In a wood off Valley Road, on Lia Fail Way, to be exact, is a wondrous place, well known once but now hidden. It may be the most well known yet now obscure place in all of Greenwich. It is listed in the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places and was part of this year’s Connecticut Open House Day.
The once lauded now hidden place is the O’Neil Outdoor Theater, and it is the subject of a Greenwich Oral History Project interview published in 1977. The interview, conducted by Nancy Wolcott, was with Horton and Madelyn O’Neil, each with an interesting story to tell.
|The marble stage|
His father’s dream, according to his son, was to act in his own theater, for the love of it and not for financial gain. Additionally, he hoped to give readings of his own poetry, known as he was in the community for his poems, having published a book of poetry in 1918, A Cabinet of Jade.
The design of the theater, which was Horton O’Neil’s doing, was unique, a marble outdoor amphitheater designed to hold an audience of seven hundred, surrounded by junipers, yews, and hemlocks. Rose-colored Tennessee marble was used for the pit and in the pattern in the stage. The concept was of a pool in a forest, the concentric tiers of steps serving as a series of echoes. Horton describes it:
The swirl pattern of the stage is Celtic…a design that generated movement about a still center. The other Celtic motif was in the Druid stones around the stage, consisting of five-ton marble monoliths, and in the upright shafts in back of the auditorium.
The construction, a massive undertaking, was done without bulldozers, any heavy machinery, or blasting. The construction team consisted of one mason, one laborer, and two stonecutters with credentials including work on the Lincoln Memorial and the Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. Horton O’Neil helped with the manual labor as well as being the designer and superintendent, along with his father, of the project. While the theater was designed originally for dramatic productions and poetry readings, the first event held in the completed space was with Quinto Maganini and his orchestra before an audience of invited guests.
According to Madelyn O’Neil, After World War II, the theater was used most effectively for
dance recitals. Trained
as a dancer, she had taught for many years and had become involved with the
Greenwich Academy where she was in close contact with jean Pethick, a teacher
there. As a result of their association, from 1949 to 1959, the theater saw
numerous well-attended (with as many as 550 audience members) dance
performances. The first of these was a lavish Midsummer Night’s Dream production with none other than a young
Jane Fonda performing as one of the fairies, according to Ms. O’Neil. Another
well-attended dance performance was created from Shirley Jackson’s “The
Lottery,” Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” accompanying the dancers in what must
have been a stunning performance.
|Young dancers on the marble stage|
In 1960 the neighbors, in effect, put an end to further use of the theater for any type of performance. With the help of an attorney, the theater was closed on a technicality. It lost its “nonconforming use,” which it had enjoyed since it had been in existence before zoning barring such use had gone into effect. The loss of this status was owed to the theater having been out of use for a period of one year, which it was during the war. Alas—no more O’Neil Outdoor Theater productions, no poetry, or readings of Shakespeare, no music or dance or any kind. But the Theater is still there, at least.
For further information about the O’Neil Outdoor Theater, contact Randy Fiveash, Director of Tourism, 860-256-2769 (Randall.Fiveash@ct.gov) or go to the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places, http://www.cultureandtourism.org.
The O’Neil Outdoor Theater, transcript with Horton and Madelyn O’Neil, by Nancy Wolcott, interviewer, 1977, is available through the Greenwich Library’s Greenwich Oral History Project. The interviews are located on the first floor of the library and through the project office on the lower level. (Photos from the Greenwich Oral History Project collection and courtesy of the Greenwich Historical Society.)