The First Production: The Tavern
By Skip Ploss
In the summer of 1937, G.Evans Hubbard was a busy man. He had just recently founded a single-sheet weekly called The Wilton Bulletin and, as a leading member of the Wilton Community, wanted to do a benefit for the Wilton Red Cross. But what to do?
Luckily he was living in a community that had a great deal of artistic talent. There were groups doing shows and concerts at St. Matthews Church, the Congregational Church and just over the border in Norwalk “Theatre in the Woods” was importing New York talent for its alfresco greek-style theatre (located between Belden Hill, Old Belden Hill and Gristmill Rd at the top of “Super” 7). Maybe Wilton could “put on a show”?
The core group was gathered and the preproduction began. The cast was:
Joseph O Glover Jr. as Zach Freeman
Dorothy van Name as Sally
Christopher Smiles as Freeman, the landlord
Henry M. Wreszin as Willum
Benjamin B. Burton as Vagabond
Sally Wreszin as Violet
Innes Randolph as Governor Lamson
Jeanne S. Keeler as Mrs. Lamson
Joan Keyes as Virginia Lamson
Alan MacCracken as Tom Allen
G. Evan Hubbard as The Sherrif
William A. Lidgate as Ezra, The First Cop
Fenton Keyes as Joshua, The Second Cop
Charles B. Hester as Stevens
The set was designed by Dorothy L. Moore, costumes and makeup were handled by Katharine Bukan, sound effects were provided by Emeroy Burton, lighting expertise was provided by Horace Shipman, properties were handled by Ruth J. Pedersen and the prompter (they had those back then) was Gertrude W. Noonan.
The Tavern was presented by “The Wilton Play Shop” (as it was called in the August 1st issue of The Wilton Bulletin) at the Wilton Town Hall on Route Seven August 13th and 14th at 8:30 pm. Ticket order cards were mailed to every home in Wilton. Tickets were 50 cents each. There was dancing after both performances.
The “program” seems to have been created by The Wilton Bulletin since we have a taped together copy which shows how the cast list seems to have been cut from the front page of The Wilton Bulletin issue mentioned above while the article at the bottom appeared originally ran on the back page of the same issue.
The show’s two performances were sellouts with standing room only crowds in the 650 seat room raising some $600+ for the Red Cross. According to The Wilton Bulletin most of the money raised was used to fund swimming lessons at Meyer’s Pool.
It was during the “strike” of The Tavern on August 15th that the assembled group decided to get together and make this official. They formed a committee headed by Ora G. Wier with the purpose of creating bylaws and a constitution around which a permanent organization would be founded.
The Wilton Playshop was born.
The group then made plans for its first official Playshop production, The Late Christopher Bean, which would be presented November 1937.
The Once and Almost Future Playshop
By Skip Ploss
First Published in The Backstage Press in 1992
Updated for The Playshop Program in 2003
Between the time of inception, August 15th, 1937, and the first show presented in the theatre on Lovers Lane, May 1st 1954 (Charlotte’s Review), it seems that various other structures in and about the town of Wilton were anxiously vying for the honor of becoming The Wilton Playshop.
First, of course, was the Town Hall; the majestic building on Rt. 7 in which beats the heart of a vibrant suburban town government. Many a Playshop production was presented on stage in that edifice. However, even though we would like to believe that the Town Hall secretly pined to be a theatre, it could never be, for once a Town Hall always a Town Hall (except in cases of Old Town Halls which turn out to be Garden Clubs or very nice rehearsal dinner spots, thank you very much).
Much consideration was given to “the Old Quaker Meeting House” on Rt.7. This is the self same Quaker Meeting House which nobody (including the Quakers) has ever heard of before. That, of course makes nailing down the details a bit dicey. Legend (in the form of articles written in 1947 and 1968) has it that The Wilton Playshop (Group) was in search of a Wilton Playshop (Building) and were in negotiations with the owner (whom they never mention by name) of “the Old Quaker Meeting House on Route No. 7” (which according to current legend never existed in the first place). The Building (or figment of an overactive imagination) was destroyed in the hurricane of 1938 while negotiations with “landlord X” were in progress.
It is our belief now that the old Kent Methodist Church may have served at one time, briefly, as a Quaker meeting house (and therefore be the building in question). The story of the church, based on accounts in the history room at the Library, seems to have several similarities with our accounts of the first attempt to find a home for The Playshop. It was about the size of our current house, it was on RT7 and was destroyed (or severely damaged in the Hurricane of ’38).
