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.
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