'Goodspeed's Folly' no more

When William H. Goodspeed built a stately Victorian theater here in East Haddam, Conn., in 1876, it was the tallest building along the 410-mile-long Connecticut River.

Dubbed "Goodspeed's Folly" by some local residents, who scoffed at having such a big theater in the thinly populated area, the utilitarian four-story building also contained a general store, post office, and meat market.

Playing host to traveling minstrel shows and itinerant opera singers of the day, ticket prices ranged from 50 cents to $1.25 for a box seat. But after Goodspeed's death in 1882, the theater became less active and finally closed. During World War I, it housed a militia unit, and several years later became a warehouse.

In the 1940s, actress Katharine Hepburn, who had a childhood home in nearby Old Saybrook, Conn., tried to move the theater to a better location. Ms. Hepburn, who now lives year-round in Old Saybrook, remains a generous contributor to the Goodspeed. ("We just got Miss Hepburn's check for $2,000," says Michael Price, artistic director of the Goodspeed.)

But it wasn't until 1958 when the Goodspeed was slated for demolition that then-Connecticut Gov. Abraham Ribicoff helped launch a foundation to renovate and reopen the playhouse. In 1963, the Goodspeed Opera House, with a 400-seat theater, opened with a revival of Jerome Kern's classic musical "Oh, Lady! Lady!"

Today, the original, restored opera house and the smaller Goodspeed-at-Chester are keystones of eastern Connecticut's active tourism industry, which includes nearby Gillette Castle, once the home of actor William Gillette, and Mystic Seaport, about 15 miles to the east.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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