50 Years Of Drama, Dance And Dedication At Goodspeed

Would the story of the Goodspeed Opera House make a good musical?

The thought occurred to me while I was interviewing Michael Price, who's been with the Victorian theater on the Connecticut River in East Haddam for 46 of its 50 years. During lunch at the Gelston House restaurant (which Goodspeed Musicals also owns), the longtime executive director says there is plenty of material that could lend itself to the larger-than-life dynamics of a musical.

Drama? There was the time when the banks of the Connecticut River overflowed in the '80s — twice — and flooded the basement of the theater.

Cliff-hangers? There was the time in the early days when the theater was on the verge of closing, when a little show called "Hubba Hubba" turned out to be a smash — and saved the theater for a while.

Of course, there were the many door-slamming fights after a show's first run-though, the last minute turnarounds from messes to masterpieces, the egos, the romances and the sex. "Oh, you could talk about the sex," says Price, hinting at the heat generated among close living conditions in the isolated theatrical outpost, "but we're not going to."

Price prefers to chat about the dedication of the multi-tasking staff over the decades, how the theater changed its focus when times demanded, and how he made a pivotal personal decision late in his own tenure that made a significant impact on the theater.

Goodspeed's history reflects the changing tastes, audiences and business of the American theater, say Price, though he prefers to use the word "evolve."

"We kept re-branding ourselves as we went along," he says. "You can't live on what you did in the past."

As the theater prepares for the first show of its golden anniversary season — a revamped version of 1927's "Good News" begins previews Friday, April 12 and opens May 1 — Price, who turns 75 this summer, looks back at the tenuous beginnings, its hits and misses and its gradual development as the leading center for the development of musicals.

Coming And Going

Was there a 50 or even 5-year plan, when the theater re-opened after its extensive renovation in 1963?

"It just happened," says Price.

The six-story wooden building was built in 1876 by William Henry Goodspeed, a local entrepreneur who saw it as a multi-purpose center — general store, post office, dentist's office — with performance space on its upper two floors. The theater's patron died six years later and the theater activity declined until its last performance in 1902 of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Commerce continued until fire laws prohibited its public use.The building slowly deteriorated and by 1950s it was being used as a Department of Transportation garage.

In 1958 a group of residents led by Libby Kaye and Mrs. Alfred Howe Terry, began efforts to revive the theater, supported by then-Gov. Abraham Ribicoff. The newly renovated and updated theater opened five years later.

In 1963 Price was a student at the Yale School of Drama studying lighting and theater management when he first became aware of Goodspeed through an architecture class. He returned later that year with some of his classmates to help open up the first season under executive director Albert Selden.

But when it was time to plan for the second season, "everybody thought it would be best that I left," he says. "I wasn't invited back. I was a young guy straight out of Yale who knew all the answers. It was a good thing that I left."

Early Struggle

The 398-seat theater continued for the first five years of its existence essentially as a stock company, presenting its inaugural show, "Oh, Lady, Lady!," followed by "The Mikado," "The Fantasticks" and "A Connecticut Yankee."

Meanwhile, Price moved on to work as a stage hand in New York, and then as stage manager of Music Theater of Lincoln Center under composer Richard Rodgers, presenting shows at the New York State Theater and on tour. Price then moved on to run a 3,500-seat Valley Music Hall in Salt Lake City.

Things were changing at Goodspeed. Selden was having a tough time running the place. His one bit hit, "Man of La Mancha" premiered at the theater in 1965. Eventually, the musical and Selden were moving on to New York.