Ed Asner & the heyday of the Stratford Shakespeare theater

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I was honored to be asked to host “An Evening with Ed Asner” tonight at the Scottish Rite Theatre in Stratford, the same town where 54 years ago, the TV and stage star was a member of the company of the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre, a long-closed venue that was once the place to see stars like Katharine Hepburn under the direction of such legends as John Houseman.

(Event organizer Mark Graham told me yesterday that there are still tickets available for tonight and they will go on sale at the door at 5 p.m. The event starts at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are $25. The theater is at 2422 Main St. in Stratford.)

Asner is returning to Stratford to help the folks who have been working so hard to bring plays back to that beautiful piece of land on banks of the Housatonic River where the theater has sat empty — no doubt filled with stage ghosts — for 30 years.

Nostalgia for the venue extends far beyond Stratford and the state of Connecticut because so many people attended shows there for more than 20 years.

As a high school student in Philadelphia, one of our class trips was to a matinee in Stratford to see “As You Like It” — apparently, these spring matinees were attended by kids from all over the East Coast (it amazes me now that we would be taken on such a long day trip to see a play, but such was the power of Festival Theatre’s reputation).

In the course of doing some research for tonight, I snagged a copy of the third volume of John Houseman’s memoirs — “Final Dress” — which covers the four years in the 1950s when he ran the theater (including the 1959 season with Asner).

After getting off to a rocky start in 1955, Houseman (below) took over the next year and for the subsequent four years brought starpower and a much higher quality of production to the the Festival Theatre (by Houseman’s third season, a few critics suggested that the work being done in Stratford, Connecticut, was superior to the productions in Stratford, Ontario).

“Final Dress” gets into the internal problems that caused Houseman’s departure at the end of the 1959 season — primarily, financial problems that would cause the collapse of the institution two decades later — but the book is an exciting account of the challenges of running a true repertory theater in this country.

The audience at tonight’s event will no doubt want to hear about Asner’s amazing career in television, too — he played the great journalist character Lou Grant both on a sitcom (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) and a drama series (“Lou Grant”), winning Emmys for both incarnations.

But I want to hear all about Houseman and Morris Carnovsky and the other fabled figures the star worked with all those years ago.

Joe Meyers

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