Westport’s McKenzie ankles

Legit exec producer brought plays to theater for four decades

WESTPORT, Conn. — James B. McKenzie, exec producer at the 70-year-old Connecticut summer theater — the Westport Country Playhouse — for the past four decades, has resigned.

The board of trustees of the Connecticut Theater Foundation, the lessees of the WCP, has formed a search committee to find a replacement for McKenzie. Playhouse spokeswoman Patricia Blaufuss said there will be a summer season as usual this year.

McKenzie said, “It’s been a good run — 419 plays and lots of theatrical adventures, but it’s time to produce once again in the commercial theater, where I really belong. I’ll keep a foot in both worlds since I will continue as executive producer of the Peninsula Players Theater Foundation in Wisconsin as well as the presidency of CORST (Council of Resident Summer Theaters).

“My own company, JBM Prods., will expand its current activities of producing road tours and licensing plays in the U.S. and Canada,” he said.

An advisory council headed by local resident Joanne Woodward and fleshed out with other area showbiz luminaries such as Maureen Anderman, Jayne Atkinson, James Naughton, Paul Newman and Christopher Plummer, is looking into the WCP’s future, which may include year-round programming.

Grand year-round plans and elaborate renovations have been announced in the past for the playhouse, but little or nothing happened.

Converted barn

The Westport Country Playhouse was established in 1931 by Lawrence Langner, a co-founder of Broadway’s celebrated producing organization the Theater Guild. Langner purchased a 100-year-old barn on the Boston Post Road in the middle of Westport and had it converted into a 499-seat theater with a stage the same size as Broadway’s Times Square Theater, so that productions could be transferred easily from Westport to New York.

The theater opened on June 29, 1931, with the melodrama “The Streets of New York” and went on to see many stars in its productions along with productions that transferrred from Westport to Broadway. In the early 1950s, the theater’s seating capacity was enlarged to around 798 on bench seats and in recent years was cut back to 706 for greater leg room.

For many summers, 12 productions played a week apiece, but around 1986 the schedule was changed to six productions playing two weeks apiece.

McKenzie’s tenure has not been without its detractors, and the quality of the productions he has presented has been criticized. Still, he kept the theater open for 41 years.

The playhouse itself was taken over from the Langner family some years ago by a Playhouse Limited Partnership with around 20 partners.

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