Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Memoirs of an Usher

By Marilyn Harding
Friend of the Playhouse

As I was growing up the Westport Country Playhouse was an otherworldly place. And how lucky was I?

The one time cow barn, re-purposed in the 1930’s as a Victorian-style summer theater, was located smack dab in the middle of my hometown. Sometimes I would be invited to accompany my father on one of his good citizen missions where he would advise the theater’s scenic designers about the landscape design the intended play required. Backstage preparations were a circus of excitement. Stagehands painted canvases, moving and placing furniture while cast members walked the old planks reading their lines. Still to this day I can’t forget the head stage designer, an elderly woman who hung on every word my dad spoke, but it was her presence that I remember most. Unlike Shakespeare’s quote “beauty dothe vanish with age”, this thespian hadn’t lost any of what I surmised to have been her previous glamour. She was all about the stage and its enchanting remnants were seen all over her face.

The summers always brought tickets to the Westport Country Playhouse and I would be enthralled as I watched my parents leave the house dressed in their very best, letting their excitement be known to us kids; they were off to enjoy a theatrical evening in that little red barn down the road, but we knew it was just as likely their elation lay in the fact that their four rambunctious children would be left behind.

Helen Hayes in Playhouse dressing room
with her daughter Mary MacArthur, 1949.
Sometimes we would go to a children’s matinee where the puppets played, the dancers tiptoed around Swan Lake and our live introduction to Tom Sawyer would make a lasting impression. It was after one of those adventures that my Mom told me of a Westport Country Playhouse tragedy that has haunted me ever since. It seems the noted American actress and would-be Oscar winner, Helen Hayes was starring in a play called Good Housekeeping together with her daughter, Mary. While in Westport Mary felt ill and thinking it was a bad cold she retreated to the family home in Nyack, NY to recover. Sadly the 19 year old actress died a few days later of polio, at the time an incurable disease that was to reach epidemic proportions, victimizing Westporters as well as many others in the area.

The show must go on and so it did with the best of Broadway and a history-making list of actresses and actors performing their magic throughout the decades. In my crowd it was customary to name drop as to who was in town, rate their sex appeal and then think up schemes to meet the ones who won our favor. So, in my junior year at Staples when I was asked to be an usher at the Westport Country Playhouse I couldn’t refuse. All this history was speaking to me and besides, I loved that quaint little place. Its musty smell of paint, polish, and aging upholstery, the diminutive theater seats, the creaky floors and the expectation that fame can spark in one’s imagination was heady stuff.

I found my string of pearls, whacked three inches off the hem of my black silk sheath--after all it was the 60’s--dusted off my Capezios, pulled my hair into a French twist and I was out the door. The instructor of the ushers was a friendly sort requiring nothing more of us than we educate ourselves about the quirks of the theater’s seating chart, greet each guest with a polite, “Good evening” as we requested their tickets and help them to find their seats. It was all so civilized. I never encountered a complaining or obnoxious patron. One even had time to enjoy the fashion parade that presented itself at the very small entrance of the theater.

The men were always dressed in respectable suits of black or grey while the really dapper gentlemen would attire themselves in summer’s fashionable off-white linen. The groovy young college guys wore seersucker and some even sported the new brightly printed Lilly Pulitzer ties. The women were a different story of princesses and peacocks--always fashionable, whether it was a knowing nod to the elegance found in New York’s finest emporiums, the Tailored Woman or Bergdorf Goodman, the younger women who were big proponents of the preppy style with Candice Bergen-styled clones strolling around the theater’s grounds. The gigantic Twiggy trend had just begun and one could spot her look-alikes wearing mod minis, boyish haircuts, and paste’em-on thick eyelashes as they walked through the playhouse doors, pranced down the aisle, and took their seats. In retrospect I don’t recall seeing any t-shirts or jeans, just interesting people enjoying the incredible talents of Cyril Ritchard, Gloria Swanson, Tallulah Bankhead, Sammy Davis Jr., Carol Channing, Joel Grey, Liza Minnelli, and a very brave Helen Hayes who returned to the playhouse in 1964.

Today, that wonderful cramped little theater is all grown up and looking glorious thanks in large part to Joanne Woodward’s marvelous makeover, but to me the days of ushering at the old Westport Country Playhouse were indeed, the best of times.

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