Shake­speare theater fire a loss for Strat­ford, theater com­mu­nity

Connecticut Post - - FROM THE FRONT PAGE/NEWS - By Ju­lia Perkins Staff writer Ethan Fry con­trib­uted to this story.

STRAT­FORD — The lo­cal and theater com­mu­nity was dev­as­tated Sun­day af­ter the his­toric Shake­speare theater was rav­aged in a fire.

The blaze started around 1 a.m. Sun­day and de­stroyed the build­ing where ac­tors and ac­tresses such as Katharine Hep­burn, James Earl Jones and Christo­pher Plum­mer per­formed.

The theater opened in 1955, but has been shut­tered since the 1980s. Only the prop­erty’s grounds have been used for pro­duc­tions by the Shake­speare Academy at Strat­ford in re­cent years.

“To­day is a tragic day for our whole com­mu­nity,” the academy said on Face­book. “We know we are in good com­pany though, the orig­i­nal Globe burned down and to­day we still love and per­form Shake­speare's works and will con­tinue to do so. The Shake­speare Theater is all but gone, but the his­tory and magic of the place is not.”

The or­ga­ni­za­tion’s build­ings and re­sources sur­vived the flames, so the academy said it plans to re­turn this sum­mer for out­door per­for­mances of “Co­ri­olanus,” “A Win­ter's Tale” and “Twelfth Night.”

“We will con­tinue to keep the sto­ries of Shake­speare alive in Strat­ford,” the post said. “We will not let this beau­ti­ful place be for­got­ten.”

At the scene Sun­day, dozens of res­i­dents lined up be­hind fire scene tape to take pic­tures and share mem­o­ries.

Dave Manko said he walked his dog by the prop­erty ev­ery day, and re­called see­ing fa­mous ac­tors on or near the grounds as a child.

“When I was a kid I lived down the street and I saw Mar­garet Hamil­ton, who was the wicked witch of the west from the Wiz­ard of Oz,” Manko said. “She’d ride her bike by and I’d say ‘Yikes, there she goes!’”

Rose­mary Owens mar­veled about pro­duc­tions she saw in the theater while a stu­dent at Strat­ford High School.

“It was acous­ti­cally per­fect any­where you sat in the theater — so my El­iz­a­bethan English teacher told me,” Owens said.

Manko and Owens hoped the prop­erty could be re­turned to some sort of cul­tural use.

“It should be some place where peo­ple can gather, an am­phithe­ater or for mu­sic,” Owens said.

Diane Mon­sam, a Nau­gatuck res­i­dent who grew up in Strat­ford, vis­ited the prop­erty Sun­day af­ter a neigh­bor told her about the fire. She re­mem­bered watch­ing “A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream” at the theater while grow­ing up.

“Nat­u­rally, you couldn’t un­der­stand it be­cause it was Shake­speare, you were too young, but they would give you a pam­phlet to ex­plain the whole story,” Mon­sam said.

Connie Guggen­heim said she worked at the theater for about 15 years in the 1970s and ‘80s, as did sev­eral other mem­bers of her fam­ily.

She re­called how her two older sis­ters worked at the theater as dressers, help­ing ac­tors like Roddy McDowall and Christo­pher Plum­mer with their wardrobes.

“And my fa­ther worked here as a se­cu­rity guard and he would make sure Kather­ine Hep­burn got to her cot­tage safely at night,” Guggen­heim said.

“It was a won­der­ful fa­cil­ity and it’s just so dev­as­tat­ing that the state and then the town let it go to rack and ruin,” Guggen­heim said. “Hope­fully they’ll pre­serve it as a park.”

Mayor Laura Hoy­dick said a deed restric­tion put in place when the state trans­ferred own­er­ship of the prop­erty to the town in 2005 man­dated the site be used for re­cre­ation or en­ter­tain­ment pur­poses, but re­de­vel­op­ment ef­forts al­ways stalled for one rea­son or an­other.

Over the years, the town has weighed var­i­ous op­tions to deal with the build­ing, in­clud­ing raz­ing it, restor­ing it or seal­ing it up to pro­tect it from the el­e­ments.

