The long-shuttered American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford was completely destroyed in a fire that began in the early hours of Jan. 13.
The Stratford Fire Department responded to calls shortly before 1:00 a.m., and the scope of the fire required additional input from fire departments in Bridgeport and Milford. The state Fire Marshal’s office is now investigating the cause of the fire and a canine unit will investigate the site today to determine if accelerants played a role in the destruction.
“The loss of this iconic and historic theater that holds a special place in the hearts of Stratford residents is devastating,” Stratford Mayor Laura Hoydick said. “Our first concern is ensuring safety, making sure the site is secured and that there is no further threat to public safety. This fire continues to be under investigation to determine the exact cause of this fire, and we will be working in concert with state officials in that effort.”
The concept for the theater was developed by playwright Lawrence Langer in 1950. The Stratford location was chosen after Langer’s initial choice of Westport rejected his proposal. Modeled after the original 16th century Globe Theatre in London, the 1,500-seat American Shakespeare Theatre opened in 1955 with a production of “Julius Caesar” starring Raymond Massey, Jack Palance, Christopher Plummer and Jerry Stiller. While the venue had no problem attracting iconic stars for its stage – Katharine Hepburn, Helen Hayes, James Earl Jones, Jessica Tandy, Ruby Dee, Jill Clayburgh, Ed Asner, Anne Baxter and Christopher Walken were among those who appeared in its productions – it had difficulty maintaining its financial viability. The theater’s final full season was in 1982, when the state took ownership of the property. Occasional productions were mounted over the next seven years and the last production on its stage took place in 1989 with Fred Curchack’s one-person rendition of “The Tempest.” Over the past two decades, special events were held on the grounds while the closed theater fell into disrepair.
The town of Stratford acquired the property’s deed from the state in 2005. Over the past five years, plans by the town to reanimate the shuttered building and to build a luxury hotel on its grounds came to naught. In 2017 the town began accepting bids from contractors to mothball the building, but this strategy was never fully pursued.
The Mighty Quinn Foundation Inc., the parent organization for the summer theater program Shakespeare Academy at Stratford, started a GoFundMe campaign to raise $25,000 toward the reconstruction of the theater. “We know we are in good company though, the original Globe burned down and today we still love and perform Shakespeare’s works and will continue to do so,” the academy stated in its crowdfunding appeal.