Several years ago, a good friend of mine told me about a theater in the woods in Cos Cob. He took me out to the spot off Valley Road. Although it was overgrown with trees and bushes, it was still very impressive. We had to get permission from some neighbors to cross their property to get there and I sensed some resentment, which I will explain further on. The marble amphitheater was built by the O'Neil family. When I researched this in the Oral History Project files, I found out that the patriarch of the family, David O'Neil, from St. Louis was responsible for its creation.
David O'Neil was born in Missouri in 1873. Mr. O'Neil studied at Washington University and graduated from St. Louis Law School. He became president of the O'Neil Lumber Co. and was able to amass a fortune and retire by the time he was 45. In 1903, he married his wife, Barbara. Poetry became one of his passions, and he was able to publish his own collection of poems titled "A Cabinet of Jade". He loved Shakespeare and did some acting on the side. McDowell Stock Company - a Shakespearian company - added him to their ensemble. He also hung around other acting groups, which gave him bit parts. In 1911, he became one of the first presidents of the prestigious Player Club. In 1914, he played in The Masque, an outdoor play about the founding of St. Louis. It had a cast of thousands. The stage was in the middle of a lagoon, at the foot of a hill. According to Horton O'Neil, David's son, each night, one-hundred-thousand people attended. He believes the entire population of St. Louis saw the performance over its run! David O'Neil eventually moved to California, where he played in two outdoor theaters: The Forest Theater in Carmel and the Grove Playhouse.
In 1926, he moved to Greenwich, and bought a tract of land off Valley Road. He purchased all the land around him. Almost immediately, O'Neil started talking about building an outdoor theater. David had been impressed with the outdoor theaters he had worked in. Since he wrote his own poetry and liked to read it publicly, he dreamed of performing it in his own theater, along with Shakespereain works. David played the guitar and liked to incorporate music into his readings. It wasn't until 1934 that construction began. Horton, who was an architect, had designed an outdoor theater for Suffern NY, but it was never built. He designed the O'Neil theater, and helped his father with construction supervision. (As an aside, Horton later was involved with set design on Broadway.) Horton pushed the idea of using marble, which he had used before in design.
The first year they concentrated on excavation and the aquistion of marble. No heavy equipment or blasting was used in the excavation. Workers used a shovel and truck to clear the natural amphitheater. Marble was shipped from quarries in New York, Vermont and Connecticut. Some of the stone was marble from Arlington National Cemetery, which didn't meet military specifications for headstones!
The design of the theater was unique. Junipers, yews and hemlocks grew naturally on the site. Rose-colored Tennessee marble was used. The center of the theater was a circular stage, built in a spiral motif. It was supposed to symbolize a swirl pattern in a pool, which generates movement around a still center - much like concentric waves spreading out from a center when a stone is dropped in water. This style was also used in Celtic culture. Five-ton monolith columns were used to support the roof. A "pit" separated the players from the audience. On occasion, they considered filling it with water. At other times, it was used by the actors. The construction crew consited of 2 stonecutters, who had worked on the Lincoln Memorial, the Honoluu State House Building and the Supreme Court building. A mason and one laborer laid the stone. Since the stones weighed anywhere from 800 pounds to 5-tons, a derrick was hired. Surprisingly, not only did David and Horton help with the placement of the stone, but nearby neighbors also helped. Some ended up in the Emergency Room with crushed fingers! Horton designed it to fit 700 people, but the finished product only fit 500. It took 3-years to complete the construction - 1934 to 1937.
This project was not a commercial venture. It was constructed for the family to use for their own entertainment. The first person to perform there was renowned fluitist and conductor Quinto Manganini and his orchestra. These events were not widely publicized - mainly small blurbs in the newspaper. Many residents heard by word of mouth. When World War II began, there was a hiatus from 1939 to 1940. Only war concerts were held to help with British relief. Horton and his family moved to Portand ME for 3.5 years during the War. He spent huis time helping the war effort by designing ships. Once it was over, he and his family returned home.
After the war, the theater was used primarily for dance recitals. Mrs. Pethick, the dance teacher from Greenwich Academy, jopined forces with an art teacher, Margaret Lacey, to put on programs. One was Shaekespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, which included Jane Fonda! (She was 11 or 12 at the time.) They also did The Pied Piper of Hamlin. Well-known choreographer Ethel Brown brought her Washington DC Green Acres School to perform. The City and Country School of New York gave a dance recital as well as more local The Cos Cob School. When it was learned that a man wanted to build a Shakespearian Theater in southwestern Connecticut, Joseph Verner Reed tried to convince that man to use the O'Neil complex as the new center. After all, there were 160 acres of land available. Howerver, the developer was enamored with the name "Stratford" and decided to build it there.
Mr. O'Neil died on June 9, 1947. He left behind his wife, Barbara, sons George and Horton, and daughter Barbara. His daughter went on to perform on Broadway.
In the 1960s, the same neighbors who had attended the cultural performances, started complaining about the traffic. They were not happy with outsiders parking their cars in the area. There was no real parking lot, so cars were being parked on the neighbors' property. The neighbors hired a lawyer to look into this problem. According to the lawyer, the O'Neil's had lost their right to use their land for the performing arts since it was non-conforming. Although they were "grandfathered in" - allowed a waiver since they had bought the land prior to the law's existence - they lost the privilege since the theater was not used one year.
At one time, Greenwich had a very vibrant summer stock theater program. There have also been some active community theater groups, including Cameo Theater,Connecticut Playmakers and The Acting Company of Greenwich. This is a topic for another blog.
SOURCES: "The O'Neil Outdoor Theater", OHP, 1993.
The Greenwich Time, Hearst Corporation