Stratford - Mr Smith Apr 11, 2005 5:21:09 GMT -5
Post by Kerrie on Apr 11, 2005 5:21:09 GMT -5
STRATFORD — The red and black signs warn: "No Trespassing." Yellow police tape is strung across a rotted wooden stairway that has fallen away from the building. On the banks of the Housatonic River, the once-majestic Shakespeare Theater, a replica of England's Globe Theatre where "The Bard's" greatest plays were staged, sits abandoned. The deteriorating structure is testament to a decades-long comedy of bureaucratic errors that defied periodic efforts at revival.
Too distinctive to be forgotten, yet too expensive to maintain, the theater sits, waiting for a new purpose.
As the town prepares to wipe the slate clean, claiming the theater from the state and settling liens, questions abound about what will the town do with it, identifying the proper people to run it and whether it is possible for such a theater to be financially successful. There is also the question of whether a viable audience who cares about Shakespeare in 21st-century America even exists. But ask Stratford residents about the theater's heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, and you're likely to get whisked into a haze of nostalgia. There are countless stories of famous actors taking up temporary quarters on Elm Street, raucous after-hours parties and bumper-to-bumper traffic of theatergoers on South Avenue and Main Street. It was a fairytale time, when everyone in town knew one another and Shakespeare was king. But not for everyone.
"I've lived in Stratford my whole life, and I didn't even see the theater until I was probably 14," said Casimir Mizera, chairman of the town's Arts Commission. "People would stop you on the street and ask for directions, and you'd just say, Follow the signs.' "Most people in Stratford didn't go there. The parking lot was full of out-of-state plates."
The town didn't have anything official to do with the theater, said Bob Smith, author of the best-selling memoir "Hamlet's Dresser," which recounts his youth in Stratford.
"Stratford was never given a piece of it," he said. "It made it seem like it was dropped in from another universe."
Mizera had a similar impression.
"It almost existed as an entity within itself," he said.
The theater was created when the state General Assembly passed Special Act No. 227, which stated it was to be a nonprofit educational institution. "A lot of the people who started it were already established," Mizera said. "It was almost a toy for them. They wanted to make it happen, but if it didn't they could walk away."
For decades, though, the theater was a big draw for New Yorkers, who would come into town for the weekend, by car or boat.
Smith recalled a heady, festive atmosphere that would accompany each show. "To walk out front of the theater and see all the people picnicking on the lawn or with their boats on the river, the scene was very romantic, almost Edwardian," he said.
"The energy around it was phenomenal. When Katharine Hepburn was there, it would be standing room only. People would be arguing at the box office, they'd be sitting on the steps."
It was the big names — Hepburn, Christopher Plummer, June Havoc — that attracted crowds to the theater and are the focus of so many memories, said Tom Holehan, head of public relations for the Stratford Library.
people in the immediate radius housed the actors." Mizera recalls meeting Fred Gwynne, Christopher Walken and Lily Tomlin.
Holehan, who did public relations work for the theater for seven years, said one of his first jobs was to drive Lynn Redgrave around town. Smith said people would be on the lookout for the stars. "They'd say, I saw Katharine Hepburn on her bike' or I saw her she was paddling on the river.' " Today, it's difficult to pinpoint the source of nostalgia and whether that atmosphere can be reclaimed. "It's not the Shakespeare," Smith said, "although people like to think it is." However, there are many successful Shakespeare acting troupes throughout the nation. "The take on Shakespeare is changing because his themes, his topics were so universal that they lend themselves to being universally interpreted," Mizera said.