Out of the Woods / A glittering crown jewel of Westport arts
Published 6:25 am, Tuesday, September 13, 2011
As I was leaving a wonderful performance of Tennessee Williams' play "Suddenly Last Summer," I glanced at the Westport Country Playhouse lobby walls. They're filled with placards of great plays and actors who appeared in them dating back to 1931.
I thought about the 80-year legacy.
What a great monument to theatre, I thought. The playhouse is one of our town's most valuable legacies. Indeed, in terms of our reputation as a community of artists, writers and creative people, the Westport Country Playhouse stands out as arguably the most important landmark in our long and rich history of the arts.
It is all the more valuable -- and inviting -- today as a result of its refurbishing in the past few years, and the addition next door of "The Dressing Room" restaurant, which complements the playhouse in its design and milieu. It is a tribute to Paul Newman just as the Playhouse has blossomed in recent years under the guidance of Joanne Woodward.
The playhouse officially opened on June 29, 1931, with Streets of New York, a major hit.
The idea of a theatre here was conceived by Lawrence Langner, the distinguished director of the New York Theatre Guild, and his wife, Armina, who bought the 100-year-old Kemper Tannery building and turned it into a theatre -- one of the town's most prized attractions.
The theatre's opening was hailed by the Westporter-Herald newspaper on June 26, 1931, as follows: "The opening of his [Langner's] Country Playhouse fulfilled his ambition of many years to establish a repertory company of fine New York actors in Westport."
Local townspeople saw it at the time as one of the most significant events in Westport's history. Opening night drew more than 500 prominent citizens and celebrities from all over the country. It was a grand moment, not only in this town's history, but in the history of repertory in our country.
A glance at some of the famous names who have appeared there serves to give you an idea of just how important this theatre has been in the history of American theatre.
They include such luminaries as Dana Andrews, Tallulah Bankhead, John and Ethel Barrymore, Barbara Baxley, Theodore Bikel, Joan Blondell, Shirley Booth, Dorothy and Ed Bryce, Montgomery Clift, Hans Conreid, Rodney Dangerfield, Bette Davis. Also, Olivia De Haviland, Sandy Dennis, Donal Donnelly, Keir Dullea, Mia Farrow, Henry Fonda, Joan Fontaine, Arlene Francis, Eva Gabor, Cynthia Gibb, Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish, Ruth Gordon, David Marshall Grant, William S. Hart.
Also, June Havoc, Michael Hayden, Gene Kelly, Arthur Kennedy, Jack Klugman, Eva LeGallienne, Armina Marshall Langner, John Lodge, Francesca Bragiotti Lodge, Lucille Lortel, Darren McGavin, E.G. Marshall, Marilyn Monroe, Patricia Neal, Paul Newman, Maureen O'Sullivan, Heraldine Page, Tyrone Power, Martha Raye, Robert Redford, Ann Richards, Lee Richardson, Jason Robards, Amanda Rogers, David Rogers, Zachart Scott, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlo Thomas, Gene Tierney, Franchot Tone, David Wayne, Joanne Woodard, and Jane Wyatt.
By far the best-known acting couple, of course, was Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who came to Westport in 1961 and stayed. They were the recipients of many honors, including the Westport Arts Award in 1994.
The actors listed above and many other stars of stage and screen were celebrated at an exhibit in 1998 at the Westport Historical Society entitled, "Stars in Their Eyes," curated by Tom DeLong and Wally Woods. A book by DeLong with the same title was published in early 2000.
Musicians and singers and composers included John Corigliano, George Gershwin, Alexandre Kipnis, Oscar Levant, Brenda Lewis, Johnny Marks, James Melton, Andrew Metens, Richard Rodgers, Neil Sedaka, Nicholas Sokolof, and Ruth Steinkraus-Cohen.
Westport, of course is also known for serving as the me of many artists, writers sculptors and advertising men and women. In connection with the artists, 23 of them launched an outlet of their own in Westport. This eventually led to participation in the New Deal's Works Progress Administration program, which included many artists from Westport.
In 1947, another important event was the founding of the Famous Artists School, which was conceived by Albert Dorne, the charismatic illustrator. The 12 original faculty/instructors -- known as the Twelve Famous -- were Dorne, Norman Rockwell, Stevan Dohanos, Jon Whitcomb, Al Parker, Ben Stahl, Fred Luekens, Robert Fawcett, Harold von Schmidt, John Atherton, Peter Helk and Austin Briggs.
Needless to say, we have kept up our reputation as a center of arts and theatre, and it all started big time with the opening of the Westport Country Playhouse -- a gem!
Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" column appears every other Wednesday.