Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center on Main Street in Old Saybrook
OLD SAYBROOK – In 1976 I was a reporter for the New Haven Register's Sunday Arts and Leisure section and was assigned to interview Katharine Hepburn on her upcoming pre-Broadway tryout of an Enid Bagnold play, "A Matter of Gravity," at the local Shubert Theater. I thought it was a long shot, but made the request. When the show's press agent called back, he relayed Ms. Hepburn's response: "New Haven is near Hartford, Hartford is home. I'll do the interview."
Connecticut always meant home to Hepburn, and now the local girl who went on to become a Broadway and Hollywood legend has been rewarded with a handsome gift, a theater, the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, on Main Street in Old Saybrook, just down the road from her beloved Fenwick.
The handsome, red brick, white-columned building is set within the former town hall that opened in 1910 as a theater and civic center. The theater, on the building's upper level, was the home of the Old Saybrook Musical and Dramatic Club, which presented plays starring actors of the period like Norma Terris, Henry Hull and Ethel Barrymore. It was also the town's first movie theater. Downstairs, there were offices housing the town's records and a makeshift jail.
One afternoon in August, Chuck Still, the new theater's executive director, gave me a tour of the facilities, which were still getting some finishing touches to get it ready for its September opening.
The 250-seat theater with balcony is essentially a replica of the original and it's a beauty. There are large, arched windows, the original wood floors and the seats and lighting fixtures all look circa 1910. The interior is painted pale coffee, with a sky-blue ceiling and chalk trim. The stage is 28 feet wide, 20 feet deep and 14 feet high. In theatrical lingo, it is a hemp house, meaning the scenery, curtains and drops are lifted by ropes, pulleys and sandbags, something you hardly ever see in theaters today. The only concessions to modernity were first-class theatrical lighting and sound systems. Downstairs, beside new offices, there will be a Katharine Hepburn museum, where a curator will oversee collections and memorabilia from the actor's long career.
After the tour, we went to Mr. Still's office, where he kicked off his shoes and settled down to discuss the center's evolution. The walls were filled with posters of productions Mr. Still had been connected to on Broadway, at the Berkshire Theater Festival and at other theaters across New England, and, most recently, through his 10-year stint as the director of the Riverside Theater in Vero Beach, Fla.
It was from there that he was recruited back north. Although the town of Old Saybrook provided the majority of the money for the refurbishment of the building, the town did not want to be involved in the physical creation or running of the theater space. Town officials also realized they would need private help and for that, a nonprofit entity would have to be created. Enter Mr. Still.
"The town owns the building, but the theater has a 21-year operating agreement with Old Saybrook," he said.
When he arrived in 2008, a little less than $800,000 of a goal of $1.7 million had been raised for the theater. He had to raise $900,000, which was not an easy task considering the tough economic times and the frugality of New Englanders.
"In the end, people here turned out to be extraordinarily generous. I just had to change my concept of what generosity is."
Most of the funding came from people writing checks for $1,000, which has created an enthusiastic, built-in audience base before the theater has even opened its doors. When I visited him, Mr. Still was just $10,000 dollars away from his goal.
Mr. Still said that he was still lining up attractions for his first season. He pointed out that the theater will not be a producing theater, like the Ivoryton Playhouse or Goodspeed, but rather a performing arts center, a more intimate Bushnell, presenting lots of different attractions: everything from opera to dance to comedy to cabaret. There will even be a reading of one of Hepburn's most popular vehicles, Philip Barry's hit comedy "The Philadelphia Story." For the first year or so, Mr. Still's artistic vision of the center will be, "throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks and sells and finding out what the community wants to see."
Lately, Mr. Still has been busy giving what's left of the Hepburn clan tours of the new center. Her brother-in-law, Ellsworth Grant, who is in his 90s, still lives in Fenwick and was once the mayor of West Hartford, stopped by. His daughter, actress Katharine Houghton, who co-starred with her aunt in the 1967 film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," has had a walk-through, as has ABC's Nightline anchor Cynthia McFadden, who is co-executor of Hepburn's estate. Plus, half of the town's residents, who claim some distant relationship to the Hepburn family.
Mr. Still said he wonders what Hepburn would think of the place.
I think she would love it. The only thing she might object to would be the center's nickname, "The Kate." Hepburn was always known as "Kathy" around these parts. "Kate" came later, when she had become a big-time movie star.
Information about the center and its lineup of programs may be found online at www.katharinehepburntheater.org.