“The ma­jor­ity of the com­mu­nity has never been on the same page about what to do with the prop­erty and the theater,” Hoy­dick said.

The mayor vis­ited the site Sun­day and said res­i­dents there were cry­ing when lament­ing the theater’s loss.

“That’s how much this struc­ture and what they ex­pe­ri­enced there meant to them,” Hoy­dick said.

Though the fire was dev- as­tat­ing, she said there will now be “a new con­ver­sa­tion” about the next step for the site.

“When peo­ple came to the site early this morn­ing . . . there was such mis­ery, they were mourn­ing the loss of the build­ing, the loss of the struc­ture, the loss of the mem­o­ries that in­cor­po­rated their vi­sion for the fu­ture,” Hoy­dick said.

“There were oth­ers who were say­ing this is a new op­por­tu­nity,” the mayor went on. “But they were sad to see the struc­ture and what it meant to so many in Strat­ford go the way it went.”

State Sen. Kevin Kelly said the loss of the theater was tragic not only for Strat­ford, “but also for our en­tire state.”

“The Shake­speare The­atre was a cul­tural and artis­tic icon,” Kelly said in a state­ment. “Its his­tory is some­thing we must never for­get. As a Strat­ford res­i­dent and long­time ad­vo­cate for pre­serv­ing the land­mark, to­day is par­tic­u­larly heart­break­ing. The para­mount fo­cus right now must be on pub­lic safety and I want to thank all the first re­spon­ders, fire, po­lice and EMS who are work­ing to en­sure the pub­lic re­mains safe.”

Strat­ford na­tives also shared mem­o­ries of the theater on so­cial me­dia.

“I ac­tu­ally shed a tear,” Ju­lia Wil­cox­son said on Face­book. “This is just heart­break­ing. The Theater was an ab­so­lutely beau­ti­ful build­ing. I was lucky enough to see a few plays there as a kid and had the op­por­tu­nity to tour the build­ing a cou­ple of years ago. Stand­ing on that stage was some­thing.”

The fire even drew the at­ten­tion of Lin-Manuel Mi­randa, creator of the hit Broad­way mu­si­cal “Hamil­ton,” who tweeted Sun­day morn­ing that the loss of the theater was “heart­break­ing.”

The theater was the brain­child of Lawrence Langner, co-founder of The The­atre Guild and the West­port Coun­try Play­house. Langer en­listed help of phi­lan­thropist Joseph Verner Reed and Lin­coln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Bal­let, to help build the theater.

The build­ing opened in 1955 with Amer­i­can Shake­speare Fes­ti­val The­atre’s pro­duc­tion of “Julius Cae­sar.” Dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s, high school stu­dents across the coun­try vis­ited the theater for shows.

“It was a des­ti­na­tion,” said Kevin Daly, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of theater at Quin­nip­iac Uni­ver­sity. “It was a fairly well known and pop­u­lar place to go see shows.”

The theater was also a source of pride for Con­necti­cut, he said.

“It’s not ev­ery day that we get to say that Katharine Hep­burn per­formed in such and such a place,” Daly said. “We get ex­cited.”

But the theater strug­gled to stay open af­ter fund­ing for the theater died with phi­lan­thropist Reed in 1973.

The fi­nal full sea­son of shows was held in the build­ing in 1982 with pro­duc­tions in­clud­ing “King Henry IV,” “Twelfth Night” and “Ham­let” with Christo­pher Walken and Anne Bax­ter.

The state took over the theater in 1983 and other theater com­pa­nies held shows there in the 1980s. Strat­ford has owned the build­ing since 2005.

For a time, it ap­peared the Strat­ford Stage Group would build a lux­ury ho­tel on the prop­erty and use the money to fund shows, but Town Coun­cil dropped plans with the de­vel­oper in 2016.

The fol­low­ing year, Town Coun­cil voted to hire an ar­chi­tect to keep the build­ing from fall­ing apart.

Ned Ger­ard / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

The Strat­ford Fes­ti­val The­atre, com­monly known as the Shake­speare theater, in Strat­ford in June 2017.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.