Monday, October 6, 2014

Hidden Among the Hemlocks

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.
Madelynn O'Neil

Horton O'Neil
Horton O’Neil, an architect and son of David O’Neil, recounts the story of how his father and he came to build the theater. David O’Neil was a lumberman by trade but an actor by avocation, having played in productions of Shakespeare, Shaw, Galsworthy, and others. During his years as an actor, he performed in several outdoor theaters, an experience Horton O’Neil believes may have provided the inspiration for the outdoor theater they would build together in Greenwich from 1934 to 1937.
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
Young dancers on the marble stage
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.

In 1959 The Pied Piper of Hamelin was presented. Ms. O’Neil describes the way in which the Piper very dramatically led the children off among the hemlocks and into the surrounding woods until they were out of sight. An appropriate ending to a ten-year period of creative, expressive dance performances, it appears. The Pied Piper was the last production mounted by the Greenwich Academy. In fact, the piper might just as well have led the audience out, too, as he led the children away, and turned off the sparkling outdoor lights that illuminated the theater while he was at it.

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 ( or go to the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places,

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.)