Posted by Bruce Miller
Four years before Phil Whiteway and I started Theatre IV, I worked summer stock in Southbury, Connecticut. The year was 1971, and I had just finished my junior year at the University of Richmond. None of us knew it at the time, but many if not most of the wonderful summer stock theatres that had thrived throughout New England for over 30 years were on their last legs. After the glory days of the 40s, 50s and 60s, true summer stock theatres were fast becoming a thing of the past.
A true summer stock theatre—at least this is how it was explained to me—produced ten shows in ten weeks, or twelve shows in twelve weeks. During each one week run, the show ran for eight performances, opening on a Tuesday and closing Sunday night.
If you worked for an official straw hat theatre (named for the fashionable headgear that gentlemen donned when the temperatures began to rise), the acting companies were booked in. They brought their own costumes and hand props, and the theatre built the sets and provided lights and sound. If you worked for a summer stock company that wasn’t a part of the official straw hat circuit—the Southbury Summer Playhouse wasn’t—then you created everything from scratch and nothing was booked in. The actors were part of a rep company, half of whom did nothing but act while the other half acted occasionally and worked their donkeys off every minute they weren’t on stage.
Our ten shows at Southbury in the summer of ’71 were Arsenic and Old Lace, Barefoot in the Park, Boys in the Band, Bus Stop, Cactus Flower, The Mousetrap, See How They Run, Under the Yum Yum Tree, West Side Story, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? At least that’s what my fading memory tells me they were. I was the props master for all ten shows, I helped out with any and everything else as needed, I played a lead in See How They Run and tiny supporting parts in Arsenic and Cactus.
The work was grueling, pretty much 9 a.m. until midnight or 1 seven days a week. Our only off time was Wednesday from noon until 6, when about 12 of us would pile into two cars and drive into NYC to buy standing room tickets to a Broadway hit. There was no TKTS booth, but standing room cost only $3, if memory serves.
I had the time of my life!
Even in those days when summer stock theatres were still fairly plentiful, jobs were hard to come by. You more or less had to know someone. I knew my college roommate and best pal Rick Gehr from Binghamton, New York. Rick knew his high school buddy Richard Ebeling, who had somehow managed to get a job at Southbury in 1970, and was not returning in ’71. Ebeling put in a good word for Gehr, and Gehr put in a good word for me. Rick Gehr and I took a bus up to Southbury to interview and audition with the producer, W. Thomas Littleton, and we both were cast.
We were paid $75 a week, and each of us paid $25 a week to rent a bed from Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, who owned a big white frame house about ten minutes up the road in Woodbury (pictured to the left). If we wanted to eat dinner at the Andersons, that was an additional $3 per meal. All in all, we scraped by.
I have a million stories, but one of my favorites involved Arthur Miller, who lived about 8 minutes away in Roxbury. That's his house in the picture to the right. Early in our 12-week contract, one of the locals drove us around to visit the houses of the famous people who were our neighbors in the Litchfield Hills—Arthur Miller, Alexander Calder, Jerzy Kosinsky, William Styron, John Updike, Richard Widmark, Sylvia Sidney, etc. Today you can add Dustin Hoffman, Frank McCourt and Stephen Sondheim to the list.
When we got to Arthur Miller’s house, I was stunned to see that his mailbox had Miller written on it in big block letters just like my parents’ mailbox at home in Virginia. I made them stop the car and take my picture next to the mailbox. I have no idea where that photo is today. Behind and to the side of Miller's white frame house is the studio he build in the late 40s, pictured above and to the left. It was in this studio that he wrote Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and most of his other great plays.
Anyway, one day I was taking a lunch break from my desperate search for free props, and I sat down at the lunch counter at Canfield Corner Pharmacy in Woodbury. I was sitting by myself eating a sandwich when a man in his 50s sat down on the counter stool next to me. The man who ran the lunch counter came over and said, “Hello, Mr. Miller.” I looked up, thinking he was talking to me, and wondering how he knew my name. It was instantly obvious from his gaze that he was talking to the fellow sitting next to me. I glanced over just long enough to realize that the man sitting five inches from my elbow was none other than the legendary Arthur Miller himself. He ordered a corn beef on rye, and we sat there silently until both of us had eaten our sandwiches and he went on his way. I never had the nerve to say anything, but I tried to soak it all in as much as I could.
Last week, I took my family back up to Southbury, Woodbury, Roxbury and Washington CT. Washington made the list because it’s the neighboring town that served as the inspiration for Stars Hollow on one of my family's favorite TV shows, The Gilmore Girls. The interior and signage of Crossroads Cafe, the diner that served as a model for Luke's on The G G, are featured in the photos to the left and right. As you can see, the church is across the street in Washington just as it is in Stars Hollow.
Unfortunately, the barn that served as home to the Southbury Summer Playhouse was torn down decades ago, but we still had a grand time visiting my old haunts.
While there, we stopped in a framing shop in Woodbury to ask for directions to Alexander Calder’s house, and met with a lovely young lady who asked if I knew Bill C. Davis. I told her that I’d just met him at the world premiere of Austin’s Bridge at the Firehouse in Richmond, and that he seemed very nice. Turns out she’s his hiking partner, and he now lives in that part of the world as well. She told me that he really is the nicest guy in the world, and asked me all about what I thought about Austin’s Bridge. I shared my opinions, and referred her to my earlier entry in this blog.
It was a great trip, and a wonderful chance to remember again my lunch with Arthur Miller.