In the early ‘90s a lifelong friend of mine decided plumbing was no longer for him — he was an actor!
Bitten by the bug so fiercely, he tackled the first role offered to him, with not a single acting class to his credit and a predilection for getting red-faced just telling a story to his friends, never mind a room full of complete strangers. The upside? This particular room wasn’t necessarily enormous. The downside? Damned if I can even remember the name of the play or what it was about. (That said, within a few years he’d be playing George in a pretty darned good stage production of the classic “Of Mice & Men,” where he turned in a fine performance.)
But that first show, in that first room, was Branford’s own “Puppet House Theater.” The way he invited me seemed a harbinger of an awful performance to come; he was staring at the floor, red-faced, saying over and over how he was sure I’d never heard of the venue, how hard it was to find, how he wouldn’t blame me if I didn’t show — but that it would mean a lot to him if I attended.
Boy, was he surprised to hear that I not only knew of the legendary shoreline theater, but had already been there many times, and even in recent months. It was enjoying a run of decent attendance to decent productions at the time. Life for the theater has been fairly uneven since the early ‘90s, with promises made, a ton of “ground is broken” announcements in local newspapers and on social media, and even more gossip tied to the quaint — and historic — venue in the years and decades since.
A few concerts popped up here and there along the way, mostly “branch on the open mic night tree” kind of stuff.
But, about that legendary and historic part. No less than Orson Welles himself staged one of his early works there, in 1938. It was called “Too Much Johnson.” However, there weren’t too much tickets sold. It closed fairly quickly. Amazing — only three years later his film “Citizen Kane” would be on the silver screen, all the rage, seeing to it that Welles’ name would go down in cinema history forevermore, but pre-”Rosebud” Welles couldn’t make a show of his fly only a stone’s throw from the Thimble Islands.
“Too Much Johnson,” interestingly, was an adaptation of a William Gillette farce, a Connecticut resident at the time, and whose “Castle” remains a thriving Connecticut tourist attraction to this day.
Speaking of movies…and movie houses, that is what the “Puppet House” was initially built to be, back in 1903.
History kind of repeats itself. There was “ground broken” at the “Puppet House” again, as recently as last summer, and it appears in the throes of upgrade and renovation at this very minute. The Legacy Theater, a shoreline-based professional theater company, purchased it last year, some 10 years after town officials had to shut it down due to numerous code violations.
As of last year the talk was “130 seats —same as was the case in 1963 — but to expand from stage productions and concerts to classes and even parties.” A birthday party in the ol’ Puppet House Theater does sound cool, one must admit. A party within the walls of history? Such a thing would most likely be lost upon the smaller child, but not on the one a bit older, already entranced by theater, having already begun taking the stage him or herself. That kid — and all his/her “theater geek” friends would easily never forget it for the rest of their life.
I saw that friend of mine who’d done the abrupt left turn in our 20s and began acting recently at a concert. Interestingly, it was at the College Street Music Hall, also a storied Connecticut venue. For many years known as “The Palace,” it was also for many years just sitting there across the street from The Shubert empty, not unlike the Puppet House Theater.
I asked if he was still acting and he waved me away, got red-faced all over again, and placed his arm around his wife. “You remember that?” he said sheepishly, as if it were just a phase, and maybe even one she hadn’t known he’d gone through. But 10 years easily does not a phase make, even if he has seemed to move on to being a runner. There’s always a 5K or a 2K or a WhateverK that he’s not all about. This is who he’s always been.
“I hear they’re reopening the Puppet House,” I told him anyway. “Remember? That’s where you made your debut.”
“No,” he chuckled, squeezing his wife tightly.
I looked over at her. “I once saw him in ‘Of Mice & Men,’ too. He was a hell of a George. No easy feat,” I told her, should she maybe have never known, never been told of his foray into the arts.
“That wasn’t at the ‘Puppet House,’” he was quick to clarify. He clearly remembered this “phase” better than he was letting on. “I was a good George, wasn’t I?”
I presumed his question rhetorical.