by the Saugatuck Fathers Club.

But the most intriguing story was this: “Teen-Agers Make Problem at Beaches.”

Turns out the Beach Commission was considering closing all beaches at night, “to stop teen-age beer parties.” In addition, “vandals, not yet apprehended, defaced many bathhouses and destroyed a new stone fireplace” at Compo.

Fishermen reported “beer cans piled along the shore,” while residents complained of “noise and speeding cars late at night.”

The town employed “special constables” to patrol Compo and Burial Hill.

If you’re reading this now, and were a teenager then — making you in your 80s today — click “Comments” below. We’d love to hear how that worked out.

* Bottom line: If you haven’t yet bought a ticket, do it now!

** Unlike these days, when the fireworks are shot off NOT on the actual holiday. Overtime for the scores of workers would be prohibitive.

Pic Of The Day #780

A break room? Sort of. This is the set for the Westport Country Playhouse’s new production of “Skeleton Crew.” The thought-provoking, character-driven play explores the lives of 3 factory workers, and their supervisor, in 2008 Detroit — the depths of the Great Recession. It runs through June 22. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Friday Flashback #140

As the Westport Country Playhouse opens its 89th season, “06880” shines a spotlight on its famed posters.

For decades, they hung on the walls of its cramped lobby. After the renovation more than a decade ago, a few dozen found spots in the new lobby. All told, there are 400 in posters in the Playhouse collection.

Pat Blaufuss sent along a sampling. Each has a story behind it. Text comes from An American Theatre: The Story of Westport Country Playhouse by Richard Somerset-Ward.

It was 1940 and the Playhouse was doing Green Grow the Lilacs. John Ford had agreed to direct the show but was detained by film commitments, and never showed up (though his name was on the poster). Actual direction was handled by John Haggott who followed ideas he and Ford put together earlier in Hollywood.

Teresa Helburn, a Theatre Guild colleague of Lawrence Langner, Playhouse founder, came backstage on opening night and said: “This play would make a good musical.” They invited Fairfield resident Richard Rodgers. He was inspired to turn the play into the musical Oklahoma! with Oscar Hammerstein.

In 1941 Tyrone Power was the crown prince of Hollywood, dashingly handsome, married to a beautiful French woman named Annabella.

Tyrone was born in Connecticut; his earliest acting jobs had been in summer stock in Massachusetts. He was immersed in film roles, under contract to 20th Century Fox, but longed to get back to the stage. He couldn’t take extended runs because of his movie contract, but he might find time to do summer stock.

Darryl Zanuck, his boss, thwarted his first attempts, but in 1941 Tyrone and Annabella successfully escaped to Westport to star in Liliom, which became the source for the musical Carousel. It was directed by Lee Strasberg.

Power said: “Here in Westport there’s nothing of the huge, inhuman machine atmosphere that dominates Hollywood.” On opening night the Powerses took a dozen-and-a-half curtain calls.

But there almost wasn’t an opening night. A few days before opening, Zanuck sent a cable demanding that Power fly back to Hollywood for urgent re-shoots on the film he had recently made with Betty Grable, A Yank in the RAF.

It seemed that Tyrone had no option – his contract made it clear that the studio owned him. But Playhouse lawyer J. Kenneth Bradley came up with an old Connecticut blue law which enabled the local authorities to prevent a person from leaving the state if he tried to do so before fulfilling a contract with a Connecticut business.

Zanuck was informed that Connecticut stood ready to enforce its law. He caved, and Power stayed for the sold-out run.

Olivia de Havilland, so popular from the film Gone with the Wind, was in the Playhouse production of What Every Woman Knows in 1946.

On the same day she opened the show, she got married to novelist and journalist Marcus Goodrich. The wedding ceremony took place at the Weston home of Playhouse founder Lawrence Langner.

