Woog’s World: Staples stage survived Rushdie furor, and a whole lot more
The whirlwind of worry that consumed a small segment of Westporters last week proved unwarranted. Staples was not the first public venue at which the famed, fatwa-burdened author spoke. It won’t be the last.
But it may have been the first high school to host the world-renowned novelist.
The invitation did not come from Staples, of course. The auditorium was merely the site of the annual Susan Malloy Lecture in the Arts, a Westport Library-sponsored event that grew too big to be held at the library itself. (Advanced Placement English students were invited to a special meeting with Rushdie, before his talk. They were warned, however, to talk only about his new book. Any mention of the fatwa or his years in hiding was forbidden.)
On Thursday, security forces swarmed the building. Students had to remove backpacks from the cafeteria. Staff swipe cards were deactivated at 3 p.m. By Friday morning, everything was back to normal.
It was not the first time Staples’ auditorium — a nice enough but not particularly remarkable place, considering the plays that are staged there by the near-Broadway-quality high school Players troupe — has been the setting for a memorable non-student event.
In the winter of 1968 — just as his outsider campaign for president was picking up steam — Eugene McCarthy spoke from the Staples stage. Westport was a hotbed of political activity then, and the Minnesota senator had substantial backing in town. His speech was standard stump stuff. But he gave it at Staples, an acknowledgment that young people would be one of the keys to his White House drive.
It was in the 1960s too that the Staples stage was where some of the biggest names in music played. The Doors, Cream, the Yardbirds, the Animals and many more rocked the high school house. Things have changed a lot since then — why play a 1,000-seat auditorium when you can fill a 10,000-seat basketball arena or 40,000-seat stadium? — but for a few years, Westport was the best place in the tri-state region to hear great music.
(As well as musicians who became great a few years later. Steven Talerico was a member of Chain Reaction, a warmup band for bigger acts. Today he’s known as Steve Tyler; his band was Aerosmith. In an interview that plays in an endless loop at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, he recalls the inspiration he got from sharing the Staples stage with rock legends, back in the day.)
(It wasn’t only concerts. The Blues Project played proms, around the corner from the auditorium in the gym. Most students did not give that a second thought. It was just the way Staples rolled.)
The auditorium has rolled that way since 1959. That’s when the North Avenue campus opened. Before that, Staples High School was located on Riverside Avenue — at the site of the current Saugatuck Elementary School. Yet that is not the original building; the first Staples, dating back to 1884, was approximately where Saugatuck’s auditorium is now.
That auditorium was constructed much later - in the late 1960s. So, for much of its time as a high school (and later, as Bedford Junior High; yes, it’s confusing) there was no stage there. Meetings were held in the cafeteria. For really big shows, everyone trooped across Doubleday Field, to Kings Highway Elementary School (which, before that, was the original Bedford Junior High).
The Staples auditorium was designed with the school’s vaunted music program in mind. John Ohanian had created a wonderful orchestra. The Staples Players drama program was just getting off the ground. As a result, there was little room in the wings for things like sets or props.
A few months after the school moved to North Avenue, during a dance recital, a dancer hurried offstage - and ran smack into a cement wall. Not long thereafter, the stage was reconfigured to accommodate dancers and actors.
For decades thereafter, the Staples auditorium was home to two prestigious programs: music and drama. Countless audiences thrilled to Moss Hart Award-winning plays, memorable Candlelight Concerts, and much more. The auditorium has been remodeled several times, most memorably after two students fell through the ceiling while working on the very dangerous catwalks.
Next month, “Fiddler on the Roof” opens on stage. In December, the music department celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Candlelight Concert. There’s a lot going on, but it’s just typical for the Staples stage.
Salman Rushdie knew none of that last week. Neither did his security forces, or most of the audience.
Then again, it was no big deal. That’s the way Staples High School rolls.