Thursday, March 14, 2013

Playhouse History – A to Z


March 14, 2013

By Patricia Blaufuss

Public Relations Manager

So much rich history.  So little blog space. 
Where to begin to write about a very special place that has a storied past of 83 years?  In an attempt to scratch the surface of the Playhouse’s long history, here are some highlights from A to Z.

A  The Apprentice system at the Playhouse starts in 1946.  Over the years, summer apprentices include Stephen Sondheim (1950) and Tammy Grimes (1954).  Grimes is fired from the box office in her first week because she is unable to make the correct change for patrons.  She is transferred backstage among the stars where she longs to be, and is appointed to press Richard Kiley’s pants.  Today, the Playhouse is home to the Woodward Internship Program, one of the nation’s preeminent programs for emerging theater professionals.  




Butterflies Are Free (1969) premieres with Blythe Danner as the ingenious girl who falls in love with a blind boy, played by Keir Dullea.  The comedy transfers to Broadway, where it runs over three years, earning Danner a Tony Award. The play remains in the Playhouse’s annals as one of some 36 productions that made the giant leap from Westport to Broadway.
C  The house manager rings a cow bell and calls, “Curtain going up,” before the start of each show and at the end of intermission.  In 1835, the building that will become the Playhouse is originally built as a tannery manufacturing hatters’ leathers.  In 1880, it is a steam-powered cider mill. The cow bell is a throw-back to the 1920s when the Playhouse is an abandoned barn, before its splendid transformation into a theater in 1931.  


D  Just before Olivia de Havilland takes the Playhouse stage on her opening night of What Every Woman Knows in 1946, she marries novelist and journalist Marcus Goodrich at Langnerlane, the Weston property owned by Lawrence Langner and Armina Marshall.  The bride is given away by Lawrence Langner.  He had been a friend of her late father, who, like Langner, was a patent attorney and had acted for Langner’s firm in Japan.  The ceremony begins with strains of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March played by a lady harpist from the Oklahoma! orchestra in New York, who is brought to Weston on the back of a truck. 



 

E  Eva Le Gallienne makes her last appearance at the Playhouse in her Tony-nominated role in To Grandmother’s House We Go (1981).  The Weston resident first trods the Playhouse boards in Camille (1936) and has many roles here in between.  Today, the Playhouse’s Green Room is named in her honor and contains memorabilia from her career. 
 
F   Henry Fonda and daughter Jane appear on the Playhouse stage, though not at the same time. With a film career still in the future, Jane Fonda stars in No Concern of Mine in 1960. Her father appears in The Virginian at the Playhouse in 1937, the year his daughter is born.  


G  Playwright A. R. “Pete” Gurney is a favorite at the Playhouse. 13 Gurney plays, in addition to a few playreadings and fundraisers, are produced here, starting with Children starring Sada Thompson in 1980.  The Dining Room is slated to open the 2013 season, April 30 through May 18.  It was first staged at the Playhouse 30 years ago in 1983.  



H  Known as “the first lady of the American theater,” Helen Hayes appears at the Playhouse in Westport author A. E. Hotchner’s The White House (1964), and earlier in Good Housekeeping (1949), with her daughter Mary MacArthur.  Mary dies of polio shortly thereafter.  



  A world premiere comedy by Noël Coward, Island Fling, is a star vehicle for filmdom’s Claudette Colbert in 1951.  It’s held over for an extra week. Post-performance visitors to Miss Colbert’s dressing room include Marlene Dietrich, Danny Kaye, Richard Rodgers, and Otto Preminger. 


Photo by T. Charles Erickson

 

J  James Earl Jones appears as Thurgood Marshall in the world premiere of Thurgood by George Stevens, Jr. in 2006. A press conference in the Playhouse’s Sheffer Rehearsal Studio to meet Mr. Jones is standing room only.  Jones later joins the Playhouse board of trustees.





K  In 1939, an unknown Gene Kelly dances in Magazine Page, a musical revue.  The cast includes a young singer called Judith Tuvim, who would be later known as Judy Holliday, and a pair of writer-performers named Betty Comden and Adolph Green.  But Kelly steals the show and is catapulted to Broadway fame in The Time of Your Life (1939), followed by the lead in Pal Joey (1940). 



 

L  The Playhouse property and abandoned barn with assessed value of $14,000, unused since the 1920s, is acquired in 1930 by Lawrence Langner, co-founder of the Theatre Guild in New York City, and his wife, Armina Marshall Langner.  They want to build a theater near their Weston, Connecticut, home. 




 

 M  James B. McKenzie produces 419 plays at the Playhouse during his tenure as executive producer from 1959 through 1999.  A U.S. Navy veteran and avid sailor, he boasts on his sailing resume that he had been grounded more than 100 times – claiming that it shows “experience” as well as “the overwhelming satisfaction of having refloated the boat each time.”  Through its share of calm and rough waters, the Playhouse remains on a steady course for 41 summer seasons with McKenzie at the helm.



To be continued next week – with the alphabet’s second half.

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