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Sunday, September 23 News

Woog’s World / See you at the Westport Country Playhouse, Howard

It seemed like such a nice thing to do.

Howard J. Aibel is a longtime supporter of the Westport Country Playhouse. He saw his first production at the historic theater around 1953. As he became a successful attorney — including serving as chief legal officer of ITT Corporation — he continued to assist one of Westport’s town jewels.

In 2005 he joined the Playhouse board of trustees. He currently serves as vice chair.

“I have found live theater to be life transformative,” Aibel says. “Being a support of the Westport Country Playhouse has been a rich and grand experience.”

To show his appreciation, Aibel gave $3 million to the theater. So far $500,000 is designated for current operations. Another half million is for working capital reserve. A bequest of $2 million to establish an endowment is held in an irrevocable trust.

In return, the Playhouse decided to name the entire campus “The Howard J. Aibel Theater Center of Westport Country Playhouse.”

Let no good deed go unpunished.

Reaction was swift. Forget that no one, ever, will actually refer to “The Howard J. Aibel Theater Center” — it will always be “The Playhouse.” (Aibel’s name will appear above the entrance, in letters smaller than the Playhouse name.)

Forget too that the Playhouse property already bears other names. The Lucille Lortel White Barn Center honors Westport’s “other” theater — the smaller place where, for half a century beginning in 1947, cutting-edge theater was produced. It was owned and operated by actress/producer Lucille Lortel — who named it after herself. (It was also, technically, over the Norwalk line on Newtown Turnpike. Lortel knew the cachet of the Westport name.)

Next to the Lortel White Barn Center at the Playhouse is the Sheffer studio space. This flexible area is named for one of Westport’s leading philanthropic families. Both Ann Sheffer and her late brother Doug worked at the Playhouse as teenagers; both supported a variety of theatrical endeavors as adults. No one begrudges those names on the Playhouse walls.

Other theater plaques cite Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, whose half-century of support — both behind the scenes and very publicly — helped the theater through tough times. Woodward was a driving force behind an enormous renovation project in the early 2000s.

But Aibel’s gift struck many the wrong way. “The name of the Playhouse is not supposed to represent money,” one resident wrote on a local forum. “It should represent our community and history, especially the nationally known history of the Westport Country Playhouse’s contribution to American theater. Renaming it in honor of a contribution or contributor is a disgrace to the town and its artists.”

Others called it an “embarrassment,” and “an example of hubris, not humility.”

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Then there was this: “This discussion is not be about Mr. Aibel, whose generosity and, from the sound if it here, fundamental goodness is not in dispute. What we’re debating is a principle, which is that a local institution that has been around as long as this one and beloved by generations of people, has at some level become community property regardless of its finances. Its name should reflect this history and not be changed lightly in response to financial exigencies.”

The Playhouse is hardly the only Westport institution named for a philanthropist’s gift. In 1919 Edward T. Bedford — a director of Standard Oil, and one of the wealthiest Westporters ever — bought the Westporter Hotel downtown, and announced he would build a Tudor-style YMCA in its place. You can’t name a Y for yourself, but the original structure at the Post Road/Main Street intersection was always called the Bedford building. The Y moved out to Wilton Road — where it’s now called the Bedford Center, in honor of contributions from the entire family — including Ruth Bedford, who gave $40 million to the Y in her will — but it was replaced by a retail/residential complex called Bedford Square.

E.T. Bedford also provided funds for Bedford Elementary School (and Greens Farms El — enough is enough, he must have figured).

And who can forget Horace Staples? We hardly think about the name, but it sounds so much better than “Westport High School.” The town’s richest citizen in 1884, he was proud of his gift to students. And he named it after himself.

Other names honor Westporters who did not provide financial gifts. Think of Ned Dimes and E.R. Strait Marinas; Albie Loeffler, Jinny Parker and PJ Romano Fields, and the Lou Nistico Fieldhouse. Wakeman Field is named for the family that donated all that land next to (yes) Bedford Middle School.

So thank you, Howard Aibel. I look forward to seeing you at the Westport Country Playhouse. Enjoy the show!

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.

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