Last act? Lortel kin in cliff-hanger to save White Barn Theatre
Updated 5:33 am, Friday, February 26, 2016
The small theater — actually in Norwalk, but with a Westport mailing address — has little of its white siding left and its windows and doors are dark or boarded up.
The White Barn, which under Lortel’s guidance showcased productions more avant garde than those at the nearby Westport Country Playhouse, has not staged a production in 14 years. Founded in 1947 by Lortel, who also produced and acted in numerous Off Broadway productions, the 148-seat theater over the years presented works by Eugene Ionesco, Edward Albee, Terrence McNally and Cy Coleman, and hosted the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
But now the property straddling the Norwalk/Westport border is at the center of a different kind of drama: a last-ditch battle to preserve the theater from demolition to make way for a housing development.
A group lobbying to preserve the theater plans to press its case next week at a meeting of the Norwalk Historic Commission. If the panel does not put a hold on the housing plans — a demolition delay is set to expire March 23 — the developer will be free to raze the theater building and move forward with his project. The preservationists plan a rally at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday before the commission’s 7 p.m. meeting in Norwalk City Hall on East Avenue.
Housing plans overcome opposition
Since purchasing the 15-acre property in 2006 for $4.8 million from the Lucille Lortel Foundation, Jim Fieber, the managing partner for 78 Cranbury, LLC, said the business has been granted all approvals needed to tear down the White Barn Theatre and build 15 homes in what is classified as a “conservation development.” The Norwalk Planning and Zoning Commission approved the project last October — 13 acres of the site are within Norwalk and the remainder is in Westport.
The development has been greeted with resistance among neighbors on both sides of the border. The Save Cranbury Association lobbied to preserve parts of the property as open space in the years following Lortel’s death, as well as opposing the plans to build homes on part of the tract.
Meanwhile, Waldo Mayo, the grandnephew of Lortel, over a year ago revisited the property and was inspired to launch an effort to preserve the property’s theatrical legacy. Subsequently, he established the Lucille Lortel and Waldo Mayo White Barn Foundation and reached out to Fieber to explore the possibility of purchasing the site from the developer.
When Mayo initially came to Fieber a year ago, Fieber said he told him, "We’re going through the permitting process, if you can raise the money we will talk to you, but once we get the project approved and permitted, we’re going to construct the project — that’s why we bought the property.”
Mayo, however, said that although he still needs a lot more money to purchase the property — he declined to disclose how much has been raised to date — he plans to continue the dialogue with Fieber. "He’s been open to us and he likes our plan, and I think it would be great for the community because my great aunt ran the thing for 50 years and I think it’s a legacy that needs to be upheld."
“We are planning to sit down with Mr. Fieber in the next couple of weeks. We’re trying to secure a hard date to hammer a deal out," Mayo added. "We’re actively fundraising right now. We started our effort at the tail end of last year. A fundraising campaign takes a lot and originally we were talking about a longer period to raise funds and now were talking about a much shorter time.”
Mayo also claimed that Fieber has not been definitive about the amount of time that his group has to try to raise enough money. "I have experienced a little back and forth on his end,” he said. “We just need the appropriate amount of time to raise the funds and in that time period he switched it up. He offered a time period to raise the funds and that has changed since negotiations started.”
Fieber contradicted Mayo’s assertion, and said the time frame he initially offered Mayo was not altered, and in any case, added that Mayo appears to have "no financial resources."
"Although I’ve had an ongoing dialogue with Mr. Mayo for a year, he has never demonstrated to me the ability to raise money, or substantiated that he has any money to put forward an offer in any form to purchase the property," Fieber said last week.
Did Lortel want White Barn saved?
Citing a Jan. 24 New York Times article about the White Barn Theatre and efforts to save it, Mayo said since its publication that preservationists are gaining "tremendous support" and "people are coming on board."
Since the Times’ article ran, Fieber received an unsolicited letter from theater critic Blanche Marvin who lives in London, England. In the letter, Marvin said that it was not Lortel’s wish to preserve the White Barn after her death.
In an email correspondence to the Westport News, Marvin describes herself as, "Lucille’s closest friend for over 60 years from the start of the White Barn." The theater should not be preserved, she indicated in the email, because, “If Lucille had wanted it saved she would have done so. Everyone who has pursued to re-establish the White Barn are doing so for their own purpose and I do object to the hypocrisy of saying it is for the sake of Lucille.”
Lortel’s legacy is still paid tribute by a theater in Manhattan, named the Lucille Lortel Theater, which the Lucille Lotrel Foundation owns. On the foundation’s website, it states: "Ms. Lortel’s wish was that the Lucille Lortel Theatre would continue long after her death."
A release from the Lucille Lortel and Waldo Mayo White Barn Foundation, titled "Stars come together to save the Queen of Off-Broadway’s Connecticut Theater," says that well-known performers such as Kevin Spacey, Estelle Parsons and Tovah Feldshuh have voices support for the preservation effort.
One of the celebrities quoted in support of the preservation campaign is Kelli O’Hara, a Westport resident and Tony Award-winning actress. “I am excited and inspired by the idea of the White Barn Theatre coming to life again!” the release quotes O’Hara as saying.