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Hepburn Turned 'Box Office Poison' Into Stage Gold

She was fierce and independent, and there was no stopping Katharine Hepburn once she was determined to become an actress.

She made her Connecticut stage debut at the Ivoryton Playhouse in 1931 during the summer season in "Let Us Be Gay," "Just Married," "It's a Wise Child," "The Cat and the Canary," "The Man Who Came Back" and "Alias the Deacon." But there were many memorable stage stops for the actress even after she became one of the great film stars of the 20th century.

After being labeled "box office poison" in Hollywood after a series of film flops, Hepburn returned to the stage for a triumphant career comeback in "The Philadelphia Story," which had its world premiere Feb. 16, 1939, at New Haven's Shubert before moving on to acclaim on Broadway.

(She chose Joseph Cotten as her leading man when she saw his performance in Orson Welles' "Too Much Johnson" at Branford's Stony Creek Theater in the summer of 1938 — even if the production was an unmitigated disaster.)

Born in Hartford, Hepburn made her hometown stage bow in "Without Love" in 1942 at the Bushnell. Taking in the grand 2,800-seat hall, she remarked to the theater's managing director rather undiplomatically, "My God, what a barn."

After years of starring in movies, she returned to the stage, trying her hand with The Bard on Broadway and on the road (Shubert Theatre in "As You Like It") and especially at Stratford's American Shakespeare Theatre in "The Merchant of Venice," "Much Ado About Nothing," "Anthony and Cleopatra" and "Twelfth Night."

She would return to Connecticut stages again and again on tour, but there was one performance that made for a bizarre story.

In 1971, while performing on tour in the musical "Coco," Hepburn fired her female chauffeur. But the woman did not leave quietly. She hid in the closet of the West Hartford home the actress was visiting, and in the altercation that resulted when she was discovered, the chauffeur bit Hepburn's right index finger, fracturing it and exposing the bone.

The Courant headline was "Katharine Performs, Bitten But Unbowed." "The bandaged finger was especially conspicuous against the dark clothing Miss Hepburn wears in the role and because Miss Hepburn's style includes the exaggeratedly pointed finger. (She) gallantly waved a white-bandaged and splinted finger" and "refused painkiller out of concern it might hurt her performance.''

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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