Aug 18, 2014
07:53 AM
Arts & Entertainment

Katharine Hepburn-Inspired Performance Venue in Old Saybrook Turns 5 in Style

 Katharine Hepburn-Inspired Performance Venue in Old Saybrook Turns 5 in Style

Katharine Hepburn.

When Katharine Hepburn died in June 2003 at her storied waterfront home in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook, The New York Times’ obituary called the star of such classic films as Bringing Up BabyThe Philadelphia Story and The African Queen an “actress whose independent life and strong-willed movie characters made her a role model for generations of women and a beloved heroine to filmgoers for more than 60 years.”

Independent, strong-willed and beloved are also adjectives that apply to a living piece of the Hepburn legacy in Connecticut, the thriving Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center on Main Street in Old Saybrook, affectionately known as The Kate.

Hepburn, who loved her adopted shoreline hometown, had no hand in creating The Kate, though she had seen at least one performance (around 1931) in the historic building once used as the town hall and built with a theater as an integral element.

(Right, the Katharine Hepburn stamp on the stage at The Kate.)

The forces behind creation of The Kate had to persuade Hepburn’s family to allow the cultural arts center to be named after her—and, in larger sense, persuade the town and its residents that a performing arts venue in the former town hall was a worthy project, one that merited nearly $5 million in municipal bonding.

Five years later, The Kate has logged more than 1,000 performances in its lovely 250-seat theater treasured by both performers and audiences for its intimacy and acoustics—and it’s celebrating the five-year milestone Aug. 23 with its annual gala. (Tickets are $250, $350 and $500.) The theme this year will be “Country Swing,” and the band NewFound Road, a country swing band from Tennessee and a favorite at The Kate, will perform.

It starts at 5 p.m. with cocktails, and then the performance, followed by a sit-down dinner, live auction and more dancing after the auction concludes under a tent on the green. (The Kate celebrated the 1,000th show in May by welcoming back the band that performed on the theater’s stage for the very first time, Pure Prairie League.)

Connecticut Magazine sat down recently to talk about the five-year anniversary with Chuck Still, executive director at The Kate, and Ann Nyberg, the WTNH-TV news anchor and reporter who also has a specialty shop, Annie Mame (“where yesterday is today”), and has been instrumental in the establishment and good fortunes of The Kate —which has an annual operating budget of about $1.2 million and runs in the black. (Left, a painting of Hepburn in a museum devoted to her life and work at The Kate.)

The Kate isn’t just about music, even with such performers as Art Garfunkel, Joan Osborne, Janis Ian, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds and Jonathan Edwards. The programming also includes dance, theater, movies and much more. (In May, Under the Tuscan Sun author Frances Mayes was at The Kate, presenting her new Tuscan Sun Wines before a screening of Under the Tuscan Sunwith Diane Lane.)

“I’d like to expand our non-musical offerings,” Still says after giving a tour of The Kate on a bright, hot summer morning, saying he’s most proud of “how the performers like to play here.”

Nyberg marvels, “We opened this place basically at a time when this country went into a recession,” before telling an anecdote about trying to reach Hepburn at one point and calling her New York number. “Oh my God, it’s Katharine Hepburn” was Nyberg’s thought when the actress answered the phone.

“There were a lot of naysayers in town,” Nyberg recalls of the local reticence about the project to create The Kate, and to attach the name of Old Saybrook’s most famous resident to a project she had no chance to endorse; seems established folks thought the famously blunt Hepburn might not have approved.

But all of that is history and The Kate is poised for its cameo heading into the next five years, which Nyberg hopes will see the diversity of programming planned by Still be supplemented by even bigger-name performers embracing The Kate as a place to try out new material—folks like Paul McCartney and John Mayer.

“It’s a gem of a place with a movie star name,” says Nyberg, and that it is.

For more info, call (877) 503-1286 or visit thekate.org.

 

Katharine Hepburn-Inspired Performance Venue in Old Saybrook Turns 5 in Style

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