Going through the minutes of Playshop Board of Directors meetings, the last paragraph of the last minutes we have in our archives for the period of 1938-1946 say basically “Hey, let’s find a building." After that there is a nine year gap in the records. It is holes in the records like this one that often force historians to either take up the bottle or turn to cult activity.
The Playshop was on a roll. Our good luck continued when, in 1946, the largest barn on the Harb’s property (now tennis courts and football fields along Rt.7) came up for auction. We were excited! A home at last, at long last, a home. We were outbid.
Various other buildings housed Playshop activities during “the vagabond years." The Faulkners allowed the use of their largest barn for storage and set construction (now part of “White Fences” on Danbury Rd. just south of Scribner Hill where the Girl Scout office is). The Harbs lent space in their cider mill for which the school is named. Sets were stored in the Cannondale school (now The Olde Schoolhouse Grille) when it was still located on the comer of Danbury Rd. and Olmstead Hill (in the clearing next to the yellow house). The Laboratory Workshop arm of The Playshop frequently used the Cannon Grange Hall for their presentations.
Reference is also made in Playshop history of the then Erskine property at #200 Nod Hill Road. This is the spot where meetings of the playreading branch took place during the 1930’s and 40’s. But we can be reasonably sure that the thought of having a theatre so far out of town (at that time) never allowed “Nodway” as it was called, to really ever be seriously considered. Which brings us to our current home.
The auditorium in which you sit and watch some pretty darn good theatre (if I do say so myself) was originally part of the Congregational Church complex at the top of the hill (where you are directed to park in neat, little rows). It was constructed in 1871 as an annex to the Church itself. It was positioned approximately where the current parish hall stands but was not attached to the church. It was used for church school and the Yankee Fair took place between the two buildings. See Top Picture
In September 1953, it was moved down the hill and, over a period of some four years, joined to a goat barn (where the cast and crew pictures hang in the Greenroom.) which had either been moved up from the Harb property (where the tennis courts are now) or been standing on this spot for longer than anyone could remember (from the looks of it, probably longer than even the Vikings could possibly remember).
It is interesting to note, (to me anyway), that auditions for the very first official Playshop production, The Late Christopher Bean, were held in “the parish hall of the Congregational Church," some 16 years before anyone knew that it would be moved and become our home of 50 years. Perhaps it had a wish that came true?
For the remainder of the decade, The Playshop staged several popular classics, and ended the thirties with a showing of Thornton Wilder’s ever-enthralling, “Our Town.”
During the forties, years not occupied by war were filled with drama, laughter and song as The Playshop carried on doing benefits for war relief and meetings by hay wagon. In the early fifties, the donation of two buildings, a 100-year-old sheep barn and the old Congregational Church parish house, led to The Playshop having a permanent home. Some 200 volunteers worked for more than two years and two became one. The Wilton Playshop now had its own unique community theater on Lovers Lane.
These facilities have also made possible The Wilton Student Summer Playshop (WSSP). Since 1960, when The Playshop was the first group in the area to initiate a youth program as a constructive alternative to the summertime blues, young people have been learning all aspects of the theater, while helping to produce a show of their own.
When The Wilton Playshop was formed, its mission was to involve the active participation by the greatest possible number of people in all of the theatrical arts. This entails not only acting on stage but production work backstage. This means we also depend on our regional audiences as a life support system for our artistic endeavors. In return, Playshop has committed itself to fostering the intellectual and physical well being of these audiences. Recent improvements to the facility include a newly renovated technical control booth, raising the auditorium floor for better sightlines, providing a handicap ramp, a new greenroom floor, and offering signed performances and assistive listening devices to aid those with sensory handicaps.
The Playshop as it was. The Parish Hall for The Congregational Church.
The original architects model of the building. It is interesting to note that the original plan was to have the greenroom
only as large as the barn. This is coroborated by the original blueprints which had the “Lobby” or “Greenroom” i
n the barn only. To put that in perspective, the kitchen was to be where the ticket desk is now and the bathrooms were where they are now.
Preparation. Getting the Parish House ready to move.
On the way. The Parish House is moved down Lovers Lane.
The Parish Hall in place. The new stage house can be seen behind. In the original, there is a sign for the
Playshop Juniors (precursor to the WSSP) along the foundation between the chair and the alcove.
The Stage house under construction from the rear. There was an extension built which added
about 20 feet to the left side of the building in 1978.
The Playshop much as it is still today.