Henry Fonda and daughter Jane both appeared on the Playhouse stage, though not at the same time. With a film career still in the future, Jane Fonda starred in No Concern of Mine in 1960. Her father appeared in The Virginian at the Playhouse in 1937 — the same year Jane was born.

In 1964, 18-year-old Liza Minnelli came to the Westport Country Playhouse to get her Equity card. She played The Girl in The Fantasticks, with Elliott Gould as her co-star. On opening night, in the words of the Playhouse’s 50th anniversary brochure, “the rather gawky teenage…received a standing ovation.”

In 1987, Weston playwright David Wiltse’s Doubles was a Playhouse attraction. His newest play will be featured at a Script in Hand reading next Monday (May 6).

Pic Of The Day #656

Westport Country Playhouse at night (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

Dr. Kendi’s Journey

Exactly one year ago, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi was the keynote speaker at Westport’s annual Martin Luther King Day ceremony. A full house listened raptly as the winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction described exactly what it means to be anti-racist.

It was a powerful, insightful lecture. Attendees contributed almost $3,000 toward anti-racism training in Westport.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

In the weeks following, the MLK Planning Committee — TEAM Westport, the Westport Library, Westport Playhouse and Westport Weston Interfaith Council — worked with Dr. Kendi and his team to develop anti-racism training for senior management of key organizations in Westport. It includes town government, the police and the school system.

The year-long, successful pilot project is now in the action stage.

Dr. Kendi’s impact on Westport has been profound.

And it came while he was engaged in his own, very different struggle.

Last week, the Atlantic published a first-person piece by Dr. Kendi. Titled “What I Learned From Cancer,” it describes his whipsawing emotions as he was diagnosed with — and then battled — Stage 4 colon cancer.

It’s powerful, personal and raw. During grueling chemotherapy, he continued to research and write his new book, “How to Be an Antiracist.” It was, he says, “perhaps my way of coping with the demoralizing severity of the cancer and the overwhelming discomfort of the treatment, furiously writing and fighting, fighting and writing to heal mind and body, to heal society.”

Dr. Kendi’s Atlantic piece ties together his professional work, and his new insights into America’s healthcare. He writes:

America’s politics, in my lifetime, have been shaped by racist fears of black criminals, Muslim terrorists, and Latino immigrants. Billions have been spent on border walls and prison walls and neighborhood walls, and on bombs and troops and tax cuts—instead of on cancer research, prevention, and treatment that can reduce the second-leading cause of death.

Any politician pledging to keep us safe who is drastically overfunding law and order, border security, and wars on terror—and drastically underfunding medical research, prevention, and health care—is a politician explicitly pledging to keep our bodies unsafe.

Harold Bailey — chair of TEAM Westport, who with Rev. Alison Buttrick Patton of Saugatuck Congregational Church has helped lead the local anti-racism initiative — notes that Dr. Kendi’s Playhouse talk last year was his first public appearance after being diagnosed with cancer.

Bailey — but few others — knew of that back story as they worked through the year together.

Today, Dr. Kendi stands a good chance of joining the 12% of people who survive a Stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis.

In fact, on Wednesday, January 30 (8 p.m., Quick Center for the Arts) he will be the keynote speaker at Fairfield University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation. (Click here for details.)

As for Westport: This year’s 13th annual Martin Luther King celebration scheduled for tomorrow (Sunday, January 20, Westport Country Playhouse) has been postponed. A new date has  not yet been announced.

The keynote speaker will be James Forman, Jr. He wrote the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for general nonfiction: “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”

James Forman Jr.

He is a leading critic of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people of color. The Brown University and Yale Law School graduate clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He then spent 6 years as a public defender.

Forman has contributed op-eds and essays to the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Nation, and the Washington Post.

(For Dr. Kendi’s full Atlantic article, click here.)

My True Moth Story

Jane Green is a wonderful author. She’s written 19 novels, has over 10 million books in print, and been published in more than 30 languages.

