Sunday, August 12, 2007

My Lunch with Arthur Miller

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.

--Bruce Miller


pnlkotula said...

Hmmm Bruce. Your Arthur Miller story is not unlike the Norman Mailer episode of Gilmore Girls...brushes with fame...thanks for sharing.

Bruce Miller said...

Thankfully, unlike Norman Mailer in Gilmore Girls, Arthur Miller ordered more than just iced tea. If you're a Gilmore Girls fan, and few who have seen it fail to become fans, then Washington CT is a fun place to visit. It's much smaller feeling than Stars Hollow. But the diner, the church and bell tower, the inn (called the Mayflower in real life), are all there. You can even find an approximation of Gypsy's auto repair. It's a very quaint town.

Anonymous said...

What a great story. If all those famous people live in one community, it must be one hell of a community. I'll have to make a point to visit Southbury, Woodbury, Roxbury, Washington myself sometime. It sounds charming. And how lucky for you, Bruce, to have had the chance to work there in your formative years. What happened to the other actors you met there? Have they been as successful as you?

Bruce Miller said...

I've recounted what I know about two of my most successful fellow Southbury actors. This info appears in its own post, published as "Summer Stock Memories - Part II" on August 19. Thanks for asking.

Bruce Miller said...

To the anonymous commenter who inquired about the audition practices at Southbury, I can't publish your comment since it raises legal questions about a named individual. But I'll answer about what I know.

Your experiences relate to 1983. In 1971, it hadn't gotten to that point, but it was headed down that road. I don't remember where the audition took place in '71, but from what I do remember, it was on the up and up.

The activities you allude to took place, in '71, in one-on-one "acting classes" and began a few weeks into the summer. It all took place in the context of what were billed as "emotional recall exercises." Participation in "acting class" was on a "volunteer" basis, and more caution was exercised by the individual in question in '71 than, apparently, in '83.

To be honest, most of these memories were no longer in an active part of my brain, and the question in your comment has prompted me to remember some things I'd apparently chosen to set aside.

Like you, I had a couple late night conversations with other Southbury actors to compare notes--but the last conversation was decades ago now. At the time we laughed it off, much like the "History Boys" in Alan Bennett's play. I'm not trying to make light of it now, I'm just trying to give you the context of 1971.

The overall experience of the summer was terrific. We viewed this individual's behavior in '71 as idiosyncratic rather than criminal. Everything stopped when you dropped out of "acting class," and many dropped out fairly quickly. A lot of us were naive, and stayed in "acting class" one class too long.

Nothing extensive went on, to the best of my knowledge, but there was a low level of the behavior you describe.

And, no, I don't know what ever became of him, or if he was ever held accountable. Most of us were 20 or 21 at the time. If he's alive today, he has to be around 80.

Hope this helps. Feel free to email me through the "Contact" button on our website. I wish you all the best.

Wayne Mitchell said...

Hi Bruce,
I worked for Southbury playhouse myself in the summer of 1986. One of the last few years it was in operation. Your blog brings back some great memories.

-Wayne Mitchell

Wayne Mitchell said...

Oh, and BTW I think that Tom died in 1995 although I don't know ant details.

Bruce Miller said...

Dear Wayne,

It's great to hear from another Southbury alum. It's been over a year since I wrote that post, so I had fun reading it again tonight myself. I Google Wayne Mitchell theatre and came across at least three individuals, one of which may well be you. Anyway, feel free to email me, I'd love to hear your Southbury stories. Since writing this post, I heard from one other Southbury actor who apparently had a rough time in '83. He also said that Tom had died in the 90s. All of this is coincidental, because my wife and I were watching an old made-for-TV movie last night, Kennedy, when who should pop up on screen by my Southbury roommate and great friend, the late Michael Connolly. I had to replay his scene about ten times. It was so GREAT to see him again.

Anyway, thanks for writing. I wish you all the best. I have to pass on my email address to you in code because of those little robots who scour the Internet for addresses so that they can spam you to death. Take the first letter of my first name, followed by a dot, then type my last name, followed by the @ sign, then type BarksdaleRichmond, followed by a dot, followed by org.

Hope to hear from you. And thanks again for writing.

B Fielding said...

My family was just moving into the area in the early 1970's and the summer stock theater was one of the features that put Southbury on the top of our list. Although we now have hundreds of cable TV channels (instead of the two broadcast channels that existed back then), the community spirit of a shared bit of culture at the theater is hard to replicate in a private home. Thanks for bring your art to us in the 1970's and your memories now.

Joe said...

I was just searching to see if there was any info on the Southbury Playhouse. I worked there in 1983 for the whole season, I performed and painted sets and ran lights and I don't remember what else. Overall an experience I will never forget- the theatre part of it was absolutely amazing. I was 19 at the time, and I took "acting classes" as well, and this blog is enlightening to me, because those classes have stuck with me for a long time--26years? Those of you who took the classes apparently know what I mean, so I guess I was not alone in this... Anyhow, I went on from Southbury to do theatre for many years, and now I work in TV. I am very curious to hear from others who worked at the theater and what their experiences were like, and if anyone worked there the summer of '83.

russell said...

Bruce t is great to read your experience at Southbury Playhouse and Tom Littleton. I was one of the geriatric cadre of actors in the 1980s until the barn was condemned and torn down for progress and Tom moved to the High school for a couple of years. One of my fondest memories was being around all of you young people. It reminded me of beating around New York City in the early 1950s on cattle calls. Tom was a very good friend of mine aside from the Theatre and of all we older actors. I saw a lot of fine young talent and hope you all did well.
Speaking od Arthur Miller I had the pleasure of playing Solomon in his play the Price in 1990 at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Ct. I am 85 now but still looking for my next role. Russell

Anonymous said...

As daughter of the owner, I grew up at Canfield Corner Pharmacy. I sat at the soda fountain every afternoon to do my homework. Arthur Miller came in daily to pick up the New York Times and always asked about the day's assignment or what had happened at school! He loved hearing about everyday things and my views on them seemed important...a great experience through elementary school to high school and even college vacations.