Shakespeare theater burns to the ground
‘Memories in that structure deserved better than to be destroyed by fire’
STRATFORD — The Shakespeare theater burned to the ground early Sunday morning, shocking the community and leaving crews to spend hours trying to extinguish the remaining flames.
The building where many famous theater stars performed was an integral part of the community.
Mayor Laura Hoydick said Sunday that the loss of the building is devastating for the entire community.
“Those memories in that structure deserved better than to be destroyed by fire,” Hoydick said Sunday afternoon after visiting the site.
Fire Marshal Brian Lampart said no one has been injured and the building was unoccupied.
It will likely be some time before the blaze’s cause and origin are identified, Lampart said.
“Unfortunately, this one’s going to be a slow process because of the amount of damage,” Lampart said. “We’re trying to filter through what’s pertinent and what’s not.”
Lampart said dispatchers got several calls around 1 a.m. about a fire on the property.
“When our units arrived, they found a heavy volume of fire in the building,” Lampart said.
More than 50 firefighters responded — every one of Stratford’s units, as well as crews from Bridgeport and Milford. Fairfield, Shelton and Bridgeport crews also covered the Stratford firehouses, Lampart said.
The fire destroyed the building, leaving a massive pile of rubble, charred steel and wood that was still smoldering Sunday afternoon as dozens of residents came by the scene to survey the damage.
“It’s a loss. Stratford will never be the same,” Marie Schiller said while standing on Shore Road and recalling how her three children went on field trips to the theater years ago. “I feel like I’m at a funeral.”
As crews hosed down hotspots Sunday afternoon, a backhoe was leveling a wall that was still partially standing to give investigators better access.
The unstable wall — separating what was the stage from the backstage area of the theater — was an area of interest.
“We need to get under that,” Lampart said. “We don’t want to do that with it standing. It’s a slow, methodical process.”
In addition to Stratford fire officials, investigators from the state fire marshal’s office were at the scene as well.
Winter fires in abandoned buildings are often started by people seeking shelter from the elements.
Lampart said Sunday afternoon it was too early to speculate on the fire’s cause, “but that’s certainly something that we’re going to be looking at.”
The mayor asked residents not to draw conclusions yet.
“We want answers, and there’s a lot of conjecture on social media, I would just caution people to wait it out and let’s find out what happened,” Hoydick said.
A press conference has been scheduled for 1 p.m. at Town Hall Monday for officials to discuss the fire.
The mayor said the property will also be a topic of discussion at the Town Council meeting Monday night. Several of the council’s members visited the site Sunday, Hoydick said.
The theater was wellknown in the local and wider theater community, with famous actors and actresses, including Katharine Hepburn, Christopher Plummer and Christopher Walken having performed on the stage.
On Sunday morning, Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” tweeted the fire was “heartbreaking.”
Lawrence Langner, cofounder of The Theatre
Guild and the Westport Country Playhouse, developed the idea for the theater in 1950. It was built with the help of Lincoln Kirstein and philanthropist Joseph Verner Reed.
The theater 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.
But after Reed died in
1973, the money to keep the theater going was gone and the building struggled to stay open.
The American Shakespeare Festival Theatre held its final full season in the building in 1982, but other companies held shows there in the 1980s. The state took over the theater in 1983. Stratford has owned the building since 2005.
The town has floated various plans for the theater over the years and most recently planned to mothball the building. Shows were still held on the grounds of the property over the years.
The Shakespeare Theater, in Stratford, burned to the ground early Sunday morning. The theater opened in 1955 as the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre, the building had stood vacant for many years.