Our Westport neighbor is as gifted a storyteller in person as she is in print. For years she entertained book tour audiences with her tale of cooking dinner for Hugh Grant.

Jane Green

The Moth — the wildly successful radio show and podcast featuring real people telling true stories — heard about Green’s routine. They chatted a bit, before deciding it was not quite right for The Moth. They asked if she had another story to tell.

She did. It was about her middle-aged head being turned by the attention of a handsome younger man. First told at Cooper Union, “Greener Grass” (clever name!) was wildly successful. It’s been heard more than a million times.

Which got Green thinking: Why not bring The Moth to Westport?

A longtime supporter of the Westport Country Playhouse — and one-time board member — Green always looked for programs appealing to  young audiences. She’d helped bring a “Hamilton” singalong, David Bowie tribute and Lisa Lampanelli play to the fabled stage.

The Moth was a natural next project.

Which is why next Friday (January 25, 7:30 p.m.), 5 great storytellers will bring The Moth to the Westport Country Playhouse.

Well, 4 great storyteller. Plus me.

I can’t believe I’ll be standing up there with Green herself; Alistair Bane, a Shawnee who makes dance regalia, paints and rehabilitates feral reservation dogs; Henia Lewin, a Lithuanian instructor of Hebrew and Yiddish, and Trina Michelle Robinson of San Francisco, who explores memory through video, archival materials and text.

Not quite the Westport Country Playhouse. But close.

I tell stories every day on “06880.” I can type a tale in my sleep.

But performing as a Moth storyteller is waaaaay different.

I’ll join 4 experienced folks — including a woman who has done this before, and written 17 New York Times bestsellers.

And — oh yeah — the Moth Radio Hour is heard on more than 475 stations. The podcast is downloaded a million times each week.

But I’m ready. I might rock it — or bomb.

Either way, for the rest of my life I’ll have one more intriguing story to tell.

(For more information and tickets, click here.)

New Playhouse Gallery Honors Westport Arts Heritage

Ann Sheffer is among Westport’s most avid arts advocates. Her support of all mediums — visual, performing, classical, new — is abiding and true.

So it’s very fitting that Ann’s latest project involves both an art gallery and the Westport Country Playhouse.

Actually, it’s a gallery at the Playhouse.

This Saturday (November 24, 5 to 8 p.m.), the barn next to the theater welcomes “Amazing Grace.” Noted Westport painter/illustrator Ann Chernow and famed graphic artist Miggs Burroughs offer dozens of mixed media images, photos and oils of real and invented people, from life’s shadows.

Ann Chernow and Miggs Burroughs

It’s the gallery’s inaugural exhibit.

It opens in what is already called the Sheffer Studio Space. The name honors Ann and her family.

As a child, Sheffer’s grandparents and parents took her to the Playhouse. She still recalls sitting in those red seats, for Friday afternoon children’s shows..

At 15, she became an usher. She continued serving the Playhouse long after graduating from Staples High School in 1966. Today, she’s an honorary trustee.

Sheffer has known and admired the 2 artists featured in this first show for decades.

Chernok’s work has been exhibited all over the world. Her Playhouse art focuses on actress portraits from American film noir of the 1930s and ’40s. Of course, many film stars also appeared on the Playhouse stage.

Burroughs — who graduated from Staples a year before Sheffer — has designed Time magazine covers, a United States stamp, Westport’s flag, and hundreds of logos for commercial and  non-profit clients. His lenticular photos line the Main Street and railroad station tunnels. His Playhouse exhibit includes 24 male criminals.

A sample of Ann Chernow’s work (left), and one by Miggs Burroughs (right).

Westport has long been known as an arts community. Next Saturday, we celebrate that heritage — in all its forms.

(The Gallery at the Westport Country Playhouse is a partnership between Friends of the Westport Public Art Collection and the Artists Collective of Westport. Saturday’s opening features music by Warren Bloom, drinks and light bites and more. The exhibit runs through December 22.)

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.)

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.