Shake­speare theater burns to the ground

‘Mem­o­ries in that struc­ture de­served bet­ter than to be de­stroyed by fire’

The Norwalk Hour - - OBITUARIES/NEWS - By Ju­lia Perkins

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, co-founder 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.

Joe McDow­ell / Con­trib­uted photo

The Shake­speare Theater in Strat­ford burned to the ground Sun­day morn­ing.

Ned Ger­ard / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

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.

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