Photo: Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media
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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 completely 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.”
1950: Lawrence Langner comes up with idea for theater and eventually enlists the help of Lincoln Kirstein and philanthropist Joseph Verner Reed to build it.
1955: The theater opens.
1960s and 1970s: High school students travel from around the country to see productions at the theater.
1973: Joseph Verner Reed dies and money for the theater dies with him.
1982: The final season of shows is held in the building. Shows included “King Henry IV,” “Twelfth Night” and “Hamlet” with Christopher Walken and Anne Baxter.
1983: State takes over the theater.
2005: Ownership of the theater passes to Stratford.
2014: A committee picks the Elm Street Theatre Company to restore the theater.
2015: Town Council picks the Stratford Stage Group to build a luxury hotel on the property and get the theater running again.
2016: Town ends negotiations with the Stratford Stage Group.
April 2017: The town plans to hire an architect to prevent building from falling into disrepair.
2017: Contractors bid to mothball the building.
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 70s 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.
“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 devastating, 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.”
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.
Staff writer Ethan Fry contributed to this story.